Stephen King’s memoir-slash-writer’s-companion On Writing came out when I was in college. Just as I was deciding that yes, I would actually devote my incredibly expensive degree to something called “Creative Writing & Literature.” The timing couldn’t have been better for my favorite author to become my mentor.
I learned a lot from On Writing, principles that I’d carry with me through the next fifteen years or so as a writer. Write every day — don’t wait for the “muse” to show up. Cut everything you don’t need out of your stories, especially the dull stuff. The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And if your beta readers are all quibbling with different parts of your story, feel free to ignore anything they don’t agree on.
There was one lesson in the book, though, that I wasn’t ready to understand. That I, in fact, dismissed out of hand. King said:
“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Art versus life: fight!
At that time, as a twenty-year-old with big ambitions for breaking into the world of books, I couldn’t disagree more with King’s statement. I would, in fact, build my life explicitly as a support system for art. I would get a crappy apartment with my best writing buddy Benjamin, find a crappy job to keep the lights on and the breakfast cereals stocked, and live for writing.
So it went. After graduation, the plan went into motion. Every day, riding first the Metro train and then the bus back to my little redoubt on the eighteenth floor of the high-rise in Silver Spring, I knew the day would really begin when I sat down in front of that ugly old Bondi Blue iMac and started typing.
Because, you know, the only way to succeed — in a brutal field like book publishing — is to throw everything into it, right? To bend one’s fiber of being into the shape of a manuscript?
At the age of thirty-six, with an increased Wisdom score (largely due to my capable therapist), I think I finally understand where this idea goes astray. And why making art a support system for life, as Uncle Stevie urged all those years ago, is the way to go after all.
Here are the three reasons why making life into a support system for art will fail you in the end:
1. Success is out of your hands.
If you work as hard as you can at your art, that will set the stage for your success. But it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. The blind, dumb beast known as Chance may just decide to shamble across that stage and wreck everything you’ve built.
Because you know what? Audiences are fickle. Tastes are subjective. Somebody better at bullshitting, with an uncle in the business, may claim the spotlight you were chasing. The director might be sleeping with your audition competition. You might break an ankle right before the big recital.
We should do everything we possibly we can to position ourselves for success. But that last mile doesn’t belong to us. We may fail for reasons we’ll never understand. If you’ve staked your happiness and self-worth on artistic success, you may never actually be happy. Which brings us to the next point . . .
2. The goalposts are always moving.
What does “success” mean to you?
For me, back in the early 2000s, success meant getting a book published with one of the big boys. So that was the goal I chased, over and over again. Never quite reaching it. Partly because, in retrospect, the novels I was working on still had significant room for improvement. But primarily because most of my query letters never even made it to the people they were intended for. 99% of unsolicited agent or editor queries tend to disappear into gigantic, teetering stacks of paper poked at by overwhelmed interns in the lonely towers of the City. (See point 1.)
Then I embarked on a crazy adventure, attracted a fair bit of media, and landed a book deal. The book based on my adventure, The Great Typo Hunt, was published by Random House (since merged with Penguin to become Random Penguin House), one of the biggest publishers in the world. Success achieved, based on the original definition I’d set for myself . . . right?
Nope. I told myself that I’d forgotten to specify to the success genie that I wished for a published novel, not just a nonfiction book. After all, The Great Typo Hunt was just a silly book about fixing signs with correction fluid and Sharpies. My life would only be complete, and worth something, if I published a book truly aligned with my heart and soul, like a science fiction or horror novel. So the goalposts got pushed back.
A few more years passed. I wrote a great story about gaming and virtual reality in the future, and struggled to get my agent to give it a shot, or other power brokers to even give the novel a look. Eventually, I just published the damn thing myself, as the e-book Player Choice. So there, now I was successful: I’d written a speculative fiction book that I could be proud of, and anyone in the world could read it. There was no longer anything holding me back.
Except — now I really wanted the novel to be read by lots of people, and to make tons of money and attract much praise and cause a huge clamor for my next book and do you see how poisonous this kind of thinking is? Scientists call this the hedonic treadmill: as you achieve more, your expectations rise in tandem, with no permanent increase in your level of happiness or satisfaction.
Career goals are important because you need to sustain your motivation. But they won’t give you a lasting sense of self-worth. That goes double for any career goals you’re trying to achieve through artistic means, because . . .
3. Art doesn’t love you back.
Sorry. Art is a monstrous bitch/bastard.
Because art comes from within you — whether it’s composing music, staging the perfect shot, or writing a story so honest it’s raw — it’s especially dangerous to equate it with who you are. If you are living for art, and the art you’ve just produced is a piece of shit, then your inevitable mental conclusion will be that you are a piece of shit.
Then flip the sides of the equation: that nasty little inner voice will whisper that since you are worthless, you will produce nothing of worth. And that voice would so love to be proved right.
Or how about the artist so maniacally committed to their art that they achieve success at a terrible personal cost? Wrecking relationships, neglecting children, setting dear friendships adrift because, they’ll say, “This is the most important part of me — this is who I am!”
History can provide us with many truly awful examples of this archetype. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife. Thomas Mann skipped his son’s funeral to continue with his lecture tour (his son had committed suicide, as would three of his other children). Hemingway destroyed several marriages and two sons (see this NYT article, “Good Art, Bad People”).
And the artists themselves spin down into insanity, more often than not, because we need those relationships with other humans to stay sane. You can’t turn to a manuscript for comfort, advice, and understanding. You can’t fuck a painting. Art doesn’t love you back.
Who does? The people around you. Your friends, significant others, kids, pets, parents, extended family. These people aren’t just part of your life; they are life. But bonds with other humans are always fragile. People may not stick around if you’re chronically placing art over life (them). That’s the worst part about the “life as a support system for art” approach: it’s self-fulfilling. Sooner or later you look up, see no one left, and think: Finally I can concentrate.
Stephen King tells the story of moving his writing desk from the center of the room to the side, as a symbol of resetting his priorities. I’m attempting to incorporate gratitude exercises into my daily routine, to remember the importance of and my appreciation for the cast of non-fictional characters that make up my own life.
Because, you know, the books are important to me, but they aren’t the most important thing. It just might occasionally take a daily reminder to drill that into my thick skull.