PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

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?

23 thoughts on “PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

  1. Richard Maguire

    A really interesting post, Gar. And judging by that cover for the ENFORCERS you have talent to burn.

    I've read CEMETERY ROAD and loved it. And I've read here of your struggle to get that book published. A no-brainer for any publisher, I'd have thought, because the book is brilliant. I also think it would make for an exciting film.

    One thing that's clear from reading your post, and Stephen's last Friday, is not just how writers struggle with the work, but to make ends meet. A misty-eyed person with big dreams of a writing career should be directed to the honesty found in MURDERATI posts.

    Your question to readers: I've been a fan of certain series and given up on them because they felt stale. Perhaps staleness is a sign that the writer is doing it for profit more than love. And that, too, is understandable; though they lost me as a reader. Or maybe staleness is a sign that the writer has run out of gas. IMHO the Patterson and Ludlum books are churned out for profit. Fine. But I won't read them. And I've read somewhere recently that the SPENSER series is to continue as a franchise. Well, I won't read those books either. Although the quality of his later books wasn't even close to the early Spensers, I believe Mr. Parker always wrote from the heart.

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Beautiful post, Gar. It speaks to me on so many levels. Reading your blogs is like looking in the mirror. I see who I am more clearly. We are very much the same kind of writers. It kills me to think of writing FOR someone or something – a market, a niche. I really want to write for ME, and if anyone else wants to come along, they're welcome to it.
    Your perception of my attitude while writing my current novel is correct, but there's more to it, too. I've recently made a huge decision – I've decided to change the venue of the book. The novel, which takes place almost solely in Amsterdam, will now take place almost solely in Las Vegas. The reason it's been so hard for me to slam-dunk this puppy is that I cannot completely get inside the heads of the Dutch, and the world of a place as foreign to me as Amsterdam. I'm a research hound and it kills me to write about something I don't know inside-out. When I read a book I want to trust the author – the author is the authority on the subject. But I found that I cannot be the authority on this subject without doing the kind of research I did on L.A. for Boulevard or San Francisco for Beat. I simply cannot do that for Amsterdam. And so, the characters were flat and the world of the piece seemed like I was bullshitting it off the top of my head. The life-observations, which to me are the real reasons to write a book (in the guise of a mystery novel) simply didn't ring true. Everything read like it was written by someone on the outside.
    Fortunately, I crafted a pretty solid plot that can be transposed pretty easily to the States. And I know Vegas pretty well. Some might say, too well.
    So, I'm looking forward to this big shake-up. As soon as I finish this screenplay rewrite (a much-needed break from the novel) I'll jump back into it, with an energy I haven't had for a very long time.
    I love your life-observations, Gar. Your work speaks to me because you reveal the way you see the world, and it gets me thinking. If a novel doesn't do that for me, it's not worth reading and it's not worth writing.

  3. Reine

    I think it must be very exciting at first. Then you want to earn a living at it. Think you deserve it.

  4. David Corbett

    I said this before in my comment after Stephen's post, so excuse the repetitious blathering nag.

    I don't truly believe we ever write for just ourselves, except perhaps in our diaries, and even then I wonder. The trick is to pick your imagined reader wisely. I have often compared writing and reading to being in love. To be loved is to be seen. As writers, we want our loved ones (readers) to see us as we are but also as we want to be, "something above us but as we are," as Wallace Stevens says in "The Man with the Blue Guitar." Our writing tries to forge that unique mix of aspiration and honesty. And yet it means little if no one says, "I get it. I see you. I understand, and care." Readers keep us honest and keep us striving to be better, as our lovers, our wives, our children, our friends do.

    The problem with writing strictly for money is that the reader suddenly morphs into a faceless mediocrity we'd never ask out on a second date. Worse, it becomes some vain, money-grubbing scold who is always screeching, "What don't you write something people actually want to read?" (Nora Joyce once posed this question to her illustrious husband, incidentally. And when he died, she said, "I always thought Jim should have stuck to singing." He adored her. But I digress.) William James called success the bitch goddess of America, and who wants to write for a bitch goddess?

    Success is like finding the person you were meant to be with. There is no small element of luck. But if you don't put your whole heart and soul out there, you'll never find her. Roll the dice. And remember: It's a gamble.

    BTW: Lee Child once said: "I don't write my books for the literary experience. I read my friends for the literary experience. I write my books to make a lot of money." I've always wondered how true, how tongue-in-cheek that was. Lee is a very proud man, but a very savvy and cagey one as well. Only the Shadow knows…

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, who writes anything for the literary experience? It's for damn sure nothing like a literary experience when you're going through it. The miracle of writing is that it does eventually turn into an experience, literary or otherwise, for SOMEONE ELSE.

    I can't agree about the "If it hurts you, you must be doing it wrong." If I stopped when it hurt, I'd have never become a dancer OR a writer and I would miss out on a lot of – other good stuff.

    I write what I like to read, even though I'll never have the pure pleasure that just reading is with my own books. But I live vicariously through readers who DO enjoy my books the way I would want to enjoy them, if I hadn't written them.

    (Steve, good call on Vegas. I completely understand – I find the Dutch fascinating but absolutely inscrutable.)

  6. Reine

    Alex,

    "… I live vicariously through readers who DO enjoy my books the way I would want to enjoy them, if I hadn't written them."

    I am so glad you said that, because I believe – I hope – I am enjoying your books the way you would want to enjoy them, had you not written them. They are a lifeline.

  7. Karen, NZ

    Amen to that Reine… I would say that about ZoΓ«'s books for me; and while I haven't read any of yours Alexandra, Auckland library does hold 5 of them so far! Gar, ''Cemetery Road' is under my bed in my TBR pile….

    Murderati makes me think, touches my heart, dumbfounds me, and amuses me every day – many thanks to all of you.

  8. Reine

    Karen, yes. And any author I read is a lifeline, because if there is nothing to hold onto, I don't read it. My mind has other things to do.

    My great sadness is that I am so slow in my ability to read.

  9. lil Gluckstern

    As a reader, I love reading a book that I feel has been worked on seriously, but still has flow. I don't read James Patterson because my brain needs to be jogged by some thing, and I'm afraid I don't know what that is. I think it has something to do with quality, and substance. Unfortunately, sometimes the mood I'm in affects how I enjoy-or don't-a book. And authors can't control that. I'm probably the only one in the known universe who didn't like The Lock Artist. I just didn't connect, and I found the time switches annoying. I do believe that writers can become too facile after many bestsellers, and that's when I stop reading them. This has not been true of the Murderati authors, maybe because you all seem to work hard at what you tap out, and the quality shows. I'm not a snob; I'll read a cozy, but it has to grab me somehow. Sadly, there isn't enough time for me to indulge that, because I feel a loyalty to you who put yourselves out there week after week. Please keep writing , and success with that.

  10. Gar Haywood

    Richard: Thanks for the kind words about CEMETERY ROAD. As for "misty-eyed" persons with big dreams about a writing career, we all start out that way, and a chosen few are never disabused of the notion. The rest of us just keep chipping away, eyes wide open. I'd say "it's a living," except it isn't always. What it is is a kick, a rush, and that's why we love it so.

    Stephen: I understand what you're saying completely, and am certain you did the right thing in changing the setting of your book. Your reasons are sound as hell, and your instincts are pitch-perfect. We usually know when we're not getting something right, but not everybody has the guts to face up to that realization and commit to a do-over. Some just keep trying to shove that square peg into that round hole, pretending not to notice IT DOESN'T FUCKING FIT, and the work suffers for it. Way to do what needed to be done.

    David: You never blather, and you never nag. Except when you do both at the same time, which is really a pain in the ass to hear/read. Anyway…

    You're absolutely right, we NEVER write only for ourselves. We all have a target audience, and we tailor our work for it whether we realize it or not. However, I think that's a natural, subconscious process, not a conscious one. It's when we deliberately choose an alternative audience and try to bend and shape our work to conform to it, that we get in trouble. It can be done, sure, but an obvious sign we've reached too far is the total absence of joy in the process. If nothing about writing a book feels good, odds are it's the wrong book for you to be writing, and sometimes that's because YOU didn't really choose to write it — the market you're hoping to exploit did.

    Alex: Writing without pain? Impossible, and I would never suggest such a thing. I'm simply saying the process shouldn't hurt all the time, day in and day out. No matter how painful the material, the PROCESS of writing a book —if it's really meant to be YOUR book — should energize you on some level.

    Reine: My great sadness is that I am so slow in my ability to WRITE.

  11. Karen, NZ

    Dear Gar,

    I really appreciate that quote from Lee Child – 'The Affair' is finally on its way for me to pick up the library from the est. 140 copies in the system. Requests got up to over 1900, and it's still in the 1600's even though they're being filled. Moneymaking indeed…even though we library patrons aren't buying the book as such. I'm not itching to read it, will pass on to my mother first. That said, I will read it in the hope that the formula has changed slightly, and that I'll get the 'ahhh yes, satisfying read' when I reach the last page.

    I'm all for an escapist read when I feel like it, and while some in the Reacher series have been a 'can't put down' in general they don't touch a deeper part of me that my favourite books and authors do. I like to learn something from, and through characters, and even though I now know that mobiles take 7 seconds to ring, it's more meaningful for me to resonate with a protagonist when they understand something about themselves or grow through an experience. I think that takes skill – and it's why I'm an avid reader, rather than a writer…. and I'm incredibly grateful that there are so many enriching books to read.

  12. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Interesting post, Gar – and congrats on making the Spinetingler top books of 2011 list list with ASSUME NOTHING.

    I think sometimes we write because the prospect of NOT writing is infinitely worse. Once you've opened that door in your mind where the ideas form, there's just no closing it again.

    I write primarily to entertain myself, but next I'm faced with a choice of ideas. I like the feel and the shape of them all, so I confess the one that strikes me as having the widest appeal will probably be what makes it to the front of the queue.

    Have you ever been tempted to do another graphic novel, by the way?

    Oh – and thanks for the kind words, Karen πŸ™‚

  13. Lisa Alber

    My sadness is that in life I seem to be a square peg trying to fit into society's round holes. This is part of the reason why I love writing fiction. Unfortunately, the last few years the square peg feeling is haunting my writing life too. Trying to find an agent, get published–it reinforces the feeling. A few weeks back a friend noted that I seemed to have lost my belief in my writing. Indeed.

    I would like readers, and I would like to earn some money. But I don't know what the answer is because as soon as I try to write more transparently genre-esque, I, too, start to detest the process.

    My way of handling the ying-yang pull hasn't worked thus far…

  14. Pari Noskin

    Gar,
    The way I dealt with it was to decide to write what I wanted and to get a day job. Really. That has been my solution . . . at least for now while I'm financially responsible for my children etc.

    not glamorous, but satisfying in other ways.

  15. Pari Noskin

    Gar,
    Congrats!

    Richard,
    I accidentally deleted your email in a huge pile of spam . . . I was going to respond and never did.

  16. KDJames

    What a great discussion. Gar, it's interesting that you and your friend entered that collaboration with such different goals. It seems like it *should* have worked, with each of you looking out for a different side of the business/creative equation. I'm glad you're still friends.

    There are several writers (no names) whose work I've stopped reading because it feels flat or uninspired or just repetitious. There was a time when I blamed them, and perhaps rightly so. But the more I listen to writers who are frustrated with being told by agents and/or editors that they need to keep churning out the same old, same old because it sells, I wonder. Is it really the writer who is more concerned with profit? Sometimes, yes, it is. But I've talked to more than one successful writer who has expressed a desire to write something different but feels stuck in that rut of reader/publisher expectation.

    One thing not often discussed about the "revolution" of self-publishing is that it opens up the prospect of seeing some truly unique and ground-breaking work from established writers. We're entering a period that I think will become known for some astounding and prolific creative work. It's exciting.

  17. Gar Haywood

    Zoe: "I think sometimes we write because the prospect of NOT writing is infinitely worse." That says it all for me. Thanks.

    Karen: The point I was trying to make with this post was not that I think it's a sin to write commercial fiction and make money at it, but that I think it's a sin to write ANYTHING if there's no joy in it for you. Whatever one might want to say about Lee Child, you certainly can't say what he writes doesn't draw upon his passion for writing. His Reacher novels may not be high art, but they are damn fun to read, and I don't think that fun quotient would be there if Lee weren't enjoying himself.

    Pari: A day job is the perfect solution to this problem. Write what moves you while something else entirely pays the bills. What a concept.

  18. KDJames

    I should clarify: When I say we'll see some ground-breaking work from *established* writers, I think we'll also see some amazing s-p work from previously unknown writers. Just that it won't seem like such a creative departure without a body of prior published work as comparison. For example, I'm thinking of JD Rhoades who is (I think) writing some kind of epic fantasy space odyssey thing and it sounds like he's really stoked about it. I can't wait to read it.

  19. KDJames

    Oh hell. That makes it sound like I think JD is previously unknown. NOT what I meant. I think he'll be one of those well-known writers whose new work we'll read and think, "Wow, this is awesome. But where the fuck did this come from and why wasn't he writing this all along?"

    Okay, I'm going to stop now before I make it worse.

    And I call myself a writer. :grumble grumble:

  20. Karen, NZ

    Hi Gar,
    You put it so much better than I could…why I like reading these posts more than commenting on them !

    Apologies if my post sounded like a criticism of Lee or his work – not so, really – it's what people like after all, I appreciated the quote because he was SO clear about why he is writing.
    I'm not saying that his books aren't well crafted… I shall read it because it is his book, and because he does spin a damn good yarn…I just want Reacher to do something different, and unlike with 'Die Easy' I can wait to read it. πŸ™‚

    From what I've read about Lee Child he's a very clever man, and I applaud how he turned around the (un)employment situation he found himself in. Wonderful turnabout (revenge) I think. It's also amazing to me just how many copies of his latest *gobsmacked look at the computer this morning* that the library has… I've tried writers 'who write like…' and barely get past the first chapter.

    …I'm wondering whether there's a tipping point (akin to the 'Hundredth monkey' perhaps) for some authors – that people read/buy them because so many people do… and that when they are on the 16th or 20th of a series if the quality of writing/plot matters less to people, and how writers cope with the 'pressure' of telling a story with a long-standing character.

    ps. ZoΓ«, every time I go to the library I grin (the lift is a Schindlers….)

  21. Jochem Vandersteen

    The whole reason I write in english is that in my native Netherlands there's no market for PI fiction. Which is funny, reading Stephen Jay's not being able to write about Amsterdam. I live in Holland and write about LA!
    I tried to write for the market, but that stuff just wasn't of the same quality. If you like what you do, quality is good.
    The energy in that work is just something that will alway come through.
    It's a shame so many cool PI series had to end because the publisher didn't sell enough copies, forcing the writers to more commercial standalones. I can only hope the ebook-revolution will have some of these writers return to their series.
    How cool is that you, Gar, did superheroes! That's another genre I love so much I can't help writing in it, even if it won't pay a thing.
    That's why I created the blog http://godling.blogspot.com/.
    It's interesting to see so many crimewriters interested in that genre, by the way. Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski, Greg Rucka, etc.

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