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I have a very clear memory, and no evidence to support it, of seeing a long-ago interview with Angela Lansbury in which she was asked her advice for young actors trying to make it in Hollywood. As I remember it, the interviewer obviously expected the usual "winners never quit and quitters never win" inspirational pap, and seemed surprised when Lansbury said something to the effect of: try it for a while and, if you're not making progress, give up. She'd seen too many smart, talented kids waste decades of their lives miserably banging their heads against brick walls that were never going to budge. Go home, act in local theater if you want, but find something else that'll pay you money and make you happy. She concluded (again, as I remember it), "Settling is underrated."
The question haunts anyone with creative ambition: persevere or give up? How many manuscripts do you submit, how many auditions do you go on, how many portfolios reviews do you do, before deciding it ain't gonna happen? The problem with all the stories that successful people tell of the big break they got on their very last try is selection bias: nobody ever interviews all the losers who tried ten or a hundred times as hard and never ever got their break. A deeper question nags as well: how can you really tell if you're good enough?
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Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers pay within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.
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I've touched on these questions before and revisit them inspired by some recent Internet chatter. First up is a post by First Second Editor Calista Brill provocatively titled "When to Give Up."
"Not everybody is publishable, and not everybody has the necessary combination of talent, work ethic, and will-power to make a career in comics happen," Brill wrote. "Or: you might have all those qualities, but not in comics . . . to put it frankly, it can be hard to tell if you’re bravely persevering in the face of others’ unfair discouragement of your art, or foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents."
I thought Brill's piece offered honest and rational insight into the publishing business. A small Web firestorm disagreed. "How dare she crush anyone's spirit, don't ever let anybody kill your dream!" was the gist of it. You'd think she'd advocated puppy boiling. "A good sign that you should give up on an artform you’re passionate about is if a publisher suggested you do so and you listened," replied cartoonist Dustin Harbin.
Well, yeah, I think it goes without saying that one person's opinion isn't dispositive, and in fact in the same post Brill says she never outright tells anyone to get out of the business (although she does advise some to have a back-up plan). But does empty rah-rah encouragement really do anyone any favors? Could it be an act of mercy to take someone aside and quietly tell them, "you know, I just don't think this is going to work for you?"
Could that someone be you?
Before you answer, picture all the deluded wretches who try out for "American Idol," can't sing a note, think they're great, and won't take "no" for an answer. Because winners never quit and quitters never win. Now picture all those wretches harboring a novel, screenplay, poetry collection, or comic strip in their bottom drawers. Brill sees them all.
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I know one guy who keeps showing me his portfolio, and the guy's got to be over fifty, and he's no good and I doubt he'll ever get work, but he's still trying because it's what he wants to do.
And it's sad for him that he's not going to make it, but that's the way it goes. No rules, no map, no guarantees. You might not make it.
--Comic book writer Kurt Busiek
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My thanks to Mr. Busiek for reminding me, much as my mirror does every morning, that fifty is over the hill. He makes a valid point, though. If his Portfolio Guy is a typical comic book wannabe who started applying in his teens, he's probably been trying to break in for thirty or thirty-five years, wasting time and talent that might have been well-used otherwise.
My pal cartoonist Dave Roman wrote a thoughtful and constructive response to Brill's post (scroll down the linked page to read it).
"If we’re honest, often our lack of success is because we’re just not ready for prime time," Dave wrote. "Most cartoonists prefer to dive in first and learn our craft as we go. But what if other people don’t see our dreams the same way we do? How long do we tread water, believing in a dream if nothing ever seems to change?"
His answer: "Before you give up . . . you may want to try changing it up." He tells of his own experience working very hard on projects that didn't seem to go anywhere or lead to anything, then finding a different path following the comics he made for fun while he was agonizing over the "serious" ones he thought would be his career. The fun ones have taken off.
"It might be time to try a new dream that better reflects our current abilities. Put aside the old ideas (even if just temporarily) and switch gears. Break out of our box. Shake it up. Switch genres or art styles. Kill your darlings. See how it feels to face the unknown of a fresh canvas."
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"Terrible Artist Thinks Latest Piece Really Represents A Culmination Of Everything He’s Been Working Toward All His Life"
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The more I see of it, the more I'm convinced that trying to build a creative career is very Darwinian. For every person making a living as a writer, artist, actor, singer, musician, dancer, there are a thousand or more trying to do the same. Competition is fierce, and success or failure often have nothing to do with the quality of one's work.
Once in a while I get to talk about how I got published, and I always start by saying that I've drawn my whole life and tried very hard in my teens and early twenties to break into comics, and failed. I pursued other careers, built a family and moved on, but always kept writing and drawing and sending out work from time to time (that's how I encountered Jay Kennedy of King Features Syndicate) so I was ready to attempt Mom's Cancer when I was in my mid-forties--a veritable Grandma Moses in the comics world. That balance of responsibility and aspiration suited my personality and worked for me. (And I'm pretty sure that if my mother hadn't fallen ill I never would've had any type of comics career, a trade-off I'd make if I could.)
On the other hand, my pal Mike Lynch took a leap of faith and quit his day job to become a cartoonist, figuring it would never happen if he weren't totally committed. No back-up plan. I wouldn't have done it but Mike's confidence paid off. It worked for him.
I think Dave Roman's advice is very good. Give something a fair shot and, if it doesn't work, change it up. Maybe instead of novels you should write short stories. Maybe instead of Superman you should draw Bugs Bunny (or create your own characters!). It's so easy to get fixated on one genre, style or medium--one thing--that you don't notice another related thing right next door that could be perfect for you.
As I've written before, I look for external evidence of progress. Not from your mother or spouse. At first, probably no one will respond to your work at all. Then maybe you'll get a nice note from a stranger. Then maybe some encouragement from a pro. Then maybe an editor will invite you to send some material. You sell a little thing to a little client, then parlay that into selling a bigger thing to a bigger client. Look for signs of advancing toward a goal rather than running in place.
That was my philosophy even before I saw the following commencement address by writer Neil Gaiman. I think it's worth 20 minutes to watch but if you don't I'll sum up: Gaiman compares a career in the arts to climbing a mountain, and advises graduates to weigh choices based on whether they'll move them closer to the summit. If you're stuck on a ledge or skittering backwards on slippery gravel, it may be time to seek another route.
And maybe--after some amount of time and effort only you can define--choose a different mountain, unashamed for having tried.