By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 16, 2013
I’m stealing the title of today’s post from Maureen Dowd’s terrific book, Are Men Necessary? What got me thinking about this subject (money, I mean) is a note I received from a writer named Charles Rosasco. Thanks, Charles, for letting me use your real name:
Could you comment on money and writing?
I’m really sick of hearing famous actors/writers/musicians talk about how unimportant money and success are (that it is “just the work” that fulfills them). I know what they are saying but I hardly think famously successful people are in the position to know how unimportant success and money are. The world is full of artists who cut their ear off—or give up , some such fate—who are never recognized.
How do we keep expecting to get paid/make a living? I published one novel, got some fair reviews and some rave reviews but sold few books.
Wow. This is gonna get deep. But it’s a great subject. Let me recuse myself from seeking any universal truths. I’ll just tell you how I feel, myself, about money and writing.
First, any writer (or musician or artist or filmmaker) has to face reality. Practically nobody makes a living doing what they love. Even prize-winning authors often have to support their families by teaching, editing, working as copywriters, whatever. I started writing in 1966; I didn’t get my first check till 1984.
If we’re writers and we dream of making money, we have to bite the bullet mentally and acknowledge to ourselves what long odds we’re facing. If we don’t, we’ll drive ourselves crazy.
Now I’m gonna channel a little tough love via my old friend Paul Rink, who was my first real mentor in the business of publishing. Here’s what he would say to Charles (and what he did say to me):
So you’ve published one novel, Charles. I congratulate you. I salute you. You have done what hundreds of thousands have tried to do and failed. How many points do you think the publishing of one novel has earned you? I’m sure you know the answer.
Write the next novel. Write the one after that. Write ten novels.
Is your novel in a commercial genre? Is there a market for it? Have novels like it succeeded? If your novel is in the “pure art” category, do you know how many such books have made money? How important is money to you? How flexible is your ambition? Are you willing to write genre fiction? Thrillers? Horror? Will you write a cookbook? How about porn?
Do you have a great agent? Why not? A top publisher? Why not? Did you promote your book tirelessly and relentlessly? Why not? Are you committed 24/7/365, not just to your craft but to the marketing of your craft? Will you get out there and pimp yourself and your work? Will you sell your firstborn to succeed in this racket?
These are tough questions, but they must be faced. They represent the hardball reality of the intersection of art and commerce.
I was on the Paramount lot one time, going to a meeting that was in an upstairs office. The staircase ran outside the building; beneath it was a truck-sized roll-off dumpster, one with an open top. As I mounted the stairs I chanced to look down into the dumpster.
It was filled to the brim with movie scripts.
The music business, I’m sure, is even worse. Quality fiction? Fuhgeddaboutit.
A young actor once had the chance to speak privately with Walter Matthau. “I’m just waiting for that one big break,” he said. “Kid,” said Matthau, “it ain’t the one big break, it’s the fifty big breaks.”
But back to what you’re saying, Charles. I agree with you. I too am sick of hearing that it’s not about the money, it’s about art. I too know what people mean when they say that (and part of me means it too), but let’s be real. It’s about the money too.
Money means you can keep doing your work. Money means you don’t have to give up. Money is validation. You can show the check to your spouse. It pays the rent till you can get better at your craft and learn more and network more and give more.
Remember the 10,000-hour rule. The rule says that to master any difficult skill, whether it’s brain surgery or video-game design, you need to put in roughly ten years of work. That’s full-time, fully-committed labor, at the same level of intensity as that put in by a medical student or a fighter pilot-in-training.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. (And this is purely anecdotal, from my own observation; I have no scientific proof of this.) Those aspirants who do put in those 10,000 hours? They do succeed.
I’m thinking of others “in my class” who arrived in Hollywood around the same time I did. (I take Tinseltown as a stand-in for other such art-and-commerce businesses). The ones who stuck it out found work. Yeah, they had to do a lot of stuff they didn’t tell their parents about. And yeah, that dues-paying went on for years (and for many is still going on today). And yes, maybe they didn’t find work in exactly their dream field. But those who paid the price eventually found a way.
I recognize that there’s a self-selecting component to this observation. The people who went home to Kansas selected themselves out, while their friends who stayed selected themselves in. So maybe this doesn’t prove anything.
But anecdotally I think it’s true; those who hang in, eventually find a way.
In my experience, it comes down to two principles:
One, you have to be willing to kill and to die.
Two, if you are willing to kill and to die, you’ve got a chance.
And the third (unspoken) axiom: if you’re not willing to kill and to die, you better be awfully lucky or have a father named Spielberg/Jobs/RandomHousePenguin.
More on this subject next week.
[P.S. Charles’ book is The Big Throw.]