The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Four
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This morning’s Washington Post had an article that encapsulates much of what I’ve been discussing in the Success sections of the Freelancer’s Guide. The article from the front page of the October 28, 2009, edition is about farmer, fish taxidermist, and wildlife artist, Robert Bealle.
Bealle has just won the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest, which is the only art contest sponsored by the federal government. I’m quite familiar with the contest due to one of my past lives—when my ex-husband and I owned the art gallery, a regular customer bought the limited edition lithographs from the contest every year. He had my ex frame them, along with the postage stamp featuring the art.
Over the years, I gained quite an appreciation for wildlife art and for duck art in particular. Even now, I can spout off the names of major duck artists and give you approximate years in which they won the competition—up to about 1985, when we closed the store.
So I read the article with great interest and found not just something about a bit of my own past (and past interests) but about this series as well.
Bealle has entered the contest every year since 1982. He’s been a finalist several times, even coming in second more than once. His work has won the Maryland Duck Stamp competition three times. But he never achieved his dream, which was to win the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. Until this year.
He told the Post: “Now I’ll always be referred to as a Federal Duck Stamp winner. It may not mean a lot to most people, but to me it means a hell of a lot.”
And there, in a nutshell, is the definition of success I’ve been working toward.
It may not mean a lot to most people, but to me it means a hell of a lot.
Note how much work it told me to explain the contest to you. And I can’t begin to express how much that contest art meant to the collector I knew twenty-five years ago. He waited for the announcement, put his order in for the first of the lithographs, always hoping to get one of the top ten signed and numbered pieces, and always brought the litho in with great pride the day it arrived. He wasn’t an artist; he was a connoisseur. And if he’s still alive today (I lost touch when the store closed), you can bet he’s already tried to put in an order for Bealle’s work.
It may not mean a lot to most people, but to me it means a hell of a lot.
That definition sound so simple, doesn’t it? So easy, so perfect. You’d think, if you loved a person who can so clearly define what success is to him, that you’d understand when he achieved it. You’d be there, you’d be sympathetic, you’d celebrate.
But you might not.
Because life just isn’t that simple—and everyone has their own definition of success. With that definition comes expectations.
Most Americans equate success with wealth and fame. Go back to the dictionary definitions I quoted in Success Part One. Then take a look at the comments section. Mary quotes the definition of success from her French dictionary. It’s quite different from the American definition.
Let’s take a fictional couple, Frieda and Ron. Ron defines success the way Bealle does—as winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. Frieda supports him in his art, year in and year out. She works at a corporate job, making a good salary that doesn’t pay all of the bills, and certainly won’t cover their two kids’ college educations.
Ron works outside jobs to pay for his wildlife art. He’s had showings in several galleries and has had some regional success. He has made some money, enough to supplement his part-time job, but never more than $15,000 per year before taxes.
Then he wins the contest.
Here’s what Bob Dumaine, a Houston stamp dealer and founder of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society, told the Post about the financial realities of the contest.
“The enterprising people make money at it. The ones sitting around waiting for the cash register to ring, they’re still waiting.”
So much to parse in those two sentences. First, clearly, the winner isn’t guaranteed a fortune. The winner doesn’t even get national recognition outside of wildlife art and duck stamp circles.
Then Dumaine goes on to say that the “enterprising people” make “money” at it. Which begs the question: How much money? What’s his definition of “making money”? Does he mean that they make a couple of thousand dollars or tens of thousands of dollars? Does he mean they make a fortune?
It’s impossible to tell from that one quote.
The one thing you can tell from the quote is that even with the win, the artist hasn’t been anointed with the brush of fame and wealth. The enterprising artist—in other words, the artist who works the business side—will earn more than the artist who thinks he’s given a map to Easy Street.
After 27 years in the competition, I’m assuming Bealle knows this, and I’m pulling for him to be one of those enterprising artists, even though, as of last night, I had no idea who he was.
But let’s take our fictional guy, Ron. Let’s say he doesn’t know how hard it is to make money after winning the contest. Or let’s say that success doesn’t include money at all to him. He just wanted to have a federal duck stamp with his artwork on it. That’s the extent of his dream.
If he and Frieda are like most couples, they discussed the win as success, but never discussed what that success meant. Ron’s ecstatic because he’s achieved his dream. Frieda’s a bit peeved because she realizes—for the first time—that the winner gets no money at all. Just a framed pane of 20 duck stamps signed by the Interior Secretary (and the artwork on 3.1 million duck stamps).
Ron’s happy with the win.
Where’s the money? Where’s the instant riches? Where’s the payoff for all those decades of hard work on her part, supporting her man in his dream?
What does she get, after all? Attendance at a ceremony. A few evenings at some gallery openings. Long conversations with other spouses about life with duck stamp artists.
And that’s about it.
Except the joy of seeing her husband achieve one of his lifelong ambitions.
For some spouses, that’s enough. But for many, it’s not. And it doesn’t have to be a duck stamp contest. It could be an athletic event—finishing a first ultramarathon for example (or a first marathon for that matter)—or a short story sale.
It could be a fan letter from someone you admire or a simple pat on the back from a mentor. For you, the freelancer, such things are so important that they can keep you going for days, months, sometimes years.
For the long-suffering spouse, they’re just one more indication of your weird obsession with duck art or writing or building filing cabinets.
Those small indications are important, because they build. At some point, Frieda realizes that she’ll always have to work her corporate job, that she’ll never live in the manner to which she can become accustomed (unless she’s the one who finds a new job, or a better way to earn money). At some point, she realizes that Ron will be content with his “little paintings” as she calls them, and could live in a hut in the woods, so long as he has food, electricity, and enough money at the end of the day to buy more painting supplies.
This, she will eventually say, is not what she signed on for and she will leave. She will sound unreasonable to all of Ron’s artist friends, but in reality, she’s right.
Because she and Ron never discussed what success means to both of them. She signed on to support an artist who eventually becomes as rich as Owen J. Gromme [who? You ask…only the most successful wildlife painter of his day—see how specialized success can be?]. Ron signed on to have a partner in his work, one who celebrates the 20-panel framed stamps signed by the Interior Secretary of the United States with as much vigor as she would a fifty-thousand dollar commission from a local art collector.
Success is wonderful, but it can be a minefield. When you achieve a certain level of success, you will lose friends—some of whom can’t deal with the fact that you achieved your dream before they achieved theirs. You will gain family members who believe that you owe them something, even though you had no idea that your Aunt Millie’s second cousin’s third wife had grown children. (Let alone that your Aunt Millie had a second cousin who had married three separate times.)
And you will run into some fascinating expectations, often from unexpected quarters.
After I quit editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the late 1990s, I wrote a variety of novels under many pen names. I am a fast writer who loves to write. I also like the “security” of a contract, and I like the challenge of unrelated projects.
I was making a healthy living as a writer in those years and was beginning to make a name for myself in my various genres. Then my agent at the time got the idea that I should not take advances under $15,000. We did not discuss this. The agent simply informed companies who wanted to work with me that my bottom line price was $15,000 per project.
I don’t know how long this went on before I stopped it. I have no idea how many projects I lost or how much goodwill that agent ruined for me. Because everyone who contacted the agent thought the agent was speaking for me—as agents are supposed to do.
When I confronted the agent as to the reason for this, it turns out we had a two-fold misunderstanding. First, I had said about one project and one particular company that I wouldn’t work for them for under $15,000 (see the mention of the Pain in the Ass Tax in earlier sections—this company was getting the tax). Second, the agent figured I was successful now, and needed to be “protected” from the “quick, easy, hack work” I had done before.
Never mind that I loved the “hack work” and didn’t consider it hack work at all. Never mind that I never asked for protection.
Later, I learned that this agent saw it as part of the business to protect the client’s reputation—as the agent saw the reputation. The reputation, according to the agent, was the only thing that constituted success.
My definition of success was completely different. I wanted steady, challenging work in a variety of fields so that my hummingbird brain wouldn’t get bored. I didn’t give a rat’s farty behind about reputation. I figured (and still believe) that reputation happened to you after you died. The only reputation I didn’t want was as a rude and difficult writer, someone perennially hard to work with.
Knowing that, a good friend of mine who was an editor at one of the publishing houses who had just been informed that I wouldn’t work for less than $15,000 called me and asked what was up. Because she had a hunch that the edict hadn’t come from me—and she was right.
But she made that leap because she’d had this problem with the agent before with other clients and because she knew me really, really well.
It was that friend’s action, that friend who understood how I worked and what I had repeatedly said constituted success for me, that stopped the weird little $15,000 downward spiral my career had slid into.
Such an edict might work well for other writers. It doesn’t work well for me. Sometimes the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on paid less up front. Often I got a huge return in royalties later. Or a better project from the same company. Or a hundred free research books (that was lovely—worth another $2000 right there). Or a great piece of art.
Late one night, I channel surfed to PBS and caught an episode of Charlie Rose. He was interviewing John Grisham at New York City’s big Barnes and Noble store, just as The Associate was being released.
It’s a fascinating interview, because Rose is a major reader with attitudes about art and artists that are diametrically opposed to Grisham’s. Grisham writes to entertain. He makes no bones about that. He’s doing his job when millions of people use his work as escape from their daily lives.
He stated one of his mantras to Rose, something I’d heard Grisham say countless times before. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, If I get good reviews, I worry that I’m doing something wrong.
Grisham’s point is a simple one: that critics often don’t understand popular fiction. It’s taken me a long time to understand this phenomenon and it wasn’t until recently that it’s made sense to me. Critics are required to read things they don’t want to read. Worse, they’re required to read a lot of stuff. And even worse, they’re reading it for their job, not for enjoyment.
So if something breaks through the attitudes that the critic brings to the work [which are 1) I don’t want to read this and 2) I hate this kind of fiction and 3) this better be worth the time I have to spend at it], then the critic likes the work.
That’s a completely different attitude than the average reader brings to a book. The reader wants a few hours away from every day life, a few hours filled with entertainment, a few hours of escape.
Escape doesn’t hold up well to critical analysis.
Grisham mentioned a variation of this in passing to Rose, but Rose still didn’t understand. He values good reviews and critical opinion so much that he didn’t seem able to envision a writer having success without it. In fact, he wondered aloud in the interview (more than once) how Grisham managed to have a career without critical approbation.
Grisham in turn wondered why anyone would want it.
If you want to see two competing versions of success, unable to talk to each other past a superficial level, watch that middle section of the interview.
So how does all of this apply to you, the newly successful freelancer?
•Realize that some people will never understand your definition of success. Then it’s up to you whether or not to share your good news or to even discuss your success with them.
•Make sure that you know how the people closest to you define success. Make sure they know how you define it. Make certain you discuss the future, not just achieving the success but what that achievement means.
•Remember that the world really doesn’t care about your success. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to the world celebrating a success was last November, when Barack Obama was elected. People around the world danced in the streets. Yet millions of people in the United States and elsewhere were dismayed at the victory. What many saw as a huge success, others saw as a huge defeat. Days later, we all remembered that victory, but we all went back to our everyday lives. Many of us never spoke of it again. Yes, it was a big deal (and it was a very big deal for the Obama family [but I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the Obama girls realized they had to leave their school and friends for the next four years]), but it wasn’t as important to most of us as our own jobs, our own families, and our own lives.
If you remember that no one cares as much about your successes (and your failures) as you do, then you’ll keep a personal balance, one that will enable you to get through some of the treacheries that success can bring—some of those things George Harrison alluded to when he said he felt sorry for Elvis Presley [see last week’s post, Success Part Three].
I still have a few more things to discuss related to success and because of it, I’m going to give you some homework. The next time you hear “The Climb” sung by Miley Cyrus (and I don’t know how you can miss it, given that it’s all over the airwaves but if you do miss it, check it out here), listen to the lyrics. I’ll be examining that very topic the songwriter (clearly not the young Ms. Cyrus) brings up in that catchy tune.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Success Part Four” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
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