OR, WHY YOU CAN’T BE NEIL GAIMAN
NOTE: If you like writing one thing (novels in particular), woot. Don’t read this piece, even though it might help. You don’t want what I’m selling.
Envy is rife amongst writers. It’s the first stage of jealousy and rooted in daydreams. Few daydream about labor. We daydream about success as reward out of thin air. Example:
How awesome is it to be Neil Gaiman? Rockstar of genre fiction, with more success than a dozen midlisters combined and multiplied by his current stock of awards and accolades. He is rich, famous, does what he likes, and makes fun commencement speeches.
The trouble is, you can’t be Neil Gaiman.
And I wouldn’t want the job, even if I was offered some devil deal from a servile butler in a greasy EC comic book. Not because I’d end up devoured by ten thousand fans dressed like Delirium of the Endless (you know, Tori Amos) in the very last panel. But because, to paraphrase Paul Westerberg regarding Bon Jovi, I’d change bank accounts with Gaiman, but I could never write American Gods, even if I wanted to. And if I did, it would likely involve pro wrestlers instead of gods and the protagonists named wouldn’t be Shadow, but Sal Dubuski, a jobber from Horsehead, New York. And no one who liked American Gods would touch mine with a pole ax.
I can’t be Gaiman. You can’t be Gaiman. He’s already Gaimaning all over the place. But there’s something to take from his career: it wasn’t without a strategy, and it wasn’t achieved by following the traditional route most writers are sold as the means to success (publishing enough to eat). Before he was a phenomenon, he was a journalist and nonfiction writer for porn, humor, and gaming mags. Journalism allowed him to make contact with many people in publishing, including Alan Moore, which helped him establish relationships in the comic industry and earn cash.
Now, all the while, he’s writing his arse off and learning his craft, but he found his route. He didn’t just toil in short stories, write a novel, find an agent who sold their work: the old midlist threestep. And that’s refreshing, and poignant today. Most of us want a clear path to success: A+B=C. We want effort to be rewarded. We want to achieve by the sweat of our brow. We want a business model like our older heroes who show up at cons and tell the same stories of getting signed in the 80s before regaling us with a tale of how Harlan Ellison was mean or nice or both.
After surviving against the odds in the wake of the Great Recession, I’ve realized a harder truth embedded in the nature of success in work. There is no certainty, no stability, no meritocracy, no justice or fairness (I can already hear the windows clicking away, but hold on for a sec), no equality, and nothing is ever owed to you no matter what you do (hold on!) . . . however, in such a sea of vexing circumstances, there is also no singular road to achievement. And that means chances and opportunities exist if you ignore the old paradigms of work. Including in the arts.
The era of the commercial mid-list writer, who published two books a year, taught some college courses, and maybe wrote a novelization or ghost wrote a cookbook for a nice lower middle class career, has declined in the wake of the Great Recession, bookstore closures, and ebooks (some say it was earlier than that, especially for horror writers). It was a model, much like the one job career of the past two generations, that has broken down. Most people who call themselves professional writers have day jobs, or multiple part-time jobs, some specifically for health insurance needs. A career novelist, while not extinct, is hardly a safe bet or even a desirable goal.
I think of my fiction as an unsteady part time job that requires a lot of volunteering, but I chased that mid-list star for years. To succeed, or so I was told, I’d have to fit my style to the market demand, something guys like Neil Gaiman don’t have to worry about. (NOTE: This is not a slam on Gaiman’s fiction. I think he truthfully loves his art and works hard to write stories he cares about. They just happen to be commercially palatable to Time Warner executives, 90s Goth kids, and the children of 90s goth kids and Time Warner executives).
Could I have his level of success in ten years? Given my content, I doubt it. My novels have dirtbag punk rock kids, fat vampires, and failed pro wrestlers. Rare is the time I write about the pretty people winning. I’m a writer for the underdog (the kiss of death in much pop fiction). That’s what makes me happy! It’s as if I was writing anticommercial fiction on purpose (which might be true). In their-their brutally honest and funny book on screenwriting, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant warn all would be writers that they’ll never make any cash in Hollywood writing Bukowskiesque tales about the fuglies. While more forgiving than film, print is often the same way, especially in genre fiction (or are those covers lying to us?)
But when I abandoned sustainable income as a writing goal, I knew I’d be taking a harder road. My successes would be rarer, in part because I’m not writing to please the audience. I’m writing for them to enjoy me, a stranger who is taking up space in a magazine or book that could be occupied by Neil Gaiman. Which means a lot more rejection than if I gamed my fiction to fit their needs, as many authors do (successful and otherwise).
During this period, some part of me began to realize that I’d had too much invested in thinking of succeeding with ONE big project. One novel. The strong debut. The breakthrough novel. One major monograph. That one thing would save me and be the root from which all my porn dreams of success would grow. In art and commerce, though, the rule of one is that you better have more than one thing going. One job. One plan. One option. One idea. Having only one idea is death. And this means more than one view of success, and more than one means to get there. I’d given up thinking of success as anything I had control over, but what about means?
Unconsciously (as I don’t recall this being a plan), I began to make various kinds of art. I’d spent about four years writing ten novels, and with little return. So, I delved into a lot of smaller projects, and some big ones. But I remember why this approach clicked for me.
I’m a big fan of Chris Hardwick’s confidence theory, which I read while my life was in a traumatic tailspin. Hardwick’s career spiraled downward as a comedian and TV personality (thanks in large part to booze and other problems). One of the lessons he learned picking himself back up was there’s a wild value to saying yes to things that sound fun that may have only minor pay off. Lots of little things over time can add up, especially when it comes to your ego. If you only have one thing that defines you, it will be crushing when it falls (and everything falls eventually). So diversify and multiply to survive. If his TV work died down, he focused on stand up, or podcasting, or sketch comedy, or other associated fields that kept his mind active and schedule busy and built up his resume again until he started getting more TV work. But he still does tons of stuff. It’s not just the Nerdist website and brand. Hardwick created opportunities by saying yes to new, novel, related projects. Confidence in the future came from having options.
While my novels continued to bounce around, I decided to champion Hardwick’s approach of creating more opportunities by doing more work in places that intrigued me or I already enjoyed. So I rekindled my love of short stories. I started writing comic books. I do improv comedy. Failed opportunities also produced interesting results: when I applied for a job at the Khan Academy, I had to buy a tablet, drawing software, and learn a new skill-set for teaching and making a video. Did I get the gig? Not even close! But I enjoyed drawing and narration, so I make ridiculous improvised comedy videos, with over 1100 views and counting. I applied for roughly 120 odd jobs at universities, colleges, and other institutions and never got an interview, but I did win a fellowship that allowed me to travel the world and write history for a year. The rejections the past two years were staggering, but these successes were not possible without them. And not one novel was written or considered a god I had abandoned. I was too busy doing cool shit.
When it comes to work and art, I try to keep saying yes (an old improv ethos). I’ve helped friends plot their zombie movies, design comic scripts, and even narrated and sang in a live reading of a play at the EXIT THEATER in San Francisco. I grow my range of experiences. I take in the challenges. I don’t say “No, I’m working on a novel. That is my sole focus. Anything that takes me away from it will ruin my chances of it becoming the next American Gods. ”
Because who the hell would want that, when they can talk to crack heads outside a theater before singing Tom Waits as actors in scuba gear are about to quote Rilke? That’s right. No one.
I’m not waiting for one thing. I’m making many. And my hope is that, over time, I’ll see a pattern in the experiences that can lead me to even greater things in history, fiction, performance, etc. Something will percolate in the cultural marketplace that may lead me to the next adventure. If you bank on ONE THING (the one pitch, the one agent, the one novel, the one whatever) to make you happy and pay your bills, and it doesn’t, you’re devastated and in bloody trouble. If you’ve got tons of projects, then the devastation is minimized because when it happens you’ll be too busy doing something else and looking good (to quote Kung Fu legend, Jim Kelly).
And yes, for the last time, the position of Neil Gaiman has been taken.