The Frustration of Making Good Art

I have an extensive and ever-expanding list of books that I want to read, and recently I checked one of them out from the Long Beach Public Library:  A View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins, 2016).  Mr. Gaiman is a writer of some repute, of children’s books (the film adaptation of his book Coraline was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago, and he also won the prestigious Newbery Medal for his children’s novel The Graveyard Book), essays, fiction and graphic novels.  He is the creator of the comic book series The Sandman, which my cousin George (of the George and Tony Entertainment Show) probably knows very well but with which I am not yet familiar.  A View from the Cheap Seats is a way-too-large collection of his essays that I essentially abandoned after the first few, and then just cherry-picked through the remainder.  Mr. Gaiman is clearly a talented writer who ascended to his current stature by freelancing and fibbing his way through the morass of the publishing world, and he had enough raw talent – as well as a deep love and appreciation for literature of all kinds from a very early age – to make a name for himself in a field where that isn’t easy to do, especially in this day and age when so many people don’t read for pleasure anymore or, if they do, it’s fluff and nonsense like the Fifty Shades books or quick-and-dirty formulaic suspense novels.

I got a strong whiff of self-importance throughout Mr. Gaiman’s essays, and the sheer size of the collection is evidence of that; he and his editors might have been better served by culling some of the more redundant pieces (for instance, there were at least three essays about his wife Amanda Palmer and her musical collaborations).  When I envision my own collection of essays, which will happen one day, even if no one reads it (more on that in a moment), I want it to just offer a taste, to make my reader want MORE, to eagerly anticipate the NEXT collection.  And then, after I’m dead, my fans will have a full set of smaller collections by which my writings have been preserved for posterity.

I must confess, I found it a little disappointing last week that no one liked or responded to my blog post (“Some Post-Inauguration Thoughts”, 1/23,17).  I deemed it a decent enough piece that I even posted it on Facebook, and there was nothing offensive or outrageous in it, especially given that most of my Facebook followers are politically aligned with me.  I even thought that maybe some of my new “Organize, Plan, Act” (OPA) friends might enjoy it.  True, I didn’t post it on the OPA page (not entirely sure HOW to, actually), but a number of the OPA folks follow my regular Facebook page.  Evidently it didn’t interest them enough to read (or, even worse, if they read it, they didn’t “like” it).  Yes, I still do write the blog only for myself, but I’ve recently started getting some followers who aren’t friends or family (not many, but a few).  I was especially surprised that I didn’t get a “like” from a fellow WordPress blogger named Rachel Mankowitz, whose blog, The Cricket Pages, I like very much [https://rachelmankowitz.wordpress.com].  We always reciprocally “like” one another’s pieces, and I thought she would appreciate this particular one, knowing that she is also having difficulty getting her mind around a Trump presidency.  Much like I do, she muses in her blog posts about various topics, including politics and her graduate studies in social work, but the constant running theme of her entries are her adorable dogs, Cricket and Butterfly, and she includes photos of them in each essay with “their” thoughts and comments on what she is writing about.  Her blog is quite charming and insightful.  [A postscript:  She finally DID “like” my post the other day, so perhaps she was just busy, but she was the ONLY one to like it thus far.]  But, to reiterate:  I don’t really care, in the grand scheme of things, if anyone reads my blog posts.  I don’t write them for anyone else.  I write them for ME.  (Although – I won’t lie – it would be nice if other people DID read it occasionally!)

One of Mr. Gaiman’s essays was called “Make Good Art”.  It was actually a transcript of the commencement speech he gave at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012.  (Thanks to Mr. Gaiman’s humble brag, we know that the speech has been “watched many millions of times” online.)  He starts out by saying that he never graduated from “an establishment of higher education,” being essentially a self-taught genius.  The fact that he had been asked to give this commencement address was yet further evidence of his greatness, unlike those less fortunate souls who had to go school to learn how to write well.

(I don’t know why I’m being so harsh in my assessment of Mr. Gaiman.  It’s probably jealousy.  I admire – but also envy –writers who have had success, who have had the cojones to put their work out into the world and have it be well enough received that they have been able to earn a substantial living doing it.  But hey, good for Neil Gaiman that he’s become so successful that he can produce a 500-plus page anthology of just his nonfiction essays!  As he tells us often throughout the compilation, he HAS worked very hard.)

Much of his speech was alternately inspiring and frustrating.  I’m glad Mr. Gaiman has been fortunate to have enough money to live on so that he didn’t have to get a “real job” and could continue “making things up and writing them down, and reading books [he] wanted to read.”  Says Mr. Gaiman:  “Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.”  How did Mr. Gaiman do it?  He imagined that where he wanted to be – in his case, being an author and supporting himself through his words – was a distant mountain, and as long as he kept walking toward the mountain, he would be all right.  Well, I’ve had the mountain in sight for decades but, until I started writing my blog nearly two years ago, I haven’t really done much about making my way toward the mountain.  Maybe I should start.

But according to Mr. Gaiman, success has its own drawbacks (although I would be happy to test out that theory):  “I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me, and watched how miserable some of them were.  I’d listen to them telling me that they couldn’t envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do anymore, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were.  They couldn’t go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do, and that seemed as big a tragedy as any problem of failure.”

Even though Mr. Gaiman was discussing the woes of success here, I read them as the same woes I suffer in FAILURE.  How can I do what I love and own a home and put a kid through college and still have something set aside for retirement?  How can I do all those things and still follow my muse?  Why don’t I have enough talent to make a living doing the thing I love?  If I’m being totally honest with myself, it’s probably because I just don’t work hard enough, or feel confident enough in my work to share it more broadly, like on Medium or some other platform.  I certainly don’t market my work; I’ll occasionally put a blog post on my Facebook timeline, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone outside the safe little WordPress bubble.  I’ve written about this before [“An Aspiring Young Author,” 3/25/15; “How I Write,” 9/9/15], but it remains my deepest frustration, despite my dedication to my little blog that nobody reads.

But Mr. Gaiman’s piece did provide one piece of heartening advice that I can perhaps use as inspiration:  “People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time.  And you don’t even need all three.  [emphasis mine]  Two out of three is fine.  People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time.  They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you.  And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”  Maybe I can parlay this into some kind of freelance success, given that I’m a pleasant person to deal with and I am dependable enough to get my work in on time.  And while it may not be as GOOD as some others’, my work is not generally BAD (or at least I like to believe that it’s not).  So according to Neil Gaiman, an author I admire and envy (notwithstanding some of my more catty digs), there may be hope for me yet!

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