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I Can See Your House From Here, v 2.16
© Kenn McCracken

Ask the question, "How do I make it in {pick your favorite} field?" and you're likely to receive a hundred different answers. You may as well walk into a NOW meeting and ask what women want (besides Mel Gibson, of course); you're going ot get more repsonses than you could have hoped for, and while all of them are valid, they certainly don't tell the whole story. Even on the Internet, which we all know is filled with nothing but facts and honest life lessons, there are more than plenty of conflicting recipes for success.

Take, for instance, the field of writing. Whether you want to be a journalist, a best-selling novelist, or an Internet based movie reviewer, you'll be lucky if any two successful people give you the same advice. Some will tell you that the most important thing is education, learning your craft and it's rules, even if the purpose of that learning is to eventually break the rules you spent so much effort memorizing. Others will tell you that you have to read, read, read -- and not just your favorite authors, but everything by everyone that you can get your hands on. Some will say that you have to live life, first and foremost, with your eyes and ears open, watching, listening, and observing, so that you will have things to write about. Some will say that the key is to write all the time. And there are other learned pieces of advice, combinations and discardings of the above.

Who's right? Well...

There are musicians with a slew of top ten hits that were chosen by record labels not because they were good songwriters or talented instrumentalists, but because of their pearly white teeth or perfect bodies. Steve Vai got his break by transcribing two of Frank Zappa's most difficult pieces on guitar and sent those transcriptions to Zappa, who hired him. There are bands with little talent that get signed after one year of barely playing; there are immensely talented groups that have been around for ten or twenty years and will never receive their proper notice.

Each of these artists, successful or not, will tell you what has or hasn't worked for them. In each piece of advice is something worth noting; after all, it did work for somebody, once. However, listen long enough, and you'll start to realize that there is no right answer to what you need to do to succeed.

Now, I'm no Warren Ellis, no Stephen King, no Edward Van Halen or David Hayter or Steve Martin. I've put out two CDs independently, neither of which has sold over 100 copies. I've written three screenplays and sold none. I've had some short stories published in University magazines, and sold a few freelance articles to newspapars and websites. I've done a few album covers and an advertisement or two. I even have my own weekly column (which only sets me apart from people without Internet access, by the way). If you're looking for advice from someone who makes enough money to subsist solely based on his art, look elsewhere. With that in mind, though, I thought that I might offer up some advice of my own -- things *not* to do if you ever hope to succeed. Bear in mind that the following words are applicable no matter what your preferred medium, be it digital audio, film, pottery, or covering your naked body in chocolate while singing Swahili versions of Britney Spears songs.

1) DON'T Stop practicing: As much as you might like to think that you have perfected your craft, you haven't. And even if you have, muscle memory will only carry you so far down the road. If you play guitar, make time to play every day, even if it's just noodling while you watch television. If you paint, paint something everyday, whether it's a new piece or just a touch-up on an oldie. If you write, write something new everyday. If you only pick up your tools when you feel like it, you're not pursuing art as anything more than a hobby, and that's the best you'll be able to hope for.

2) DON'T Get defensive and reject criticism: We all like to seek out approval. Whether it's discussing the cool new idea for a movie with a friend or posting your latest sketches to your web site, every creator wants to know that he is striking a chord with some audience, somewhere. The problem that most artists have is a rare condition known as Egoitis Fragilcum; common symptoms are temper tantrums, incessant whining, and complaints that "No one understands me!"

Some criticism is, at least on the surface, invalid, and reasonably ignored. My favorite, and the easiest for me to brush aside: "Dude, it sucks!" Doesn't really have much effect on me, nor should it on you (unless you hear it a lot; if that's the case, you might reconsider telling your daytime boss how much more comfortable his chair might be if he turned it upside-down). What you should take to heart, though, are friends that are willing to give you constructive advice, editors that give you notes, gallery owners that offer advice. Perhaps, at the end of the day, you'll decide that you're only doing what you do for yourself, and that's perfectly okay; just don't complain that you don't understand why you're the only one that enjoys your art. If you want to make a living doing this, whatevr this may be, then you're counting on people giving you money to support your creativity, and that means you have to listen to people to find out what they're willing to pay for, at least to the extent that you're not allowing yourself to become craftsman instead of artist.

3) DON'T Assume that success will come looking for you: The saying, "Good things come to those who wait," should *not* be interpreted as "The lazier you are, the more likely you are to get what you want." The only thing that you'll get from inactivity is a fat ass and a bad attitude. Send your stories out, not matter how many times they've been rejected. Keep trying to sell your clay pots. Find a band and play as many shows as possible, even if the best you can manage is open mic night at the Beer and Bowl down the street. It's entirely possible that you are at the top of your game and better than 99 % of the rest, but if you don't actively pursue your options, no one but you will ever know how gloriously talented you are.

4) DON'T Give up: If there's one piece of creative advice that is truly universal, and at the heart of every success story (and this extends outside the world of art to business, relationships, and anything else you can think of), that's the one. Two simple words that may be the hardest work of all. Every career -- hell, even the hobbies -- are filled with difficulty, whether in finishing an important story or song, or finding the will to risk one more rejection slip.

You can throw a rock in artistic circles and hit an overnight success story. There's a simple reason for this: all men are not created equal, no matter what politicians and pundits might say. Some people are born with a natural gift for hearing melodies, translating natural dialogue onto paper, seeing the statue inside the block of granite, or pulling a ghost story out of thin air. Some people are related to someone who is already famous or well-connected. Some people just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Some, though, is not most, and the most are the ones that the newspapers never focus on, because ten or twenty or fifty years of blood, sweat, and sacrifice is not the sort of thing that people who read People want to read about.

The fact is, for every overnight success story, there are a hundred stories of success that can be told only because the creators and artists persevered and kept going, no matter how hard it was. And for each of those hundred artists, there are a hundred more that are trying every day to make it into the elite ranks of Those Who Quit Their Day Jobs. There is a lot of luck involved in the world of art, but a lot of talent, practice, and dedication as well. It's going to be hard, but the harder you hang in there, the better your chances are of making it to your goal.

What this all boils down to is that there is no simple secret to success in the world of the arts. If there were, there would be a lot less garbage-men, waiters, and editors in the world, and a whole lot more crap on the radio, the TV, and in galleries and movie theaters. You can search the Internet all day long, and hit the libraries, and put another dollar in Anthony Robbins' feel-good pockets if you want, but the more you do that, the less you're creating, and that's what this is all about. Whether it's only seen by your mother and tortured girlfriend or twenty million readers worldwide, remember in the end that your creating because something inside of you demands it.

Of course, the large amounts of money that I keep reading about in Rolling Stone aren't unattractive, either...


Kenn McCracken's integrity and artistic dignity were last seen at the Golden Coin Pawn Shop.

 
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