Starving Artist

I saw this Tweet thread this morning, reacting to the news of the Squid Game creator, who apparently struggled for years, had to sell his laptop, got rejected, et cetera before finally breaking big with his show recently. His show is about the monstrous ills and woes of capitalism, how it eats people alive, which makes a lot of the stuff he went through seem pretty personal. Almost meta.

But then, as the Tweets say, you get this narrative where it’s inspiring. People will say “never give up.” They’ll say “follow your dreams.” It’s a good general way to go about life in that we all need stuff to keep us happy and fulfilled. And maybe once in a while you do get published. I was glad to get the stories I’ve published out in the world. It is possible.

However, there was always the slight voice in the back of my mind telling me this was a bit annoying, the whole follow your dreams narrative.

It’s just in the kind of empty-calorie optimism in that statement. “If you just keep working hard, you’ll be on Netflix or published by Penguin Random House or have your own TV show or your dream job just like that!” I don’t know. There are ways to be fulfilled and there are ways to live a fine life. But the entertainment industry, and breaking big in any way – that’s a tough thing to do. Most of us won’t, in writing or comedy or film or any of it. I’ll see comedians make Facebook pages for themselves a year or so into comedy. That just seems bizarre to me. You don’t even know what you’re selling yet. Some comics do it for 10, 20, 30 years before they really get any success. It seems like deluding yourself.

And the world is full of these stories of artists not making it for decades or something. The entertainment system’s gatekeepers pick what they want at the time and other things inevitably get left behind. Loads of the things I like, movies or bands for example, I can go on their Wikipedia pages and see the same thing like clockwork, like the refrain of a song: “initially the work was panned and critics hated it, but years later it was reassessed as a masterpiece.” It makes you wonder if maybe nothing is ever objective. And it makes you wonder who else we’re sleeping on.

As I write this I’m playing a John Lee Hooker album. This is a guy who made music for literally like 40 or 50 years before finally getting a charting album in his 70s. That’s crazy to me. Inspiring, but wow, I don’t think he was planning on it taking so long.

The industry and art are like yin and yang – we need the industry to amplify the art, but the artistic instinct is very different from a business mindset. The industry, responding to the insatiable need for entertainment, has become a gigantic money-driven machine. This isn’t to make this all some kind of ‘fuck the system’ point – I can do that any old time. I’m just saying that maybe it’s all relative who gets success and we shouldn’t base our worths off that.

Maybe social media has played a role in it, giving us all a platform to feel like we have bullhorns to say whatever. Or maybe it’s just part of human nature to want to be recognized for something, in some way. I dunno. The comedian Sara Schaefer had this podcast where she outlined the details of how TV shows get made, with all the various steps, rewrites, meetings, consultants, people it has to go through – and that sometimes, even after all that, the show still doesn’t make it to the air.

I can go on writing forums and social media threads and there are hundreds of comments all talking about their books and projects. About how far along they are and their ideas. All of them miniature universes living in minds and laptops and cell phones. It’s inspiring. I hope all of them get finished to satisfaction. And beyond that there are the mountains and mountains of published works that are not touted as masterpieces or remembered by the ages, but they’re still there, still definitively in the world. And maybe humanity is a vast and wide thing and a great mountain of experiences and the creation and expression of art is its own virtue, and it’s fine just to be happy with whatever you do have, the sheer electric experience of creating and the validation whenever you actually do accomplish something.

But yeah, it’s just Hollywood and NYC that decide everything for us – if you’re not in those cities you’re not making it, apparently. What a small thing that kind of world seems like to me.

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