We’re all told, frequently, by our friends, neighbors, family, culture, and society what it is to be successful. Success means, most often, having money. It means having respect. If you want to be any sort of Artist, it means making your Art pay. If it doesn’t pay, it’s just a hobby. You need to stop doing that and start making money. If you don’t make money, you’re a drain on society, you’re lazy, and you should be embarrassed to take up space on this planet.
If you’re a writer, the whole point is to get published. It’s ideal if you can get published by a big company. If you get published by Harper Collins, or Simon and Schuster, or Penguin Random House you’ve made it! Congratulations! Way to go.
They didn’t publish your book? Well, there are some other smaller publishers who are still a source of pride and a good measurement of success. Union Square and Co are perfectly respectable, and you can still feel pretty good.
You didn’t manage that? Well, there are all these independent publishers. There are literary magazines. You can take a shot there, and if you make it, then you get a little respect.
No one wants to publish your work? Oh… Well, I’m sorry but you’re a failure as a writer, so you should see if you can flip burgers or serve coffee. You have to make some money or you’re worthless. Shame you’re a lousy Artist, but if you don’t make any money, you must not be any good at all.
And I don’t buy into any of that. It would be easy to say, “Well, yes, obviously, you’ve never been published, so you have to reject that.” Okay. I admit your argument, but that isn’t why I refuse to believe the quality of anyone’s Art is determined by how much money they make creating it. Let’s think about that a little while.
Proposition: The quality of a work of Art is best assessed by how much money it makes.
And I’ll start with the most obvious counterargument. Alex Jones has earned in excess of a hundred million dollars. He’s done this by lying and yelling and making people angry. If I have to convince you that his Art is trash, you’re reading the wrong article or listening to the wrong podcast. I’m not going to spend my time convincing you of either that or the fact that if you dive into water you will become wet. Some things are too obvious to spend any of the few minutes we’re allowed to be alive debating.
The article you’re reading or the show to which you’re listening makes substantially less money than Mr. Jones does. And it’s objectively better in the same way that, while I’m not a fan of Britney Spears, she certainly sings better than my dog, Speedy Shine, does. I like Speedy Shine better than I like Britney Spears, but that doesn’t change the objective facts.
There are certainly great works of Art that have earned vast fortunes. Harper Lee made more than two million dollars a year from To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t recognize To Kill a Mockingbird as a great work of Art, again, you’re reading the wrong article or listening to the wrong podcast. You’re dismissed.
The fact is, though, that it’s futile to measure the value of Art in financial terms. The money it earns tells us nothing about its quality. How, then, should we evaluate Art? That’s a much deeper question than I can even begin to address here. I would say a part of it is its ability to make our lives better, but that’s so widely open to interpretation that I recognize it means little. I’d be more than a little interested in your thoughts about how a work of Art should be evaluated.
Success, then, isn’t just about money. I submit it’s about a much more important currency. It’s about Minutes.
In your lifetime, you’re predicted to get roughly 40 million of those. There is, of course, no guarantee that you’ll get them all. Traffic exists. Diabetes threatens many lives daily. People die unexpectedly every minute of every day. There are children who get shot before they’ve lived even enough years to make it to double digits. They didn’t get anything close to their 40 million minutes. Yours and mine could both end before we finish this sentence. There’s simply no way to know.
If you spend a dollar, you can go make another one. If you spend a minute, it’s gone forever, and nothing in the universe will recover it for you until we get around to working out Time Travel. And even assuming we work that out a case could be made that your minutes are still irreplaceable. Great science fiction writers have taken up that question. (I just ordered The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold, which, I’ve been told by those who are in a position to know, is the most comprehensive Time Travel book ever written. I’ll know a little more about Time Travel in the next week or two.) Great scientists have also discussed Time Travel. I interviewed someone on this show, once, who claimed to be a Time Traveler. I’m not entirely sure, even a year later, that I believe him. I’ll let better minds than mine sort that problem out for you. I’m taking the position that your 40 million expected minutes are more valuable than 40 million dollars.
Success, then, is to have the greatest possible number of Good Minutes. To put it in the vernacular of my Writing Coach, you want substantially more Goodies than Yipes. Those are really the two basic positions any Minutes can take. There are countless variations on those ideas, but in general, Minutes are either ones you enjoy or ones you don’t.
If Success as an Artist is limited to publishing what does this mean about your Minutes?
I was told by the world that my work was “good enough” (whatever that means) to be published now. How nice. Thank you. I did what I was told. I submitted to a publisher. They were very kind and very professional. They were interested, but they needed me to make changes in my work. In The Teddy Bear Coder, they told me my dialogue was stilted, and I needed to fix that. In Reflections From The Front Porch, the voice was wonderful, but they wanted better organization and more adherence to a single subject. This is perfectly reasonable. They’re probably right.
I don’t want to spend the few minutes I have left changing what I wrote to fit someone else’s ideas of what is good and what is not. I’m always open to thoughts about my work. And something I’m learning is to accept rejection and reject acceptance. The final arbiter of the quality of my work is me.
I love to learn more about writing. I’m taking a class, and I have a personal writing coach. I read the few comments my friends make about my work, and sometimes they have excellent ideas that, when I incorporate them into my writing, make me love my work more than I did before. Thank you! I’m exceedingly grateful.
I like, though, my dialogue exactly the way it is in The Teddy Bear Coder. I like that my essays or articles or whatever the hell I write in Reflections From The Front Porch tend to wander from one idea to the next. And I never even considered submitting Moments That Make Up a Life for publication to anyone because I quote song lyrics all over the place, and I need them, and I don’t want to take them out, and I can’t possibly afford to pay for the rights to quote them. I’m allowed, however, to write it my way so long as no one else sees the work. I believe there are 10 copies of Moments That Make Up a Life in the universe, and only because I spent the money to have it hardbound myself so I could give copies to my top supporters. I don’t anticipate Paul Simon or Tony Banks suing me.
If I decided to make the changes publishers want, I would spend hundreds of hours, or thousands of minutes, in an effort to make my work into something I like less so that I might make some money from it.
So, how does one make money as an Artist? For me, it’s Patreon. It certainly isn’t a lot, but, for the first time in my life, I put $500 in the bank this month, and, for me, that’s huge. I have 47 folks, at this moment, who pay for the privilege of reading over my shoulder or listening to me talk. It took me nearly 4 years to get that big an audience, and I’m proud of it.
These folks are willing to take my work exactly as I produce it. They’re mostly friends of mine. They’re not going to sue me. They all know I don’t have any money, anyway. And they like what I do well enough that they’re willing to give me a little money for it. And, after all this time, it’s finally enough that it makes a massive difference in my life.
I’m probably the world’s worst marketer. I have no doubt that if I spent lots of minutes the way the people in my podcast groups recommend, working on Search Engine Optimization, or networking with people so I can get big names on my show for interviews, or targeting my market more precisely, I could increase the number of people listening to or reading my work. I’m sure they’re right. And I want to put zero of the perhaps ten million minutes I have left (yes, I’m an optimist, I know) into that pursuit.
But you could have more money! You could become famous! You could be a contender, instead of a bum, which is what you are, let’s face it.
Now I need to take you back to one of my best pieces. If you’ve never read or listened to “Horace’s Final Five,” you absolutely should. The links are below.
In Horace’s Final Five minutes on Earth, he spends zero seconds thinking about how much money he has. He has a moral problem to solve concerning how he got some of the last money he ever had, but wealth isn’t the main consideration. The point is to make those final five minutes count.
Money won’t get you any minutes back. Health care, that ought to be provided to everyone for free, certainly can increase the number of minutes you get, but we will all finally run out of them. The number is undeniably finite.
Success, to me, is creating Art that I find valuable. I certainly hope a few others share my assessment of it, but I have zero control over other people. I don’t have complete control even over myself. But, when I get the privilege of choosing how to spend my minutes, I’m going to make them the best they can be. I’m going to create what I think needs to be in the world, and I’m going to do it in my own way.
So… how do you make money as an Artist? Do it your way, and hope you find people who like it. If they don’t, keep going, get better (more authentic, not more “commercial” whatever commercial means), and create again and again and again until you love what you create. Keep putting it on Patreon. There will be a few people who respond, and those are your people. You’re not required to listen to anyone’s “notes” or set up another meeting in hopes of getting your work out to the wider audience. You just keep being you.
The thing to know is you’re not unique. Other people have had experiences similar to yours. Last month, I wrote the most personal and frightening thing I’ve ever committed to paper. Right after one of The People On The Porch read it, she increased her support to beyond the top level of my Patreon page. I suspect I touched a part of her, and she responded. She wasn’t among those who hurt me so much, but I feel sure she knew at least one of the fictional characters who appeared in the piece. Art is both Universal and Personal.
Your work is going to touch someone, and, in time, you’ll make a little money from it. Will you make a living? I wouldn’t count on it, unless you’re willing to trade lots of good minutes hoping to win some dollars.
I will always remember the pure ecstasy I experienced when I got my first Patreon supporter, Jurine, who signed up for $1.00 a month. Someone, somewhere, connected with my Art and wanted to support it. Everything after that first dollar was icing on the cake. I had all the success I had ever dreamt of having. Someone liked my work.
You’re successful when you spend your minutes creating Art you love. That’s, finally, all that matters.
Yes, there are other ways to make some money as a writer. I have friends who have taken a shot at doing it on Medium. And to make that work, you have to write things people will click: “The Ten Best Movies Of All Time.” “Twelve Cities You Have To Visit Before You Die.” “Five Ways To Make Money As a Writer.” If you enjoy making lists, okay, great. Have a good time, and I hope you make some money. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy that, but I know that’s a method of earning money. It just doesn’t feel authentic to me. I could be wrong, though. Maybe you’re expressing a deep part of yourself when you do that. I wouldn’t do it because I’m more motivated by making a difference than by making money.
I’m more fortunate than most people because I have, just barely, Enough. The Diabetes that threatens my life and encourages me to create all I can as quickly as I can before it takes the rest of my minutes away also gets me a little bit of money from the government every month. That allows me more time to create. I branched out from Writing to Podcasting, and from Podcasting to making videos, because I could make enough money to make a difference by doing those things. And I found I could express ideas and emotions in those alternative forms of Art. I’m creating. I’m enjoying it. And, if I’m very careful, I can make it to the end of the month with double digits in my account.
You have only a very few Minutes to experience life. Your job is to enjoy as many of them as you can. I hope you enjoyed the Minutes we just spent together.
And, yes… I love you.