The artist’s career

I met Lisa Silverthorne in the airport on our way to Portland, and since the plane was delayed by about a billion years we had lots of time to catch up a talk about a bunch of writing things. Somewhere in here we got on the topic of our writing careers—which is a term that both of us struggle with, specifically (I think) because of the word “Career” and the connotation it has of “pays the freight.”

This is, of course, not really right.

I mean, a football player can have a High School career, a college career, and an NFL career, and in only one of those cases will he actually make any money (unless he goes to Kentucky, of course [grin]). Artists of all types have careers that do not actually pay the full freight of their living expenses. But, over the years the Lisa and I have discussed this kind of thing, when we talked about having a career in the field, it’s always included the fact of supporting ourselves to at least a very large degree on the income that comes from our work.

Of course, everyone who writes thinks like this at some point, but I don’t know that it’s a particularly healthy way to see it.
It’s a hard thing, separating financial reward from your career as an artist (yes, I know how pretentious that can sound. Just deal, okay?). But they are two different things, really. I say that now, several hours after the conversation, and while sitting in a plane thinking about it. Your career as an artist is not about what you make in the pocketbook, it’s about what you make in your chosen media. I think we get our energy streams all tangled up when we think about it the other way.

As an artist, you need to create things that matter to you. As an artist, you need to focus on filling your life up with experiences and thoughts and points of view and other fancy stuff, and you need to do that so you can find ways to keep putting yourself into the things that feed that spark that flickers in your heart. The problem, of course, is that sometimes people don’t react to them well. Or perhaps even worse, people don’t see them. In our case, as writers, editors don’t buy pieces we love or people don’t read or review or otherwise talk about in any way the things we pour ourselves into.

And that’s hard, too.

It’s really hard to keep doing the work, to keep opening the vein and giving yourself to the work when you’re not seeing the financial or critical reward or whatever your mind is set on.

And it’s possibly damaging, too, because when you don’t get that sense of feedback, that validation (for the lack of a better word), then you can start to disbelieve in yourself. And then you start to think, “well, if I just start writing things this way instead of how I’ve been doing it, then it will be more commercial and people will like it and people will notice it, and …” and next thing you know, the thing that is fueling that art you’re supposed to be making is broken, and suddenly your “career” as an artist is flopping on the floor like a dying fish because, well, that’s what it is. You’ve killed that thing you’re meant to be. You’ve killed the thing that literally makes you an artist.

Of course, the thing that makes this whole topic so infuriating is that when you look at the folks who are your inspirations, it seems like they have it all so together, that it just works. Of course they do. I’m not really sure what to say about this. I’m not successful enough to have a valid opinion, I guess. But, valid or not, my opinion is this—for a writer to have true financial success, they have to first be focused on the pure act of making things that they care about as an artist. Whatever that is.

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