I keep forgetting that working in the arts requires a very specific sort of attitude. It’s an attitude that can be trained, but to do that, an artist must want to change. This is a complex and sometimes difficult thing to do.
First, the attitude itself.
It’s a combination of optimism and pragmatism, with a bit of cynicism mixed in. Yeah, I know, confusing. So let me give you the example that sparked this small series of blog posts.
Moving to Las Vegas four years ago now enabled me to get in touch with dozens of artists in very different fields. I haven’t had that experience on a daily basis since I left Wisconsin mumble-mumble years ago. When I lived in small-town Oregon, going to conferences and conventions provided some of the contact, and the openness of the internet both helps and hurts, but nothing replaces an in-person experience, particularly with other art besides writing.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been taking a series of classes. Some of them are in disciplines that I wasn’t able to practice due to that West Coast move, although I kept my hand in through online study. Some I simply needed to do in person for me, to get the feedback that comes from an audience and/or from an onsite instructor.
Sometimes I learn that something absolutely is not for me. For example, I always wanted to take fencing, and I signed up for three classes in 2019. We had to share face-coverings, which, given my health at the time, made me so uncomfortable (even with promised cleaning) that I never came back to the class. God knows how they do their study now that everyone knows sharing face-coverings is a terrible idea.
But, about a week ago as I write this, I sat in the first class of a discipline that has changed a lot in the past forty years, due to the internet and the connectivity of the world. I’m being deliberately vague about the discipline for a variety of reasons, not the least is that I don’t want a bunch of people (on Facebook or here on the blog) asking me why I’m abandoning writing.
I’m not. I’m just reviving some other parts of myself.
There. That’s the sentence that I would have been typing over and over again had I actually told you what I’m doing.
What type of class we’re dealing with isn’t exactly relevant to the story. I was sitting next to another person who desperately wants a career in the arts. That person had confessed as much to me.
We sat through the same presentation. We learned a whole bunch of really cool stuff. By the end of it, my internal optimist saw so many opportunities that had I not already chosen a writing career, I’d have been jumping on all of those opportunities. As it is, I’m looking at how to use what I learned just in the first class in my own writing career. (You’ll see posts about this scattered throughout what I’m doing the next few months, as I learn more.)
I was so excited. I’m still excited. The entire class made me realize I had felt this way when the indie publishing movement started—the whole popcorn kittens feeling. That feeling is essentially so many cool ideas that it’s almost impossible to corral all of them. (Check the link, watch the video, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Time, illness, life, moving, a damn pandemic managed to mute that feeling for me when it came to the writing. I hadn’t realized that until that class, when I recovered the feeling and felt overwhelmed at the same time.
So many opportunities! So much choice! How can I best use all of this to the advantage of my various businesses? How can I add more without losing something that I want to do?
After the class was over, I turned to the person beside me.
“Wow, this is incredible,” I said. “I hadn’t realized there were so many possibilities.”
The person made a sour face. “I don’t believe any of it,” the person said. “They’re going to have to prove to me that these opportunities exist.”
Prove? Heck, it was obvious to anyone who looked. It was obvious through just by going through daily life. And the class itself was obvious: It was being offered by people who worked in that discipline. If there weren’t opportunities, there would be no class.
Instead, if the opportunities did not exist, those who had the expertise would jealously guard that expertise so no one else could even attempt to participate. That’s how doors close, particularly in the arts. You have to break them down or sneak in sideways or be even better than anyone already practicing that art.
That was how traditional publishing was back when I first broke in. It took work, perseverance, and a willingness to ignore the word no over and over and over again.
This particular discipline was begging for people to join up—not just here, but on the internet, and in other classrooms across the country, and heck, in invitations for people to participate that I’ve seen over and over again this past year.
So, I said, in response to this person, “Prove it? What do you mean? It’s obvious.” (And sometimes I’m oblivious.)
The person said, “[this particular discipline] has never been open, not when I first tried it years ago. I doubt it’s open now.”
We’d just sat through a long presentation about all of the opportunities, and the instructor even talked about the way this discipline was once the most difficult to break into in the country and is no longer.
I opened my mouth, closed it, and finally got a clue. This person did not want to hear that they had just walked into a place with a lot of opportunity.
I said something polite (God knows what) and turned away to talk to another person who wanted to reinvent themselves because they’d lost their job in the pandemic. That person was very excited, as was an artist in another discipline who joined the conversation. That artist was trying to figure out—as I was—how to blend what we had just learned with what we were already doing.
We didn’t see dollar signs: we saw opportunity.
The first person? Opportunity had just given them an hours-long presentation, and that person turned their back on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that person does not show up to any future classes.
Is studying this discipline going to be hard?
Of course it’s going to be hard. So what? Anything worth doing is hard.
Is it going to take a learning curve?
Oh, man, so steep that I can’t even see the top of the mountain.
Is it going to pay off?
In money? I have no idea. Maybe. If I can figure out how to blend this into my existing businesses.
In expertise and learning and growth? It already has. It reminded me about popcorn kittens. It brought me back to my most optimistic self, the one that had been slowly being crushed by life and the pandemic and some of the personal hardships of the past few years.
There will be a lot more personal growth, a lot more learning, and some fun. Fun is good as well, because it relaxes the mind and makes life a little easier.
What exactly happened here? That person shut down an opportunity by refusing to see what was in front of them. They ruined their chance at participating in this discipline in a meaningful way right from the start, by refusing to believe that they—or anyone else in that room—had a chance of success.
I do understand that this is a defensive reaction which often occurs when someone is under stress. It’s also a relatively natural reaction for someone who suffers from severe depression or has survived a lot of abuse and trauma. Trying something new or something risky activates that same feeling of adrenalin that spiked during the trauma or abuse.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m the adult child of two alcoholics. Believing that something will not ever happen is built into my DNA. But somewhere along the way, I also learned that if I didn’t do something, it wouldn’t get done. So I learned how to be pessimistic while trying. Yeah, it worked, but wasn’t healthy. It took a lot of therapy for me to be able to put some of that upbringing into its place.
So I get it. I also know that sometimes we’re not in the position to hear something good or something that might put more pressure on us or that might take a lot more work than we’re willing to do.
It’s just…it had been a long time since I’d seen such a blatant example of it. Dean interacts with our students on Teachable, so he sees it a lot more than I do. (We plan the classes together, but he’s the one who adds a secret sauce of coolness that actually makes them work.) In the years since I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I’ve pretty much limited my interactions with writers to writers who have moved past the beginning stages. I had burned out on dealing with beginners.
And mark my words, what that person said to me at that class was something beginners in all artistic disciplines do all the time. The attitude guarantees failure. Hell, it prevents even trying.
These are the people who would have become a writer if only they hadn’t gotten a day job or if only they hadn’t gotten married young or if only they hadn’t had children or…you invent the excuse.
Because that’s what it was. An excuse. A barrier, really, to prevent the person from even seeing all the goodness before them.
Up front, I said that an artist needs optimism, pragmatism, and cynicism for this all to work.
The optimism is perhaps the most important thing. It’s a willingness to look at opportunity, no matter how small, and figure out how to squeeze themselves into that opportunity, and how to make use of it.
Optimism allows artists to survive even the toughest of years. Optimism pushes artists to their feet after life or a damn pandemic shuts them down.
I have always said that it doesn’t matter how many times an artist falls down. It doesn’t even matter how long that artist lays on the floor feeling every bit of the pain that came with the tumble. What matters is how many times the artist gets back up again.
In some ways, optimism is the jet fuel of the artist. Without optimism, the artist will find a million ways to give up. Or in the terms of the previous paragraph, without optimism, the artist will remain on that floor after the first blow, and wonder why the hell they should even try to get up again. (Or in the case of the person mentioned above, the first imagined blow.)
Pragmatism is also important to an artist. If optimism allows the artist to see the opportunities, pragmatism allows the artist to evaluate those opportunism. Are those opportunities something that suits the artist? Or can they be bent to the artist’s will? Are they actual opportunities for this particular artist or will they get in the way of what the artist is trying to do?
Pragmatism also allows the artist to implement those opportunities. As I said above, all worthwhile things take a lot of work. The best way to do that work is bit by bit. You build an artistic career. You don’t catapult into one. (And if you accidentally do, then you need a lot of help to make sure you survive that gigantic leap across a huge divide.)
Pragmatism helps an artist build a business and sustain that business. Pragmatism guarantees that an artist actually does the work. Optimism might be the goal in the future, but pragmatism invents the path that takes the artist to the goal.
And then there’s cynicism. Which I have in abundance, thanks to my alcoholic parents and the therapist who took their negativity and helped me turn it into something more positive—that jaundiced eye as I evaluate things.
Not like that person at the class. Nope. This way: I use my natural skepticism to test what I’m hearing, to evaluate the evidence before me, and to see if what someone is telling me is verifiable.
Maybe that’s not my parents: maybe that comes from my journalism training. It’s important. Just as an artist must evaluate opportunities before them to see where the artist fits, so too that artist must look at the opportunities to see if they’re real.
But that look—that examination—must be fact-based. Lots of people, particularly agents and “editors” and others, want to make money off artists, and they’ll promise the moon.
So many writers, for example, never do a background check on their agent. They don’t look to see if that agent has complaints against them or has outstanding warrants, for god’s sake, or even if that agent has a good credit rating or if their business is in good repair.
The cynic in me wants verifiable information. The skeptic in me researches that information to see if what’s being sold (or promoted) is actually true.
I always do so before I study with someone. Why? Because there are lot of good teachers in the world, but they might not be teaching what I need to learn. If I want to learn about an artistic discipline, I want to learn about it from someone who does it (or has done it) for a living. I don’t want to learn from someone who tried it once, failed, but managed to get an advanced degree in the subject.
Perhaps that was the other difference between me and that person I spoke to at the class. I had researched the organization teaching the class. I had researched the instructor. I knew going in that these people made their money practicing the discipline. They teach classes as a sideline, a way of paying forward. Hmmm, sounds familiar to me, since that’s what we do.
I already knew that this particular discipline had blown wide open and was now filled with opportunity. That was why I had gone to class, not to while away a few hours. (I don’t have a few hours.)
It was my optimism, pragmatism and cynicism working together that got me into that space in the first place.
I have no idea what brought the other person there. And, for all I know, I might have misjudged them, just based on that single sentence.
Although it still haunts me. Because that person said the teacher “had to prove” that this discipline had opportunity. That means the person didn’t do the research—and probably never would.
There are a million reasons why artists fail. The first was on display the other night.
Most wannabe artists fail because they never try.
They have the most creative excuses for failing to lift a finger.
At the heart of those excuses are a million different things—from fear of trying to a lack of desire to work hard to an unwillingness to leave the security of the known for the unknown.
Those of us who have made a longtime living in the arts know that the arts are a rollercoaster.
Rollercoasters are terrifying. But they’re also a hell of a lot of fun.
I wouldn’t give up my position in the arts for anything. I’ll always be a writer, even if I stop earning money at it. And I’m an artist in a variety of disciplines, some of which don’t even interest me on a monetary level.
I’d rather have fun with my life than trudge through the days mouthing regrets and if-onlys.
That means I take a lot more obvious risks than most people. But if the pandemic taught us anything, it has taught us that beneath the surface, even the most secure job/life/world is filled with risks.
Why not embrace them…and find the opportunity buried inside each and every one of them.
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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part One),” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / ivantagan.