The Struggle That Makes the Art
If there’s a frequently asked question I get which isn’t a variation on “How can a girl write boy sex?” it’s a riff on “How can I be successful as a writer?” I think I get the question a lot because I’m clearly mid-list, doing well but not even in the same zip code as people whose signing lines wrap around the building. I have the career a lot of people want, because everybody knows those megawatt stars are rare. But I’m making well more than a living wage as an author, and that seems an attainable dream. It’s just that nobody can figure out how to do it. How did I? How can others emulate me?
I can answer the question, but I’ll warn you right now a lot of people won’t like the answer, and even more won’t even hear it. Because how I did it is that I worked hard. I mean, I worked. Like a dog. Like a crazy person. Like a desperate freak. I struggled like I’ve struggled for nothing else, and I haven’t stopped. I stripped myself down and made myself understand who I was and what I could do, and then I did what I could to expand my limitations. I believe my struggle and pain, both personal and professional, define and make my art. I believe anyone, everyone, can do this too. Yet the short version of why so many people don’t make it even to a comfortable middle ground has nothing to do with the difficulties of publishing or whether or not we should all toss off publishers entirely, or the quality of the art, or whether or not Amazon is an asshole for bullying Hachette. Most people’s art doesn’t earn them a living because they cannot let go of the fantasy that all they have to do is show up with a product and the world will hand them cash. Most people cannot accept the truth that the work required to get money from art is so onerous it changes the nature of the art itself.
Art is not guaranteed to be successful. This is the part where I could go on about our entitlement culture being to blame, but I actually don’t mind the entitlement, because the confidence breeds hope, and confidence can take you a long way. I think where most people go wrong is the entitlement breeds with healthy self-doubt, and when insta-success doesn’t occur, it becomes evidence for why we suck and other people don’t. The truth is every single successful person either worked hard for what they have, or they got lucky—and in the case of the latter, that self-doubt often gets them shortly after the success becomes too great.
I think it’s hardest right now because it’s both never been easier to produce and share art and never been harder to be noticed. The death of the arbiters of culture means the gatekeepers are gone too, which is good in the abstract and hellish in the specific. While those gates were keeping your amazing work out, it was also keeping all the garbage out too. And sadly, the truth is your work, and mine, is garbage to a lot of people. The gatekeepers will come back eventually, somehow, because humans hate chaos. But right now that entitlement and disappointment are creating a shattering, terrible beauty of a sorrow. Because all you need is ten minutes to whip something up, the Internet to share it…and you too can discover that you’re not as inherently talented as your mother told you.
Success is what you decide it is. I cannot stress this enough–in fact, I say it to myself every day. Once upon a time you knew you were successful when you hit the New York Times Bestseller list or got a million dollar advance for a three book deal, or were sent on a book tour to Europe. No more. Every list can be rigged, and most are. Every deal can be unjustified, and once again, most are. No one goes on book tours but the megawatts. The pyramid of success has narrowed to the thinnest arrowhead point with a base of the triangle wide enough to include 70% of the creative populace.
Yet this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t write, shouldn’t paint, shouldn’t create. My daughter is twelve and obsesses about her subscribers on her YouTube channel, then gets angry when I say if she produced more content and took more time she’d probably get a better audience. She’s annoyed that I say it will take work to achieve her goals of YouTube fame, because while she’s somewhat interested in art, mostly she’s an adolescent and would like a hit of reassurance from the universe that she matters. We’re animals, and we want validation from our peers that we matter, that what we made and do and say is part of the human narrative.
Do not go to art for validation. Ever. You’re going to do it anyway, but when you’re sobbing and empty, remember I told you it was a bad idea.
You decide, forever and always, when your work is right and good. It’s perfectly okay, no matter what our celebrity-obsessed culture says, to create art for yourself and a few friends and family. My daughter’s art projects on my fridge are more precious to me than anything in a museum. I’d rescue my daughter’s work from a fire, but I’d simply feel sad for the Mona Lisa. Beauty and value are relative, and so is success. My love for my daughter’s work is success enough–her love of her work is success enough. If all you want is to see your name in print, then you can make that happen. If all you desire is to say you made a movie, this world is a wonderful place where you can do that with your phone. Creation is always beautiful and wonderful and should always be celebrated, and you alone get to decide when you’ve done well.
Creating art for public consumption is an art form all its own. This is the part of publication or any sharing of art everyone overlooks, and it’s where people’s hearts get broken. It is one thing to create a work, and it’s another level of emotional Tetris to ask for money and allow people to say whether or not they thought you did a good job. We read all the time about famous artists who asked for their work to be burned at their death or who stuck all their scribbles in a drawer to be published posthumously, and this wasn’t because they were shy. It was because they didn’t have media culture promising them they too could get a reality TV show because they filmed themselves having sex, didn’t have YouTube ads making it look like all it takes to be a hit Internet cooking show is a nice hairdo and a smile. It was because they knew the pain of rejection can and will color every aspect of art, and sometimes it’s not worth it.
This is where I should tell you about marketing and networking and researching your medium, except as soon as I start anyone who hasn’t done that research will think all they need to do is read this paragraph and they’ve got that base covered. No. You must do your own work. You must make your own contacts. You must read your own articles. You must join your own organizations, and you should get involved. If you join RWA or RRW or simply a local writing group and no confetti drops out of the sky, you should look into renting a party cannon for them and make the magic happen yourself. If you go to a convention and agents and editors and readers don’t swarm you, get off your ass and make yourself indispensable in whatever way suits you best.
The best example of this is how Damon Suede and I behave at Romantic Times Book Convention, and truth, at cons in general. When we go together, we have battle plans, and I’m not kidding. We will talk for at least thirty hours on the phone, send countless emails, and launch enough campaigns to take Waterloo by lunch. We plan parties, design swag displays, plot giveaways and conversations with everyone from our favorite readers to the head of a publishing company.
And yet I absolutely do not behave the same way as he does at a con, nor do I ever want to. He bounces around like a deranged BB, and I prefer to move like a knife through the crowd, taking in input, drinking in the moment and finding the right conversation, the right new contact. This year I made a point of decorating the hotel bar as much as I could, of lunching with people I hadn’t met before (hello, Isobel Carr) and hugging people who I’ve been flirting with on twitter (Donna and Bree and Vivian, I’m looking at you!). I was feeling good for the first time in five years, so I carefully plotted my outfits, making how I dressed and accessorized part of my con persona.
Damon and I make a good convention team because we are so different. We can help each other, but neither one of us is dead weight. We understand we have different experiences, different realities. I’ve seen his crazy fan base, and I don’t want it. Ironically a lot of our fans overlap, but how they present to me and to him is entirely different—and that’s good. I think we work together well also because I so adamantly don’t want that kind of attention, and he doesn’t want to be me, either.
This lesson is something all artists need to internalize. I can’t be Damon. I can’t be Tessa Dare or Victoria Dahl, and I should not be. Can you imagine if I was? I assume many of you are reading this post because you love my work. What if I stopped being me and tried to be one of those three people instead? I can’t write their work any more than they can write mine. I can’t have their career any more than they can have mine.
Everyone can have a place at the table, but you don’t just have to fight for it, you often have to carve the table out of stone after you drag the rock down from the mountain. Ten years ago there was barely any LGBT romance in the mainstream market at all. Now it is everywhere. I was a part of that. I’m still a part of that. And no, I didn’t just write down some nice stories, send them out and cross my fingers. My family will tell you how many hours I have worked (usually more than 70 a week), how much money I’ve spent getting myself to the right place at the right time, often to find I’d guessed wrong and all I got was a tax deduction and a lousy T-shirt. Before I was published I put in ten solid years of trying, learning, being frustrated. If you dig back through the archive of this blog you can see how frustrated and dejected I was. There’s a post about making a party in a treehouse that no one came to. That was how I felt for a long, long time.
I don’t feel that way now. I’m not settling in with a flag and calling my midlist seat my stopping point, but I am slowing down to watch movies with my family and enjoy my success. I’m making purchases and taking trips which are largely in part to tell myself how well I’ve done, to make myself see.
Make no mistake, though, that this place I’ve arrived at was won by blood and sweat and many, many tears. This is not a success I was entitled to or destined for. This is triumph I have earned. And cliche it may sound, but I treasure what I have made so much more because I made the success as much as I made the art. I did my homework. I did my time. I used my brain, made myself smarter. I made my mistakes and said my foolish things. I suffered and struggled, and I the story of my progress is an art as beautiful as the tales I sell for others to read. My path to this moment is a private tale, the pages of which only I can see.
Outside of my daughter, the story of my success will always be my most treasured thing I have made.