I’m betting that this question of “Why bother making more art?” has walloped you upside the head at some point in your creative career.
You take yourself to Chapters or Barnes and Noble for a treat ~ you’ll get a latte, browse the magazines, check out the sales tables. Then you’re looking through the Young Adult section to see what new releases have come out, and your throat starts to close up as you realize that there are hundreds of books on these shelves. Each one represents an author who has laboured at her craft for years, done the uphill climb to publishing, and now competes with every other volume for attention and dollars.
Why add to the glut? Who’s going to find you?
You get on Etsy to look for a birthday gift for your sister and catch sight of the Handpicked Items. 1192 pages of the cream of the crafting crop. These people are really on top of their game ~ gorgeous photography, funny and engaging copy, innovative offerings. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You haven’t even glanced at the more amateur wares on display, each creator eager and even slightly desperate to gain the notice of buyers.
Do you really dare enter that crowded fray? And who would care if you did?
You are beyond excited about a concept you have for a new novel. No one has ever put Greek mythology and bathtub racing together in a romance before! Then you’re scanning the book blogs and an icy paralysis grips you as you read a chirpy review of a book with your exact premise. You click over to the author’s website and they are So. Organized. They have book trailer videos and ebook editions and way more Twitter followers than you.
Long tail? Who are you kidding? Your niche is already saturated.
Don’t think that it’s only emerging artists who struggle with these questions. Even the big guys face envy and discouragement when they see other people succeeding around them.
This New York Magazine article shows us the dynamic going on between Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace, all heavy hitters in literature:
[Mark] Costello told me of [David Foster] Wallace’s reaction to the novel [by Jeffrey Eugenides]: “He liked The Virgin Suicides, and it ate him up.” He immediately made fun of the publicity photo and the typesetting (“too airy” to be serious), then started to “parody himself for doing so”—a typical Wallace switchback. He was “working himself into a small froth of self-loathing,” Costello says. “Jealous Dave was a dismal thing to be around, seeing those gifts put to that use. Of course, we’re all dismal when jealous. But Dave was brilliantly dismal.”
. . .
It was another novel-in-manuscript that had propelled [Jonathan] Franzen toward his new phase—the thousand-plus pages of Infinite Jest [by Wallace]. Almost all of what Franzen had read at the Limbo had been written in a kind of response to Wallace after getting an early look at his groundbreaking book. “I felt, Shit, this guy’s really done it.” As Franzen saw it, Wallace had managed to incorporate the kind of broad-canvas social critique that the great postmodernists did into a narrative “of deadly personal pertinence.” The pages Franzen produced then, he says, “came out of trying to feel good about myself as a writer after what an achievement Infinite Jest was.”
Wallace was jealous of Eugenides? Infinite Jest made Franzen feel bad about himself? What chance is there for the rest of us?
Wondering whether there is a place for you on the bookshelves and in the galleries is a really daunting existential obstacle to face. In effect, you’re asking, “Do I matter? Can I contribute anything worthwhile to the world of truth and beauty?”
Here’s where faith comes in.
When the world around seems to be shouting, “Why bother?”, faith squares your shoulders, grounds your feet and says firmly, “Because I believe in myself.”
I believe that I have something special to give the world.
I believe that my vision of life is unique.
I believe that I can be someone’s favourite writer.
I believe that I have the ideas and the constitution for creativity ~ I am an artist.
I believe that no one else can make what I make (even if they do start with the same premise).
There is no substitute for you.
When someone needs you ~ your book, your art, your particular brand of truth and beauty ~ no one else will do.
And of course they don’t know they need you before you’ve created your art and brought it to the marketplace! They don’t know there’s a hole in their diet of truth and beauty until you fill that particular gap.
I take comfort from this quotation by Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel:
Some writers are afraid of research, thinking perhaps it will contaminate their ideas, but the strangest fact about the novel (“novel” means “new or original”) is that novelty and originality are automatic. What is difficult is not to write something new but to write something interesting and true. As any piece becomes interesting and true, it becomes original. On the other hand, many original pieces of writing never find readers because they are solipsistic, tedious, tendentious, or self-indulgent. To pursue truth and interest is much more productive than to pursue originality, which will happen in any case.
Originality is automatic when you write something interesting and true.
Creating and marketing your work is a risk. You’re investing time, effort, and faith in something that you don’t know will pay off. The question, “Why bother?” is a way of trying to get yourself out of the risk. I totally get that. No one wants their time to be wasted. No one wants to throw their blood, sweat, and tears down a black hole.
The faith of an artist is in believing that your creations have intrinsic value.
Your work is worthwhile no matter what money or fame or accolades come of it. And taking a risk, putting yourself on the line, means that you will be even more committed to making your work a success, however you define that.
Don’t let your fear of being another copycat in the multitude deter you from creating what you must.
If you’re having a hard time seeing what sets you apart as a creator, take Smiley’s advice and look for what is true and interesting (another word for beautiful) in your work. Watch for my Field Guide to Truth and Beauty, which is launching next week. You can subscribe to my Very Impatient Artists list to get advance notice and discounts.