Wednesday, January 30, 2019

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and the starving artist.

Linda and I went to see "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" the best movie I've seen this year. Certainly Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant deserve the recognition they're getting.

You should especially see this if you are involved in the arts, professionally or just for fun, but especially if you're trying to forge a career.

I often wonder what would have happened if I'd continued my earlier "career" in writing. I wrote 7 books over about 5 years, the first 3 of which were published for small advances and the 6th that was nearly accepted by the biggest editors at major publishing houses. I certainly intended to keep writing.

As it happened, I was working as a landscaper--more a glorified lawn mower; this at a time when there weren't all that many "landscapers" in Bend. I found the time to write when I was doing that job.

At the same time, I was working part-time at the Pegasus Books.

Now the truth is, I was already slowing way down on my writing. I'd married Linda, took on two stepsons, and was trying hard to earn money. When the opportunity came up to buy Pegasus Books, I went ahead. I naively thought that working in a bookstore would give me time to write.


It goes to show how iffy I thought writing was that I thought owning a small business was less risky. But being an owner meant I had more control over my fate. It had objective measures of success or failure--either I made the money to pay my bills or I didn't.

With writing, who knows? Who decides? Not necessarily the writer.

So what would have happened if I'd just kept the lawn mowing jobs and kept writing?

I already had some really pernicious habits, which were only getting worse. I was also terribly naive for the age. I was 32 years old, but I'd spent all of my twenties in the limbo of taking medication for my depression. It was as if 10 years had been taken out of my life; I certainly had less real-life experiences than most people my age.

The writing I'd done up to the time had revived me, given me hope, and led me to Linda, Pegasus Books, and all the rest. But I wasn't very mature about it. I would always send stuff out before it was ready, always with the thought that it was "good enough."

So who knows? Maybe I could have gotten a career out of it.

But what if I hadn't? What's interesting about the real person behind the Melissa McCarthy character in the movie is that she'd been relatively successful earlier on, with a best selling biography on her resume. But her third book was a flop and that seemed to pretty much end her career. (Her personality didn't help--but I can draw a parallel to my own personality at the time; I would have had an equally hard time fitting in.)

From all I hear, this "What have you done lately" demand is even more omnipresent in today's publishing world.

In the movie, the writer is 51 years old and broke, completely demoralized. So she starts forging letters of famous literary figures.

So here's the thing. At the age of 32, I'd already projected myself into the future as a "writer" and it was a pretty intimidating thing. I knew professional writers well into their careers who were barely getting by. I knew that I wasn't going to be playing the game, that I was going to be depending on the books selling themselves (as ever, a dubious proposition.)

We always hear about the big successes. How often do we hear about those who went all in and came up short?

I have a theory that many artists hit that point somewhere in their late twenties and early thirties. Time to get serious about making a living.

I'm glad I didn't try. Not because I don't think I could have succeeded --that would have been a crapshoot but I am damned persistent, so maybe.

But owning the store gave me confidence in other directions, and most importantly exposed me to other people on a regular basis, which for a loner like me was a godsend. I hate to think how isolated I might have become if I was sitting at home writing every day.

Even now, that's a little bit of a problem. I need ways to get out there among people, and fortunately, I still own my store.

I'm also free of the need to make a living to make my "art." Time isn't really a problem. I dove in with renewed creative energy and will have at least 20 published books in the same time it took me to write 7 books the first time.

I have a lot of respect for those artists who keep on trying. It's a hell of a gamble. 

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