I’m midway through a long rhapsody about pens but I’ve scrapped it for today because of this excellent post by Danny Gregory. Danny, as you probably know, is an artist and writer whose books include Art Before Breakfast (a treasure) and the empowering, inspiring The Creative License. He is also a cofounder of Sketchbook Skool and teaches week-long lessons in most of the SBS courses. (He also interviewed me about keeping kids creative for SBS’s “Q and Art” video series.)
In today’s post, Danny writes candidly about a struggle that is not unfamiliar to many of us who make art for a living.
Inevitably, Sketchbook Skool was morphing from a pure passion project into a demanding business. We had to bring on a raft of advisors to cope with the ever-shifting matrix of requirements for operating a global online business. It became clear that if we didn’t want to raise prices, we had to increase sales — so we added a bunch of marketing consultants. In order to grow, we had to address the emerging limitations of our existing platform which just couldn’t handle so many students so next we brought in a team of developers. I was working for a company again. How the hell did that happen?
It’s funny—just last night I said to Scott: The thing about drawing is, I will never be good enough at it to do it for money. It will never be my job. That’s what’s so great about it. I think I would go mad without a creative outlet that is utterly unrelated to income—all the strings and catches that income involves.
I love writing so much, and I can’t not write, but it’s my job. And I’m lucky to have it, I wouldn’t change it, but there is no denying it altogether alters the experience of writing. I love making books, I love telling stories. Oh, how I love having written. But writing is what pays my bills. Writing for a living brings many layers to the experience of making up stories and writing them down. Deadlines, of course, but also—the whole business/marketing side of the job.
Nowadays more than ever. You have to promote your work, you have to get the word out. Everyone hates doing it. Every writer I know hates that part of the job. It’s embarrassing. It feels needy. But if you don’t do it, you might have to watch books you spent years laboring over quietly disappear.
I’ve made my peace with the business side of the business by drawing some firm boundaries. I accept and expect that certain administrative and promotional duties go along with publishing books—thus it is, and thus has it ever been. I allowed my career to slow down in order to write only books I’m burning to write, which has meant turning down projects and opportunities now and then. I accept very few speaking engagements that involve travel, because it’s important to me to spend most of my time at home with my family. That, too, is a decision that doesn’t always work to my books’ advantage. I’m okay with that. You have to find your balance.
Of course that means taking on other work in order to pay the bills—I do a lot of freelance work behind the scenes to support my fiction. Again, almost every working writer I know does. They teach, or they have a day job, or they spend a lot of time on the road doing school visits and conferences. For the past six months, I’ve been writing grants (and learning. so. much!—which you know charges my batteries) as well as editing for Damn Interesting and doing website maintenance for a local yoga studio. Oh, and teaching my writing class! Lots of busy, feeding the art.
One of the boundaries I drew eight or nine years ago had to do with blogging. I had the opportunity to take this blog in a direction that would have brought in decent money (for a while, at least; the days of monetized blogs do seem to be waning), but I passed on it. Didn’t feel right; I didn’t like the idea of turning my family life into a business. I know some folks have built beautiful blogs doing exactly that, but the idea has never sat right with me. Even my short stint as a ClubMom Blogger left me feeling uneasy—I was getting paid to blog about a topic (homeschooling) that inevitably crossed over into family stories. I love sharing about our learning experiences here—it’s one of the main reasons I still blog, the joy of sharing the adventure—but I didn’t like the blurring of the boundary I was trying to protect. I was glad to let that gig go, although of course I missed the paycheck. (Boy, don’t we all. They don’t make paychecks like that anymore. Nowadays, people want you to do it for ‘exposure’. Calls to mind the cartoon about the artist who died of exposure—couldn’t pay the rent, you know.)
Danny addresses a blogging conundrum in his post, too:
I’ve also been thinking about why I stopped blogging. Busyness isn’t the whole reason. I have written even at the busiest times over the years. I think the issue has been honesty, honestly.
I’ve always tried to be painfully straightforward when I write here. Similarly in my books and when I teach classes. I try to be myself, warts, carbuncles and all. As a writer, an artist and person, I can be flawed and vulnerable. This works less well as an entrepreneur. As person taking credit card payments, I need to project an unimpeachable face.
It’s interesting to hear his take on that. He’s in a different position as the face of Sketchbook Skool, and I think he’s right. If you’re going plunk down your money to take a class, you want to feel confident about the platform and the teacher. I can imagine that he has felt the need to project a positive image in order to reflect positively on the business. I so appreciate his honesty in this post (do read the whole thing, not just these excerpts).
It’s not a face I’m unfamiliar with. I wore it for years, in board meetings, client presentations, job interviews and staff briefings. The authority. The decider. 100% sure. But it’s just not me. And it’s just not my voice, especially not the one I use here, among friends. But increasingly, as the face of Sketchbook Skool, when I came to write here on my blog, I felt I had to be the shill, the Mad Man of Mad Ave, always upbeat, bringing the most awesome! things.
I used to have a thing in my sidebar about how this blog deliberately focused on the positive, the funny, the happy experiences in our family adventure. “The truth, and nothing but the truth—but not the whole truth,” I wrote (and yes, Prairie Thief readers will hear how that idea echoed its way into the novel, whose working title was in fact Not the Whole Truth), “because some parts of the truth are private.” That’s why, I explained, you hear a lot about all the fun we have together—every word of it true—but nothing about, say, tantrums or bad habits. Because ick, how awful must it be to have your mother writing about your worst moments on the internet? In another post, I discussed how I feel free to write about my own flaws and failings (and I do; you know all about my wretched closets and my chai tortilla soup), but I won’t discuss anyone else’s. Okay, maybe the grumpy anti-pinecone guy at the post office that one time. But you know I kind of loved him, too, for the way his grousing brought the rest of us together.
But Danny is talking about something a little different, not about the question of where to draw boundaries in blogging in order to protect other people’s privacy. He’s talking about feeling inhibited about expressing his personal state of mind, his candid take on things, while at the same time representing a business. And there is so much fodder for discussion in that quandary. I’ve thought a lot, these past few years, about the blurring of the boundaries between our public and private worlds. Facebook makes total hash of that boundary, for starters. Sometimes I’m mortified at the awkwardness that arises when one’s professional contacts and one’s most familiar friends co-mingle. Here on the blog, I’ve wondered, from time to time, whether my enthusiastic homeschooling posts might seem offputting to teachers and school parents, and might make them feel like my books aren’t good fits for their kids. I certainly hope not. There are other topics I keep a polite lid on because I find it too great a drain of time and energy to field vituperative comments. I used to get all het up, SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET, and dive into the fray, I’ve mellowed. (“Someone is wrong on the internet—possibly me” is the phrase you come to in your forties.)
And yet I admire it so much when people are fearlessly frank. Sometimes when I’m reading a book that annoys me, I’ll think: imagine if I blogged about things I didn’t like? It’s so much easier to be articulate when critiquing a book’s flaws than to praise it. The only way to praise without sounding saccharine or surface (“It was awesome! I loved it! Two thumbs up!) is to take the time to write thoughtful analysis of what’s working, what’s wonderful. Which takes longer…and can begin to feel perilously like work. Work, I have enough of. And yet I LOVE analysis—reading it and writing it. Some of my best writing on this blog is literary analysis. It just takes time.
Besides, the writer in me—tremblingly placing stories before the public—has too much sympathy for the writers of books I don’t like. They’ve got enough woes to contend with; they don’t need me to point out everything that’s wrong with their last year’s (or years’) labor. And anyway, their book is probably outselling mine. 😉 I always maintain that I’m not a reviewer; I’m a recommender. I want to spend my few snatched moments of blogging time writing about things I love.
And yet, there’s a part of me that would love to tackle fraught topics with gusto. If you know me in person, you know I’m like that; I love discourse; I get fired up; I like to scrutinize ideas and assumptions. My poor husband knows that best of all. I can be pretty snarky in person, too, but I deliberately avoid snark in public writing because I think it shuts down discourse. It’s so easy to crack out a witty one-liner—but it isn’t always respectful. To the topic, or the other voices in the conversation.
As with so much else, the key is balance…being candid without being cruel or glib, being frank without breaching privacy. And when it comes to personal doubts or worries or slumps (to get back to Danny’s topic, from which I’ve meandered far), I wonder if we are all learning how to recalibrate our expectations of writers and artists and actors and others whose work has a public aspect. The internet has decreased our degrees of separation. People want contact with artists they admire. The trouble is, then they want to like them. And let’s face it, we’re not all going to like each other. I’ve felt it myself, now and then—that pang of disappointment when someone whose work you admire has said something truly disheartening on Twitter. Can you keep the work separate? Do your feelings about the book change because you now suspect the writer is kind of a jerk?
I’m a wizard at compartmentalizing, but even so I sometimes have trouble separating the biography from the novel. There’s a thing or two I wish I could un-know. But there are so many books in the world; I don’t need to feel the same degree of rosy about them all as I did when I first read them. As for everyone else—the non-jerks; the anxious, the fumbling, the angry, the laying-it-bare—here again I come back to what I have learned from sketching, from my clumsy and dogged and rewarding attempts to make drawing a daily habit these past eight months (a journey inextricably and profoundly informed by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene and their Sketchbook Skool adventure)—that line that jumped out at me way back in college when I first read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (And why didn’t I listen to Betty and start drawing daily back then?) I’ve written about it here before in other contexts. One of Betty’s students, after spending some time drawing portraits, remarks that now every face she looks at seems beautiful to her.
I think about that all the time. It’s true about drawing; you do start to appreciate all the uniquenesses (advertising would have us believe they are flaws), the bumps, the lines, the crooked features. “Warts, carbuncles, and all” is how Danny put it, speaking of how he used to blog. And oddly, these ten years of immersion in blogs and social media have reinforced the lesson. That devastatingly handsome actor who smolders on my screen is actually kind of a nerd, and it’s endearing. That brilliant writer whose prose leaves me breathless…has a bad back, is inordinately proud of her ill-mannered dog, and her roof needs replacing. She’s a person now, not a name on a spine. And she seems beautiful to me.