What is Career Art? Art executed in the pursuit of success and recognition, seeking opportunities, rising, gaining influence and power. How is this any different at all from rising through an insurance organization?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a career in any profession–we need insurance agents, believe it or not. We’re all interested in making a living doing something we love. The point is that the art career with a life of its own no longer has anything to do with exploration or truth. Maybe that’s why, as an example, musicians can put out such crap along with a few good songs. You’re working fast, there are a million things going on, you trust your talent to help you keep rising, you have to fill out an album, you convince yourself this is good stuff. Other people’s agendas and your own chaotic inner forces are pushing in so many directions, and opportunities are rare and must be grasped quickly. There is little time to read, think, feel, evaluate, step back and see the whole.
In the same way, in your busy writing career you might try to pawn off a lesser quality chapter, a lesser quality character, a lesser quality novel, and naturally you have some reasons to justify this: other parts of this novel were excellent, this lesser section is nevertheless integral to the plot, I can’t be perfect all the time, I don’t have time to revise this, I need to move on to the next writing project, I don’t want to know my work is lesser quality, readers have no choice but to put up with it, hey, this is my blind spot and it’s none of your damn business anyway!
You can feel that ego-pressure in certain writer’s works, and often in your own. The anxiety to dominate some imaginary audience, to put yourself first with no thought of contribution, no concept of the flow of real power from the universe through you to the reader.
So many writers and artists are pursuing the career. They want to get published, recognized, remunerated. But how many really consider whether they have anything to say that might actually benefit another human being? Beyond diversion or entertainment, I mean? Do they have any premonition that their art could evolve to be of benefit to others? Or is it all just raw ego and competition? Scheming and manipulating to get ahead? Twisting themselves into karma-spewing monsters?
Will I get published? Make money? Sell art? With whom to schmooze? And will they schmooze back? Like a bad case of mental skin rash, absurd and illogical in itself, this anxiety has immense power, for it speaks to “survival.”
Think what life-changing gifts I’ve received from writers like Robert Monroe, Yogananda, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Kafka–and dozens and dozens of others, including writers of nonfiction who’ve truly educated me–and then try to imagine whether any of my own work could possibly have such a benefit for others–again, beyond “liking it” or “finding it funny.” I just don’t know the answer to this question. Or to the question: What would that benefit consist of?
Success, or, H-Band Noise
My story “Space, Time, and Tania” was published in 1977, and before long the editor of the literary magazine in which it appeared was writing me to ask: “When are you gonna send us another masterpiece?” Very flattering stuff. However, I blew him off with some weak excuse that I was so involved in writing a “monster novel” (the rough draft of Akard Drearstone) that I didn’t have any stories in the works–although I had a finished MS. of “The 66,000 M.P.H. Bicycle,” which might have been perfect. In reality I was upset by minor editorial changes in the Tania story (which, in retrospect, I see actually strengthened it) and, immersed in the numinous rough draft world of Akard, I was wary of the publishing world, other writers, editors, readers, comments, and criticisms. I was already withdrawing from any publishing ambition, preparing for the coming years in the wilderness, so it now seems.
Try on a scenario. Split off a parallel universe at this point. What if that editor wrote back (and these were mailed letters, this is late 1977) and said “What monster novel? What’s it about? Hey, maybe we could do an excerpt!” What if this twenty-five-year-old writer sent back a photocopy of the entire 150-page chapter “Dostoyevsky Commune?” Sprawling rough draft, misspellings, typescript to within 1/8th inch of the margins, handwritten corrections and crossouts, chronology and plot in disarray?
The editors love it! It’s so wild, freaky, counterculture, zany! With a passionate philosophy of–of something! They publish the entire thing in TINY type!
I’ve often wondered about that point in timespace, that invitation to send another story. And to think, given the ongoing insanity of media and culture, of what was entirely in the realm of possibility to happen next:
Readers of all ages, but especially kids in their teens and twenties, love “Dostoyevsky Commune.” The issue is sold out, and the little literary magazine actually turns a profit. Special reprints are made. The editor asks for another chapter. I give him three to choose from. He publishes them all in a special new issue ahead of his normal schedule.
March 1978: I mention that I’ve just finished the 1,587 page rough draft of Akard. The editor wants to read the entire thing. I balk at the cost of photocopying and mailing, but I do send it off. Turns out the editor has an extremely stonoid book editor contact in New York. This guy reads it in June 1978 and becomes frothingly enthusiastic about publishing it.
I consent to some minor corrections, and Akard Drearstone is published as a trade paperback in 1980. I never undertake the second draft of Akard that taught me so much about revising and focusing. I never even consider the possibility. I do have to change my boring name to Michael Orange Rhinoceros, but that’s part of the zaniness. The book has a growing kid following, and by late 1981 Akard Drearstone is a surprise bestselling counterculture novel.
I certainly never consider going to library school after this! I’m twenty-nine, famous, full of myself, I get on the Johnny Carson show where I make an absolute fool of myself, but what do I care? What does anyone care? My bio reads that I’m “at work,” as all first-time novelists are, on “a second novel.” As I did in real life, I have a great deal of trouble even figuring out what I want The University of Mars to do, and it meanders confusedly, cynically, quasi-philosophically before I abandon it–but I pack up the typescript and send it off to my new editor. I will never have the insights I eventually did have in 1982 about how to revise it into a decent novel.
What little I’ve done on The University of Mars is rushed into publication in 1983, and the novel becomes another instant bestseller. Its untidy incompleteness is celebrated as more counterculture freakiness/wisdom. Especially now that I’m the internationally famous Orange Rhinoceros, o.r. for short, and if I’ve never really developed as a writer I’ve at least mastered public speaking and the talk show circuit. I get into bar fights with other writers and trade insults with them on national television.
By 1990 The University of Mars is a required summer reading classic for the eighth grade throughout the country. By 2000 it’s won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m up for a Nobel.
Meanwhile my initial drafts of The Martian Marauders and Jack Commer, Commander, United States Space Force are published in 1987; I don’t allow a single change. Yet I’m miffed that these novels are judged to be setbacks, dull space opera as opposed to the sparkling dementedness of Akard, and I lash back with the sprawling rough draft of Sortmind (1991), in which I include ancient short stories stretching back to freshman year at Rice whether they fit or not. Sortmind gets bad reviews but I don’t care, my reputation isn’t dented, especially as I come back instantly with the colorfully obscene and wildly successful Property.
1999’s The Soul Institute is also a success, even though the rough draft makes little sense, the novel really has no ending, I’m sued for defamation, and I find myself wishing I’d never written it. In 2000 I toy with a plot for a new novel, Nonprofit Ladies, but just can’t get it together to write it.
I never create my own website because in real life I learned all that at my library work. Instead I have techie goons turn out slick marketing crap for me, with lots of pictures of my 20,000-acre estate in West Texas.
Yet I speak everywhere and dispense airy advice to would-be writers and to our culture in general. Even though sometimes I feel I’ve gotten away with cheating, I tell myself I’m in good company; I mean, all the Pulitzer books are pretty boring anyway. Why should I be any different? Anyway, I’ve made it. I sure don’t have to ever worry about working at an insurance company again!
Even though I have nothing left to say.
Schmoozing the Unknown
I’ve run through the above nightmare several times over the years in wonder. Because, given how things can work in American culture, all that potentially could have happened. And apparently has happened to many quarter- or half-developed artists who just couldn’t handle their early success. The point of the scenario seems to be my gratitude that somehow I have been prevented/preserved for this time. That my writing life is developing exactly the way it should have–in obscurity, protecting me from my own BS until I finally learned how to face reality and be honest with myself. From here on out I have the possibility of giving a gift to others.
I now seem to have a “writing life” instead of a “writing career.” That has made a real difference to me.
We are all probably stepping back in amazement at the sheer number of human beings who feel they have something to say and are all jamming the trillion electronic entrance doors all at once, blasting their self-promotions all over the Internet. But do we really imagine that our homemade marketing blitzes on every social networking site imaginable can do the real soul work for us?
How am I different from any of these others? Which of us could make a real contribution? And what is a valid contribution? Am I really up for it? And the unexpressed thought behind that is: “What do I need to do to tune myself up, de-pollute myself, express better?” Which also means “What exactly is the new work ahead to be?”
I can’t try to emulate what other writers are doing, especially the ones I admire, in the same way I admire Andrew Wyeth’s work but am certainly not about to go in that direction myself in my visual art. Though I know that nonfiction writers are doing incredible research and honestly synthesizing meanings, and writers of historical fiction are often getting it psychologically right, I simply have no appetite for that sort of research. My inner worlds are psychological, and I have a need to make up my own milieus. Any contribution I may make has to be based on my own authentic voice, not on any form of imitation or obligation.
Accept the fact that there is some sort of flow of millions of authors out there. Yes, there are many of small talent and large ambition who may worm their way to the front, but that’s true of anything. Word of mouth–which implies recognition of some kind of contribution quality to your work–is the most valid way–if you stop to think about it, it’s the only way–to reach readers, and there’s no way to fake that, even if marketers are designing web sites to try to do just that.
Complaints about the publishing world are ignoring its messy ongoing evolution. Good stuff and crappy stuff does get published, luck plays a huge part, everything is in flux, people want to read and publish exactly what they read and published before, “only better,” then they’re surprised by some entirely new development and then they want THAT. But we get those incredible gifts out of it all. It really is an honor to be part of it, even a part on the fringe.
We are all channeling these forces from the same source. It’s a matter of becoming more adept at allowing them through. The prime thing is the quality of your own work. Having something to say, or making a contribution, does not mean “being the most influential writer,” it means living up to your potential and seeing where you can come in appropriately. It might be a lot lower–it might even be a lot higher–than what you expected. But it will be appropriate.
The more I live and interact and try to contribute, the more this “I” of mine seems to be becoming like a character in a novel–the main character, who must be protected, understood, and in some sense enlightened by the structure of the novel itself. But not the same “I” that previously worried about his “writing career” and what it meant to his survival.
copyright 2011 by Michael D. Smith