In the years immediately following high school, there was nothing I wanted to do more than write comic books. My best friend Larry Houston was a terrific artist and, along with Don Manuel, another artist friend of ours, we were absolutely certain it was our destiny to become rich and famous comic book publishers, ala Stan Lee at Marvel.
We managed to publish and sell two issues of our own fanzine, THE ENFORCERS, under the Graphics2000 banner, before both our money and youthful innocence ran out. Here’s what the second issue of our mag looked like:
Anyone who’s ever tried to mix friendship with business could have probably predicted how things would work out for Graphics2000. Larry and I found 2000 things to bicker about, mostly dealing with creative control, and one night over coffee I just pulled the plug, telling him I preferred remaining friends to our becoming spiteful enemies. I don’t remember a lot about that parting-of-the-ways conversation, but I do remember this:
We were sitting in Larry’s parked car outside my apartment building, reviewing our reasons for wanting to write and draw comic books in the first place. All along, I’d thought his reasons were the same as mine — because he and I were artists placed on this earth to create. But it seemed I was mistaken. Larry didn’t give a rat’s ass for “art,” he was in this thing for the money. His ability to draw was an asset, not a gift, and only a fool would waste a viable asset doing something strictly for art’s sake.
Wow. You could have blown me down with a feather.
I was precisely the kind of fool Larry was talking about, and I pretty much remain that same fool today. I suppose it’s no coincidence that Larry has gone on to build a successful and lucrative career in animation, leveraging his artistic talents to great economic effect, while I have. . . well, written a dozen critically-acclaimed crime novels that have barely managed to keep my kitchen cupboards stocked with corn flakes.
Needless to say, I never thought my high-minded choice of art over commerce would prove so absolute. I always thought I’d find a way to become both rich and creatively unfettered. Such a parlay is not entirely unprecedented. But writing only what I’ve wanted to write, with an indifference to what publishers will buy that almost borders on contempt, has not served me well by any fiscal form of measurement, and I wouldn’t recommend it to any newbie author as a game plan for success.
Still, I’ve tried my hand at writing with one eye on the marketplace and the other on the page a number of times, and nothing good has ever come of it. I don’t often hate the process of writing, but I’m always at my unhappiest when I’m writing something intended to fill a niche, rather than satisfy an itch. The responsible adults among you with bills to pay and children to feed are right now thinking, “So fucking what if he’s unhappy? Better unhappy than homeless!” But that’s only a reasonable response if you assume I’m capable of doing my most saleable work regardless of my enthusiasm — or lack of same — for the material.
Ever hear the old expression “If it hurts, you must be doing it wrong”? Well, that’s how I feel about writing. Writing’s difficult and, yes, even painful on occasion — but it’s not supposed to be misery. The message I heard most clearly in Stephen’s most recent post here regarding the mixed emotions he’s had while writing his latest book is, “I DON’T WANT TO BE WRITING THIS BOOK. I’M NOT ENJOYING THE PROCESS.” And that, I think, is what we all feel when we put the cart of commerce too far before the horse of our own personal aesthetic. (Which, by the way, I’m not suggesting Stephen has. It may be that what he’s been experiencing is merely the stress that comes with writing the best damn thing one’s ever written. I wouldn’t put it past him.)
I’ll state for the record again that I’m not advocating writing with zero attention paid to profit. That’s no way to keep baby in new shoes, nor your agent answering the phone. I’m simply arguing that you can’t write as well as you’re capable if what you’re writing has too much to do with external demands and not enough with internal ones. That way lies madness, my friends, and I’ve heard enough “successful” authors, having made that devil’s bargain, wail about their conflicted souls to know it.
One final end note: Larry Houston and I are still great friends, more than thirty years after I broke up our Graphics2000 partnership.
Guess we artistes can’t be wrong about everything.
Questions for the Class: Writers, how do you deal with the constant yin-yang pull of commerce versus art? Readers, can you tell when an author is writing more for profit than for love? What are the signs?