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Friday, 18 January 2013

Why Writers Struggle

Whenever I get frustrated at the glacial progress or, usually, lack of same toward getting anything published, I think about how unalone I am in this feeling.

Each of the creative arts is extremely competitive and difficult to get a foothold in. We've all heard about starving actors destined to spend whole careers in off-off Broadway shows, musicians who work difficult hours, scrabble for any sort of living wage and endure travel schedules that eat up their profits, artists who struggle for years to get a gallery show in which nothing is sold.

A friend of mine is an artist, a very fine sculptor with many distinguished works sold to museums and as public commissions for parks and so forth. Yet he has never been able to make a living at it and had to teach at the University of Rochester for many years. Teaching is an honorable profession, but it takes away from the time he can devote to his true passion.

The sad truth is the vast majority of creative artists labor at professions that seem not to be valued by society, at least in a monetary sense. There are millions of artists out there and only the tiniest handful ever rise above obscurity. Many achieve fame and high prices for their works only after they are dead; think Van Gogh or the new Swedish sensation, Stieg Larsson, whose Millenium Trilogy of crime novels has sold twenty-seven million copies in forty countries since his death in 2004. His three books recently ranked one, two, three on Amazon's best seller list. Larsson would probably be glad he's not around to see his heirs fighting over royalties.

One of the ways I console myself in this frustrating business is by keeping track of my fellow "little people," to quote BP's CEO, Tony Hayward. When I watch an old movie on TV and see the credits flow past at the end, beyond the two or three who get top billing, there may be forty or fifty names I've never heard of. These are the little people who spend entire careers hoping to break out somehow. Ninety-eight per cent never will. They do their work doggedly and professionally, but almost no one will ever know who they are. Every movie has that list of names at the end. On rare occasion, a minor roll will produce a name that went on to become famous. It stands out like a beacon, one that keeps the rest of us toiling away in obscurity, that faint hope of success always dangling in front of us.

You have to admire the creative urge, its ability to fight through all of this stuff. It takes sacrifice to follow your muse, though I admit to feelings that my efforts do little to improve humanity and pale in the face of, say, a nurse, who toils for a career at the business of easing suffering. That sort of dedication seldom wins public admiration or credit either, thought it does offer the security of a regular paycheck.

So it takes a sort of stubborn character, self-absorption and ego to pursue a career in the creative arts. Come to think of it, I could be describing politicians.