Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Disciplining Your Art

Writing is a difficult field to establish yourself in, and that can be very frustrating.

The problem is that sometime in the recent generation, we collectively decided that you can be whatever you want to be if only you'll go after it and believe it to be true.  This has produced a bunch of wannabes (and much too much of that teenage-angst, emo "poetry" we're all already sick of) and inundated the market with people trying to establish themselves as writers, artists, and musicians when they have no earthly business trying to do so.  It may sound harsh, but someone needs to say it: some of these people out there just plain suck.

And that's hurting the rest of us.

Because it's hard enough these days to get anyone to read anything, and when you're buried in a mass of wannabe work, it's hard to draw enough attention to yourself - particularly as a no-name - to get people to engage enough with your product to let it speak for itself.  People are weary of less-than-great content.  (Musicians and artists have similar struggles, but they have one advantage: they require less investment from the market.  People can hear a song without listening or casually pass by a piece of art and decide in an instant if it's worth a second look.  Words are not so easy.)  

For the longest time, this has frustrated me.  To the point of getting a little hoity about it all.  And really angry.

I've been writing since before I could write.  I have books of poems I made my mom write down from my toddler days, things I made up and was so proud of.  Essays throughout school that still make me smile a little.  Metaphors from my early days as a devotional writer.  They aren't all that great, but I've been building to where I am now and where I'm going.  And then I started going public about my writing, started putting out there that I was working on my first book (Recess with Jesus: have you read it yet?) and I was inundated with emails and contacts from other people who said, "I'm a writer, too!  Do you want to read my poem?"

No.  No, I don't.  Because we're talking about two totally different things here, and what I do is actually writing.  What you do is...I don't know what you're doing.  That's the worst "poem" I've ever seen.  And I would be honest about it, and just encourage other people to be honest.  That's not a poem.  It's a diary entry.  Or better yet, it's "a...thing I...wrote."

(And for all the people out there reading this who want to be writers one day, I want to say this: it's not as glamorous as you think it is.  It's not as easy as you're hoping it might be.  It's tough.  Particularly when you're gifted and it and you're likely supposed to be a writer.  Then, it's even harder because you're pouring yourself fully into it and the return on investment - at least at first - is very small.)

So I got my first book up and running, and it's the most humbling thing ever and I start to understand what this beautiful gift is in me and how awesome it is that I get to do this.  Then I ran right up against the industry and fell into hopeless frustration again.

Because as much as no, I don't want to read your poem, there are thousands of established authors out there that I'd love to get an ear with, and they, too, are wearied by the inundation of wannabes and simply don't have time for the kind of mentoring and relationship I had been hoping to find.  Instead, they're more like gatekeepers these days and because of the sheer number of requests they receive each day, they look at something more than your words to speak for you.  Until you can prove yourself in numbers, the industry doesn't want to hear from you either.  Because the industry, too, is looking for writers...and until you are one, then you're not one, but you can't be one until someone says you're one.  So what in the world are you?

It's like the jobseeker trying to land a job, any job, and hearing over and over again that you can't get work until you're working or that you have to have three years of experience before you can get experience.  Then how do you get the first three years?

This has been my frustration, and my heart has struggled against that.  Because I want to be bitter.  And hateful.  And angry about the degradation of my industry.  I want to be arrogant because this is my gift - this is clearly, absolutely, perfectly my gift and what He has given me to do - and all of these talentless hacks keep standing in my way of reaching a larger audience with His story.  (I know!  I just sound all high and mighty.)  And somehow, they make me feel less about my gift, too.  Because when I'm asking for a reader, there's a part of me that feels a lot like the people who have so annoyed me.  I feel sometimes like I'm standing before the world saying, "I'm a writer, too!  Do you want to read my poem?"  Or better yet, this...thing I...wrote.

And for awhile, I was precisely that.  Frustrated.  Angry.  Arrogant.  There's still some of that fight in me.  But a couple of weeks ago, I saw it in a new light.  

It feels like all of these obstacles in my way, all these things standing between me and what God's called and gifted me to be.  These people - both wannabe authors and exhausted gatekeepers - setting up barriers to keep me out of this industry.  My industry.  A couple of weeks ago when I heard yet again that I don't have the numbers to be relevant, but "keep at it and maybe in a few years, you'll be there," I was done.  Ready to flip the whole industry the bird and be loud about it.  It's not about the numbers; it never has been to me.  I always count to one.  It's about this burden I have to share the story God's telling through me, and it drives me bonkers that His message is held back because His vehicle is something so rejected by the world as me.  I want to scream, Put me aside for a minute and just look at the content!

Then I looked at my content.  Those who wouldn't read it until I hit their magic number wouldn't know, but I saw instantly that I'd gotten complacent.  My writing was not as disciplined, and it shouldn't have been: I really wasn't loving it any more.  I said on my Facebook page that if it's ever not totally awesome and completely weird that God has chosen you to do what you do, then stop.  Because it's becoming about you and not about Him.  And that's where I was.

This new roadblock, this most recent rejection, wasn't my first.  If I'm lucky, it won't be my last.  But in that instant, my frustration faded.  (Though it still tries to come back if I'm not paying attention.)  What I saw that moment as more than anything...was an invitation.  A call to discipline my art.  To stop trying to push my way through the crowds and to instead rise above it.

I'm not special.  I can't demand attention just because I am me.  Nobody cares, and they shouldn't.  But what I can do is pour myself into creating stellar content, writing and rewriting and honing my craft so that my words rise above and demand enough attention to get the chance to speak for themselves.  Then I have to be ready for my work to do the talking.

That's a beautiful invitation, and I'm thankful He let me hear it.  It would have been easy to stay stuck in that place that was frustrated and bitter.  Instead, I'm back in that place where it's totally awesome and completely weird that God would choose me to do what I do.  As a result, I think I'm doing some of the best writing I've done in a long time.  And looking forward to the challenge.

(But sorry, no.  I still don't want to read your poem.)

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