This week I have mostly been, well … to be honest, I’ve been on a bit of a downer. It’s probably just the Christmas blues getting to me, as you know, I loathe it all with a passion and this year, it’s my first one as a demi-orphan, which makes it worse.
On top of that, I think the combination of a moment of extremely bad judgement coming home to haunt me, plus a bit of reality check threw me rather. Also, there’s nothing like a general election campaign to show us humanity at its ugliest. And of course, that makes me miss my dad. Not sick Dad, but the man he was. Who I’m grieving for even more now, it seems.
Eventually, I got so low, I reached the point were I had to open my mental baggage and have a good old rummage about to see if I could work out what the fuck was going on. It culminated with a long chat with my Mum on Wednesday. She’s feeling a bit down, too. I’m going to share the results with you, because as a creative bod, I found them quite illuminating, and quite helpful. Even better, said rummaging complete, I feel several orders of magnitude better about life, the universe and everything this morning. So there we are, I’ve done the thinking so you don’t have to. Fellow creative types will get this, I think, the rest of you may not. It’s difficult to articulate it well, so apologies if I come over as a pretentious prick. Unfortunately, I am. I just hide it well.
Doing any kind of arts, while often a very public act, can also be an intensely personal one for the artist involved. On a more general note, it’s also why artists of all types need self-belief and strength of character in spade loads to keep doing their art, year in, year out. It might even be why some of them suffer from depression. That said, even the successful ones suffer from that. When it comes, validation in the form of popularity, may not necessarily make the artist feel any more fulfilled.
The lovely Dan Holloway wrote a brilliant book about writing and being happy without selling your soul called ‘Self Publish with Integrity: Define Success in your Own Terms and then Achieve It. If you haven’t read it, I can thoroughly recommend it. It is the most lovely book.
In it Dan talks about working out what you mean by success and what your goals are. Know these things, he argues, and you will not be quite so gutted if ‘success’ is more about producing art you are proud of and which speaks of your soul, than art which sells. He talks about the need to get down to the nitty gritty of why you really write so you know, and so your whole business sits on this solid foundation of goals and expectation.
For many years, my rationale has been that I write because I have to. Confidence isn’t a problem. I’m good at something, really not bad, and I want to do that thing. I am a bona fide Authorholic. If I don’t get my fix of writing or writing-related action each day I get pretty crabby, like an addict on the brink of cold turkey. But it’s only recently I realised that, ‘I write because I have to’ isn’t really the answer, because what I need to know is why do I have to write?
Amazingly, it appears that the main reasons are because I have THINGS to say. Sure, I only ever set out to tell a good story and make it funny. I never set out to put the THINGS in, but whatever I write, they are always in there; love, kindness, people being decent to one another, burying their differences to work together, the cost of unkindness, greed, selfishness and the pursuit of money and wealth at the expense of all else. About the danger of treating people as things. I have something to say about the difference between physical and moral courage. About how doing the right thing is really hard the first time but how, no matter how difficult the actual mechanics of acting with integrity are, the more you do, the easier it becomes. I have stuff to say about tolerance, and the nature of true strength of character – which is rather more complicated than just being bolshy or shouting down the opposition with a loud voice. I have things to say about imagination, and how important imagination is to maintain a civilised society where people treat each other the way they’d like to be treated. And of course, I want to make people laugh, because nobody’s going to hoist in that sort of bleeding-heart, love-thy-neighbour, Christian clap-trap unless it’s funny. And anyway, I can’t do serious.
Those things are all quite personal to me. They go deeper than I realised. I think watching my dad ravaged by Alzheimer’s, dealing with the way others behaved towards him, has completely changed me. Perhaps I underestimated the importance of imagination, and using it to put yourself in the place of others. Dad’s suffering also changed the way I view people or social groups with whom I share little common ground. Maybe I can see a bit more clearly where ‘them and us’ tribalism takes us now that I’ve spent a lot of time with one of them. Some people were utterly lovely with Dad and some were utter cunts. Always, their ability to use their imagination, to empathise, was the only difference between the two.
Obviously, all of us creative nutters care about what we do, we wouldn’t do it otherwise. I’d guess, we all have those days when we look at our work and think it’s crap., and other days when we feel we’re on top of the world – and so is our stuff. Then there’s that horrible bit when you send it out into the world for the first time. That moment when you think, ‘Lordy, what have I done? Is it shit?’ That’s a natural part of the creative process. I’d bet my life anyone who does anything creative, ever, will have felt that. But I suppose what I was trying to get to the bottom of with all this introspection, really, is, when I make something I’m happy with, when I think it’s about the best I can do, why am I sad when the world disagrees? Why do I give a toss what the world thinks? And if I do give a toss, what on earth is it that’s driving me to keep spending money I don’t have putting out books only a tiny handful of people want.
And what this has shown me, I think, is that I care a lot more about my writing than I thought. It means that what I do is not just an addiction, but a vocation. I need to write this stuff. All of it; this blog, the books, the non fiction stuff I’m working on. I need to connect with people. I need to try and spread the light and I need to do it especially badly now Dad has gone, because before his illness, he did all that, effortlessly. And maybe, what this also means is that, when I write a book and it doesn’t sell, it’s the complete indifference of the world to my efforts that hurts. Because I need to make these people understand. Then again, there’s always a flip side; if no-one gives a shit, it’s unbelievably liberating because you can write anything you like, right?
With that better understanding of the unconscious emotional investment I make in each of my endeavours, I think I finally get why that rejection is painful. Why it’s hard to shrug off the heartache when, on another level I’m genuinely not bothered. And maybe understanding this simple fact is, sort of, the essence of producing art. Whatever it is; be it drawings, writing, music, dance, acting … you name it. Because that’s what people do isn’t it? They get good at something. And sometimes, they get noticed. But for every one who does, there are thousands of completely invisible people churning out art because something drives them on, or because they believe in what they’re doing and enjoy doing it, and that’s all they need. A lot of it is fabulous stuff. A lot of these people are amazingly talented yet they receive little or no recognition. But it doesn’t stop them. They don’t care if no-one else gets it. After all, they do. So they keep putting themselves out there, for nothing, because they want to, or have to. Weird isn’t it?
Strangely, a big reason I want to earn cash for my creations is my wish to create faster, and to diversify; large print, hardbacks, it’s all missing because it costs money. Money I don’t have. I save up, when I’ve enough cash, I spend it releasing a book. It takes ages because there’s no time in my life for a real job. It would be amazing if I could earn enough from each release to pay for the next one. It’s a modest ambition and my consistent failure to achieve that is galling.
Now, I have to point out that everything I’ve said about creating stuff is pretty much moot on the eyebombing front. Eyebombing actually is something I do, solely, to make people laugh. It’s light and fluffy. I get to pretend that I’m edgy and street by calling myself a street artist. In truth, I’m just a fifty something mum who likes to prick the bubble of the pompous and has failed, spectacularly, to grow up. It’s taking the gentle piss out of the world and myself. I don’t take it seriously. I’m not putting my soul out there or anything.
However, on the back of the positive reaction to the pictures I post, and to the handful of calendars I had printed for family and friends last year, I genuinely believed the calendar would sell. That it would bankroll my next release, or some of it, and raise some money for charity as well. If the calendar sold well, it meant an eyebombing book would sell. It meant that my publishing efforts might become self-financing.
In the event, I have made half the cost back, and managed to raise a few pence for the things I’m supporting. I can chalk this one up to experience, but my pride is definitely dented. And, of course, I’ve made a piss poor judgement call, not to mention a complete fucking idiot of myself, which is always a bit of a bummer.
It was a bit of a blow to discover the truth a time of year when I’m a little more maudlin than usual anyway. Add in the whole demi-orphan aspect and it certainly explains why I was so utterly down for the first part of this week.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, though. By making an absolute tit of myself and pissing my ill-gotten winnings up the wall I have, at least, learned that a book on eyebombing will not sell. I’ve also learned it for a LOT less than the cost of a book on eyebombing. Sure a book would have a longer shelf life than a calendar, and longer to earn out but I fear the shelf life in this instance would be about the same as that of nuclear waste.
If I had enough eyebombing books printed to sell to shops with a decent discount for them and profit for me, apart from bankrupting myself, I should think my descendants would probably be trying to flog the last few in a couple of thousand years’ time. So yeh, calendars-wise, I made an expensive mistake, but it was made with cash I wouldn’t otherwise have had and it could have been so, so much worse. So while I am gutted that my judgement is absolutely fucking miles out, it’s probably just a case of how you look at these things. It was an experiment after all, and it didn’t work out. Dust the sand from your feet and move onwards and upwards.
With the books … well … it’s weird. When I released Small Beginnings it was four years, to the day, since I’d released the previous book. K’Barth is a slow seller (except to a select few loyal fans) so I’d been trying to write other things, but the Real World was doing my head in and it just wasn’t possible. In the end, writing something was better than writing nothing. If that meant more stuff about K’Barth until Real Life calmed down a bit so be it. Anyway, a series of shorter, cheaper books for the haverers to try for less cash made sense, you know, to ease them in. I expected very little from Small Beginnings. I was hoping against hope that I might shift a few more of them over the release period than I had of the previous release but that’s about all.
So did I? Er, no.
Do I care though?
Yes, a bit, but not nearly as much as I did about the calendars. It’s not been a success. But it’s K’Barthan so I haven’t expected it to be. Yes, I feel a bit disheartened in some ways, but people bought it, lovely people who read it, liked it and some even reviewed it. It didn’t completely die on its arse, unlike the calendars.
Furthermore, though I’d planned the launch, it wasn’t the smooth affair I envisaged. For starters, it was suddenly in the middle of an election campaign which is never helpful when you use social media in your marketing. Since the election was announced, most of the on-line groups I frequent have been post-apocalyptically quiet. The cost of advertising has also risen sharply – out of my range – so nothing doing there. Finally, several other authors I know released books at the same time and I missed an opportunity to organise something with them. Teaming up and pooling resources on this kind of stuff always works well.
On the up side, I’ve discovered I can sell books reasonably successfully face-to-face. Conventions and events are clearly the way to go. As my lad gets older it’ll be easier to follow that path. I’ve met a lovely bunch of local authors now as well so who knows, maybe we can work together on that – the cost of a table split between four is much easier to absorb than one on your own.
There’s also been a bit of a change, this last few months, in the way I do my social media interaction, email marketing and Facebook advertising. There’s a K’Barthan Jolly Japery facebook group now, which is a gas. It might be this up-close, personal contact with my lovely readers that fooled me into thinking I was turning the corner. Because though it’s a small group they are hugely supportive. Perhaps I won’t really know if anything’s happening until the group gets bigger. I mean, my books are only ever going to be cult, but if these lovely nutters found me, I can kid myself that others will. Who knows. I’m just glad they’re there.
Perhaps, that’s the secret of happy creativity then; keeping your expectations realistic. Believing in what you do, yet being pragmatic enough to prepare for the worst – even if you are idealistic enough to hope. I’m think I’m, sort of, almost at peace with myself on this. Almost … it’s just that … sometimes … earning the production costs back would be good.
There is a choice, I think. I can try and be an outlier, do something different, or I can write to market. Writing to market will earn me cash, being an outlier won’t. Not unless I’m up there with Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams or JK Rowling. But the thought of trying to find a way to make shape shifters and vampires interesting. Or writing a new slant on manly men fighting other manly men in space – or thin women in leather jumpsuits who are basically, manly men fighting other manly men in space, but with boobs and a high voice … I know it’s what the market wants, and what I should be doing, but the thought of following standard tropes makes something inside me want to curl up and die. I can’t even bring myself to take the piss out of them. I tried with Deirdre Arbuthnot, but I got too interested in her back story and it all went to pot.
I always knew that, if I wrote the books I like, it’d be a niche. I mean, I can’t remember what the actual letters in my Myers Brigg profile are, but it’s 8% of the population. That’s a small niche. Sure 8% of the world’s readers has to be a big enough chunk, but in marketing terms, it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is going to take ages to find them.
What all that means, is, I have to get real or get over myself. I must decide if the joy of creating these lunatic worlds is more important than earning a living at it. And when I look at it, deep down, I know I have. Well … for starters, it makes my tax returns a lot less complicated to do.
As for the calendars. Well, I’ll just chalk them up to experience and keep on publishing books. Books I like, for the handful of fellow nutters who enjoy them. It really shouldn’t bother me if hardly anyone else gets them. After all, I do and the nutters do. Our own secret in-joke.