Doing It Their Way, Or Not

Illustration for Vasilia the Beautiful by Ivan Bilibian

There is something eternal about the way that we tell stories, the way we seek the emotional heart of an experience, the beauty of language and expression. The way we disseminate and receive those stories, on the other hand, is experiencing a sea change. Traditional publishing seems to be an ever-shrinking piece in a puzzle that now includes multiple e-publication methods and media outlets. And new creative venture revenue sources like Kickstarter are making things even more interesting. With so many choices, getting my work out into the world feels a little like venturing into a foreboding and enchanted forest.

While I scribble away, honing my craft, I’m also trying to take in the ever-shifting landscape that is the world of publishing. Lately, a couple movers and shakers on the scene have been making a big splash, and their stories have gotten me thinking. Before we go any further, the important thing to remember about me is that I don’t know jack! All I have are my opinions, but I do have plenty of those.

Hugh Howey and his breakout novel Wool have been popping up everywhere. Even The Wall Street Journal profiled him, describing how he hacked the traditional publishing model to get himself a sweet print-only book deal with Simon & Shuster. Like almost all “instant” successes, it turns out there’s years of hard work behind it. I first noticed him on Amazon for his excellent novella The Plagiarist, published in 2011. His love for spinning a great tale is apparent in everything he writes, and the hard work he’s put in mastering the craft shows in his direct and engaging prose style. Over the years, he’s amassed a large readership and leveraged that popularity into publishing success. 

Then there’s Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, which went viral and spawned lots of discussion about how one should go about making a living as an artist. 

Regardless of what you think of her, it’s hard not to admit that this isn’t an example of the perfect TED talk. She grounds a simple set of innovative ideas in a real emotional core. I don’t know much about Amanda Palmer. She strikes me as the kind of artist who is not only committed to her art, but to creating her own life as a work of art. For years she’s been putting herself out there both in performance and by connecting with people one at a time. Did she do it to become a millionaire? I can’t say, but it’s obvious she loves what she does.

I’m touched by her sincerity and convinced that she’s managed to put her finger on a truth. But what truth exactly? It took a while for me to puzzle out. There’s truth there, just not a universaltruth. 

So much of the discussion around individual success stories like Howey’s and Palmer’s are framed in terms of a new business model that everyone then scrambles to replicate. As if they’ve discovered thepath to success, when, in fact, they’ve discovered their path to success. There is a lot to learn from the paths they took, as long as you don’t get tripped up by looking for universal solutions from individual successes.

First, there’s the idea that a universal standard of success exists (often measured in dollars or views or followers). Not that those things aren’t great, but I think success is highly personal, and the path to it as individual as each of us. We do ourselves a disservice when we pursue an ideal of success without first examining what that really means to us. Stop and think, what is it that I want to achieve with my art and with the creative act that is my life?

From what I know of her life, Amanda Palmer has never been responsible for anyone but herself, which means that for years she could afford to commit to a lifestyle where she made very little money and traveled by couch surfing her way around the globe. Cool! I want to experience the art made by the Amanda Palmers of the world, but I also want to experience the art made by people who have mortgages to pay or children to raise or elder parents to support or any combination of the above.

Second, there is no one right way. The enchanted woods are vast, mutable and fraught with danger, but as most fairy tale characters discover, the way through isn’t exactly what they imagined when they went in. Hell, there’s never been a single path from the beginning to the end of any of my stories. More often than not, I make a turn and end up at a delightfully different destination. Once written, I can look back and see the single path that I took, but while I’m working, all I’ve got is the compass of my idea and a trail of breadcrumbs that was my outline. Like the unwritten story, I’ll enter the world of publishing armed with the accounts of the people who’ve made it through to arrive on the shining shore of their success. Their words may guide me, but, in the end, I’ll have to find my own way.

So, keep working. Getting your work out there can feel like venturing into the deep dark woods. Just remember, it won’t be the trail of breadcrumbs that will save you in the end, it will be your wits.

Or maybe a giant swan, but probably not.