Those of you who read this blog regularly know I have a magpie brain. I find shiny things here and there, and then I put them together—not to create a nest (I have one, thanks)—but to help me form a realization or to figure out the solution to a problem or to reinforce things I already know.
I have been reading Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, a collection of his 1970s essays on music—from blues to rockabilly to country. Lost Highway collects articles he wrote about musicians from Rufus Thomas to Hank Snow. Art is art is art, and musicians are artists, just like writers, struggling with the business and trying to hang onto their creativity in the face of difficult economic forces.
I picked up the book because I love Guralnick’s writing. He has a way of making music and musicians come alive. His two-volume biography of Elvis Presley is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and his book on Sam Cooke is equally impressive. These essays, written earlier in his career, show the same talents that informed his bestselling biographies.
The essays also form a snapshot in time. Written as the music industry was completing its change from regional performers to national hit makers, the essays occasionally lapse into an argument I haven’t heard in more than thirty years.
Every artist in this book has an audience, Guralnick wrote in 1979, every artist in this book has a mass audience—whether of five thousand, fifty thousand, or even half a million—but that is not enough. In order for a record to be successful, it has to sell millions. In order for a performer to be successful, he has to appear on the Johnny Carson Show. In order to appear on network television, it is necessary to appeal to the lowest common denominator; all regional identification must be smoothed over….If Elvis came along today, you have the feeling, he would not get the airplay, simply because he was, well—too strange, too out of the ordinary.
And there is some truth to that. Music that appeals to millions of people sounds different than music that appeals to an educated or traditionalist few. But, as Guralnick points out over and over again, it’s the originals, the artists who have a flat sound or make a banjo sound like a harp, who inspire other artists. He begins the entire book with a short essay on Jimmie Rodgers, because he felt—even then!—that his readers had no idea who Rodgers was.
I hadn’t heard of Rodgers until I heard the Alannah Myles hit, “Black Velvet,” about Elvis Presley. The first verse mentions baby Elvis on his mother’s shoulder as she plays Jimmie Rodgers on the Victrola. If you look up the lyrics, you’ll see that most transcriptions misspell both of Rodgers’ names. He’s not well known any longer, but he was in his time. He died in 1933, after influencing musicians as diverse as Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Gene Autrey.
What goes around comes around, however. Now, the music industry discusses how impossible it is to appeal to that “lowest common denominator,” that the age of million-selling albums is over. Many artists, who came of age in their industry after 1980, lament the loss. Other, younger artists see the potential of the new system.
The diversity in people’s tastes now is so much cooler. Everyone is saying MP3s and the Internet have ruined the music business—and it’s sad there are no record stores—but music is just so present now in the culture. More than it’s ever been. That’s a result of the [technological] advancements we’ve made. I’m such a huge fan of where music is right now.
I am too, just like I’m a fan of the diversity that’s springing up in the publishing business. RT Book Reviews had a recent article on a new publishing category that they call New Adult—something between adult fiction and young adult fiction, dealing with college age protagonists. Apparently, traditional publishing felt books with college-age protagonists did not sell, until indie-published writers proved that myth wrong.
The audience is there. It’s just impossible for the suits and sales forces to recognize something new, or to see the value in something older, something that isn’t the flavor of the month.
The older artists in Guralnick’s book talk about the things we discuss on my blog—surviving in changing times. Their world was falling away. At the time of the book’s first publication in 1979, Ernest Tubb had been dropped by his record label after forty years because he wouldn’t change with the times. But he still had his fan base, and he was still making music. He wasn’t happy, but he was rolling with the punches.
That’s what it takes to have a long-time career. But it takes more than an ability to pick yourself up after each knockout punch. You also need to believe in yourself with a fierce passion. You need to know that your vision is the correct vision for you, and then you need to defend it.
I started the Guralnick book the same day Sally Field was interviewed on Nightline. She told a story she has told a hundred times before. I’d read it, but I’d never seen her tell the story. Watch her face, starting at the 2:45 minute mark. You’ll see a fierce woman, who defended herself at great cost.
Defended herself against what? you might ask.
Against her agents, her business manager, and her then-husband. In 1972, Field wanted to go from television—oh, let’s be honest here: from being typecast as the beloved airhead Gidget—to a career in the movies. Her agents told her she wasn’t pretty enough or good enough.
Field’s response? “You’re fired.”
She didn’t bow her cute little head and listen to their advice. She didn’t let them bully her. She left her agents, her manager, and her husband (who agreed with them). She ends the anecdote with this:
[That time] was like ‘Out! All of you!’
Four very important words.
Out! All of you.
All of you who don’t believe, who offer bad advice under the cloak of good advice. Who recommend that something innovative get tossed because it is unusual. Better to blend in, better to try to be like everyone else. All of you who are afraid of risks. You—out!
Field has had a fascinating career, filled with ups and downs, but she’s not the only long-time actor who took risks.
My third little example from my weekend of examples is from the Los Angeles Times. In an interview with Bruce Willis strategically timed to go with his latest movie, the Times shares this little nugget of wisdom:
Industry observers think that [Willis’s] longevity over the last three decades as a die-hard working man’s actor can largely be attributed to one thing: diversity of roles and types of movies.
How did Willis end up with those diverse roles in an unpredictable grouping of films? He listened to advice, but made decisions for himself. After he had become a successful action hero, he says, he wanted to play supporting roles too. His agent told him “Don’t do it. You’ll ruin your career.”
Instead, Willis guaranteed that he has a career at 58. Yes, he still does action, but not exclusively. His two old friends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had action films die at the box office this year, while the fifth Die Hard movie, A Good Day To Die Hard, hit number one on its opening weekend. Even if the movie hadn’t hit number one, it wouldn’t have mattered to Willis’s career. He had six films come out in 2012 alone.
He also brought very little vanity to his approach to the roles. When he took a small part in one of my favorite movies, Nobody’s Fool (based on an equally wonderful Richard Russo novel), he did so in order to work with Paul Newman.
His agent, clearly distressed, told Willis that they didn’t have a billing for him in the credits. Lacking a billing doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be bothered to put his name on the film. What it means is that they couldn’t pay him to put his name in the proper place for a movie star on the credits. Each slot, especially above the title (which was where the Willis name should have gone) brings with it extra money—sometimes a lot of extra money.
Willis’s response to the agent? “I said, ‘I don’t need a billing.’ He said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ Later, [Paul] Newman called me and said, ‘That’s the [gutsiest] thing I’ve heard anyone say for a long time.’”
And that gutsy thing is why these days the LA Times is comparing Bruce Willis to Academy-award winner Michael Caine, not to Sylvester Stallone. Caine, who has acted (bit parts to starring roles) in more than 100 films so far.
Sally Field displayed the same gutsiness. Imagine how hard it was for twenty-something Field, mother of two and the family breadwinner, to tell her agents, manager, and husband to take a flying—well, not nun. That gutsiness brought her Oscars and Emmys as well as an Oscar nomination for a role this year that she had to fight to get. She had to prove to Steven Spielberg that she was right to play Mary Todd Lincoln. If she hadn’t fought, he wouldn’t have cast her.
What these biographies and feel-good stories don’t tell you is the difficult times between the “Out! All of You!” and the next success. Think about this: Field fired her entire support crew in 1972 and worked on rebuilding. It couldn’t have been easy. I’m sure that she had almost daily doubts about the choices she had made. And those doubts probably lasted for the four years between the firings and her next success. That success was in 1976, as the title character in the TV movie Sybil. But her true vindication didn’t occur until she won an Oscar for her role as the title character of the movie, Norma Rae.
I’m sure the fired agents, manager and husband were surprised.
Was that vindication enough? Probably not. Because if you choose to remain active in the arts—to have a lifelong career—you can’t rest on your laurels. If you do, you’ll become that actress—you know, the one who won the Oscar for playing that woman union organizer? You know. Her.
To avoid the whatever-happened-to fate, you have to prove yourself—or reinvent yourself—over and over again.
Sometimes you do it, not because you fired your support team or because you decided to work with Paul Newman [sigh], but because the industry has changed around you.
Guralnick talks about the changes in music in-depth in his profile of Ernest Tubb. Tubb, without his original label, reinvented himself a second time (the first was in the 1950s). As an article on legacy.com says quite succinctly:
But as he’d always done, Tubb weathered audience vicissitudes, relying on a loyal fanbase he’d built over 30 years. Constantly on the road, he reportedly logged 3 million miles on his tour bus from 1970-1979.
He did what he had to in order to maintain his career and the music he loved. I would wager some suit told him to learn what was then called “countrypolitan” music—the so-called “sophisticated” music that had risen to the top of the country charts in those days—and I’ll wager that was one of the many reasons Tubb and his label parted ways.
An artist must remain true to himself, if he plans to remain an artist.
It’s the only way to survive.
I have to remind myself of it repeatedly. Oscar season helps, because it’s usually filled with stories like Sally Field’s—an acclaimed, award winning actress, nearly denied a role that she would triumph in because someone didn’t see her that way. Or Willis, choosing to play a rather despicable character for little money and no credit, just to stand side by side with (and presumably learn from) Paul Newman.
I’m thinking about the ebbs and flows of careers a lot lately because the changes in publishing are allowing me to revive and/or finish old series. I know why I had to quit writing most of them. Early on, I took the loss of each series personally, figuring I had made a mistake. Eventually, I realized I was becoming one of the many casualties of an earlier change in publishing—the one Guralnick decried that happened in music in the 1970s.
Parts of my work had become widgets that didn’t have a high enough sales volume to reach the mass audience the corporations needed to keep up their hefty bottom lines. Other things I wrote did just fine; they made that sales volume.
But those things forced me into a series of ever smaller boxes, the idea that I should write only certain things, even though I wanted—and was capable of—writing several other kinds of things. To make matters worse, many of those boxes formed because other opportunities died because of someone else’s incompetence, or simple dumb luck. It wasn’t because I was best at the things I ended up doing; it was because those were the things that had had better breaks.
It all seemed random, and that made it even more frustrating.
And then there was the changing role of advisors. Instead of making wry commentary like Bruce Willis’s agents, mine were treating me like Sally Field’s treated her. One agent flat-out told me I wasn’t talented enough to write in genres other than science fiction. Another wrote a cover letter on one of my manuscripts that he had mailed to an editor, apologizing for the submission because it was clear to both of them I couldn’t write, but admitting that I had forced him into mailing the book anyway.
I wasn’t as bold as Sally Field in the case of the first agent: I didn’t fire her right away, although I eventually did. In the case of the second: I didn’t find out what he had done until I had fired him for other reasons and then I got copies of all the correspondence.
Somewhere along the way the advisors felt they should control my career rather than allowing me to control it. All of this was before 2007, and since then things have only gotten worse.
Only instead of saying “Out! All of you!” to advisors like that, most writers embrace the criticism or the snide comments, and try to shove themselves into the tiny boxes, not realizing that they’re destroying the one thing that makes them unique.
Dean and I have moved back into what we call our teaching season again. We teach to pay forward, since we can’t repay our own marvelous instructors for the boost they gave us—at least not in any meaningful way. All we can do is offer the same kind of assistance to a new generation of writers.
What disturbs me every teaching season is the way that writers wait for someone to tell them what box they fit in or what box they should go to. Every year, writers tell at least one of us that we need to give them better instructions. If we give better instructions, the writers insist, then they can write what we want them to write, so that we’ll be happy with them.
These writers entirely miss the point. The point isn’t for us to be happy, but for those writers to find their own voice. Sometimes they’ll fail an assignment and have to do it all over again from scratch. Oh, well. All that means is that they have to invest more time into their craft.
But for a certain type of writer, it means that they have screwed up completely, that they’ll never succeed, that they didn’t receive the help they needed to mold themselves into something someone else wanted.
We can’t help those writers. We try not to teach them, because we teach writers to stand on their own, defend their own vision, and become who they want to be, not who they’re told to be. It’s a tougher road to walk, because it means that there’s no one to blame when things go wrong.
Yeah, I get it. Up above, I said that series of mine failed, sometimes because of someone else’s incompetence. When I’m talking about that, I’m only discussing the business side of the equation—sending me on a book tour, but failing to provide books or to fulfill orders from bookstores. (Lawrence Block blogged on this very topic last week.) Refusing to do a second printing on a book that was nominated for half a dozen awards because “it wasn’t time” for a second printing yet (whatever that meant) even though there were orders for the book.
When a book sold poorly because of something I could control—the wrong pacing for a certain genre, being ten years ahead of a trend (which is common for me), tackling a difficult subject that no one wants to read about except maybe me, I take responsibility for that. And I should.
But I also know that those failed projects have helped me grow into a stronger writer. If I don’t reach for the impossible, if I don’t stretch and write what frightens me each and every day, I’m failing as a writer.
Failing as an artist, really. Because all long-time successful artists talk about the same thing. If they aren’t frightened at the beginning of a project, if they’re not worried lacking the ability to do a scene or a story justice, then they’re not stretching themselves. And artists who don’t stretch eventually become artists who stop improving.
The most important thing an artist can do when she’s working is to clear out all of the naysaying voices. Sure, someone told you that you can’t write from the point of view on an unlikeable person. Try it anyway. Sure, someone told you that books about college students don’t sell. Write whatever you want to write.
An agent told a friend of mine that teens don’t buy books longer than 200 pages. When my friend pointed out the last few Harry Potter books, all weighing in at 600-plus pages, the agent said, “Well, that’s Harry Potter.” As if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been a beginner once. As if teens weren’t buying those books.
The world’s worst editor told me one afternoon that I couldn’t mix science fiction, romance and mystery. I had to write a romance with “trappings” of the others, but not the plots. I said, “What about J.D. Robb? Her books sell.” “Well,” the world’s worst editor responded, “That’s Nora Roberts. Of course, she sells.” And so I started listing all the other writers whose work fell into all three categories. “You’re not them,” the world’s worst editor snapped.
Nope, I wasn’t. And maybe my crossover fiction didn’t work because the manuscripts were flawed. But the world’s worst editor didn’t even want to try marketing that work because it was “different.”
I found another editor. I write crossover fiction all the time.
But if I’d let that voice into my head, into my workspace, I would have stopped writing crossover fiction, which is 90% of what I write. Sometimes you have to fire the person who gives you bad advice or leave them or just walk away from the publishing house.
Most of the time, however, you need to clear those voices out of your head.
The best way to do it is exactly what Sally Field said: Out! All of you!
Watch that little segment. See her tone, her half smile, feel the passion in those words spoken in reminiscence of an event forty years in her past. She doesn’t regret what she did, and she’s still angry about what they said.
As she should be.
Fight for yourself with that same kind of tenacity.
It’s the only way you’ll have a long career. It’s the only way you’ll survive.
Part of my long career includes nonfiction. I never thought I’d be a blogger, but I’ve become one. And since these posts do take time from my fiction writing, I would like these posts to earn their way, which is why the nonfiction is the only part of my website with a donate button.
If you got anything of value out of this post or any previous post, please leave a tip on the way out.
And for all of you who have sent e-mail, pointed me to articles, or tossed a few dollars this way, thank you!
“The Business Rusch: “Out! All of You!” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.