In celebration of my novel Love at Absolute Zero reaching four years old recently, it’s being sold for $2.99 on Kindle. The novel itself reminds me of being “centered”—I wrote it with amazement in me. To be an artist is what this column is about.
Because I teach creative writing at the Art Center College of Design as well as at Santa Monica College, I’m teaching an art in a nation where it's difficult to make a living in the arts. My son happens to be studying computer science, and there are many jobs in it. He will be able to apply to places. Medicine, law, physics are some of the many other subjects where finding a job is clear. To make a living as a writer is not cut-and-dried.
I see two general paths for a writer. One is to research and see what types of writing pay the most. When I go onto Kboards’ Writers’ Café, an area where fiction writers publishing eBooks hang out, I see that the best-selling writers fall into the genres of thrillers, romance, and erotica, among others. At the Writers’ Café, you can read first-hand accounts of what small publishers and self-publishers are doing.
In short, if your goal is to make money writing, then select a genre and learn it well. You’re not writing for yourself, per se, but writing to fill a market need. You’ll be competing with people who are passionate about their genre.
Then there’s the path I took. Most people who get MFAs in writing programs go this way, too: not concerned with genre, but in seeking certain truths about living. Their stories might fall into a genre, but more likely than not, they’ll straddle genres or fall into the “literary” category, which is a catch-all. One truth is if you choose this path, you’re not likely to make money.
Still, the most popular books seem to be ones where the writer was not concerned with money or marketing but writing the best and most truthful book possible. For instance, I got to know Janet Fitch at the University of Southern California when we both taught at the now-defunct Master of Professional Writing Program.
Like me, she started as a journalist and learned about deadlines and writing all the time. Then she started exploring poetry and incorporating sound and rhythm into her fiction, which started getting published. As she said, “I always read poetry before I write to sensitize me to the rhythms and music of language. Their startling originality is a challenge. I like Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Sexton. There are parts of White Oleander which use cadences of Pound.”
Her first novel White Oleander landed her on Oprah Winfrey’s show and in Winfrey’s Book Club. The book became a major hit and a 2006 film. Her last novel, Paint It Black, will also soon be a film, directed by Amber Tamblyn. In a Salon article from 1999, Fitch talks about the twenty-two years it took to become a best-selling author. Much of it is luck. “Luck” isn’t a great way to plan a career, but this is where “centering” comes in.
Centering is about what drives you as an artist. If you write for acclaim, then your fortunes will rise and fall with positive and negative reviews. If your goal is for a lot of money—rare in the arts—then your motivation will dry up when funds only trickle in.
I think of composer Phillip Glass, whose music I often listen to as I write, who drove a cab for a good chunk of his life as he composed. Composing is what he loved to do, and his style did not, and does not, sit easily with everyone. (For a sample of his work, click here.) Only after his opera Einstein on the Beach made a name did he start getting enough commissions to live on.
After teaching at a few colleges including CalArts, Santa Monica College, USC, and Art Center, I’ve come to know a number of faculty in writing, dance, film, theatre, music, and the fine arts, and most of them have made modest names for themselves if not more. All have one thing in common: they are centered on their art. That and curiosity drive them.
As poet Dennis Phillips told me recently, “What do you do when something really good or bad happens in your life? If you’re still writing, then that’s where you’re centered. Your art is your focus. Most people don’t make it big, but you can be respected. You keep exploring. You keep doing what you do.”
I look for different ways to inspire my students. Recently, I showed parts of a documentary Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey. Campbell studied and taught myths and mythic structure for years. He made a name for himself with the book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. My favorite book of his is The Power of Myth, where Bill Moyers interviews him. I bring up Campbell because after studying myths from hundreds of cultures across time, he came to see many answers about living. Origin myths try to make sense of the world. Adventure myths have a certain structure, including having a mentor help guide the protagonist.
One of Campbell’s big realizations about myths is that they instruct people who are now alive to “follow their bliss.” I don’t take this to mean, as many of our popular films and books show: “If you are persistent, you will succeed.” Rather, it says that your art centers you, gets you through the labyrinth of life. As Campbell says to Moyers, “The function of art is to reveal this radiance [transcendence] through the created object. When you see the beautiful organization of a fortunately composed work of art, you just say, ‘Aha!” Somehow it speaks to the order in your own life and leads to the realization of the very things that religions are concerned to render.”
Your writing, your art, can lead you to what others might call spirituality. It’s your center.
*For Vanessa Carlton’s great cover version of the Rolling Stone’s song “Paint It Black,” click here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.