2023 / 03 - “MOST ARTISTS WANT THIS.”
“Let’s be real, most artists want to be rich and famous.” Heard this one?
Maybe if I get a dollar for every time I hear this, or an assumption that artists or creators are in it for the money and fame, I might actually be rich.
However, this month’s topic is not about how to do so, but rather, thinking about what you actually want as a creator.
Not what others think you should have, not what others have, not what ‘society’ dictates you need, without external influence.
Why must you be an artist / writer / creator?
It can sound harsh at first, but as I continued with my creative practice, I realised that this was not only a relevant question, but an important constant we (consciously or unconsciously) ask ourselves. Whether we want to or not, there will be ups and downs as we go about our creative practice. Given how creative practice is often a non-linear marathon, it’s essential to remember why you do what you do.
Therefore, when the above question is asked, it’s basically asking - What are your goals?
There are many reasons why we become writers, artists, crafters, the works. All reasons are valid - whether it’s for fun, to build career, as an outlet - but the most important thing in the pursuit of a sustainable creative practice? Awareness.
Self-Awareness is not only knowing about your true intentions behind your goals, it’s also about knowing what steps (even if it’s just the next) are needed to attain your goals, knowing how to bridge the gaps to your goals, and knowing the line you will not cross. At the same time, self-awareness is also relevant to when you decide that you want to change your goals. And yes, changing your goals is also valid. Here’s how:
For example, let’s say Artist A became a pin artist for fun and to earn some level of pocket money on Etsy. They love the medium of enamel pins and designing cute characters and items to wear to show their personality. However, as the market grows and administration gets in the way, Artist A realises that their returns are decreasing despite working hard to produce pin design after pin design according to their whims and fancies. Going through their “low” days, they decide that they needed to get feedback and sit down to take stock of not only their resources but also why they continue to do what they do.
This evaluation then can result in a few outcomes -
Artist A decides to only create things their current audience likes in hopes of holding on to as much audience as possible, chasing trend and trying to keep their prices as low as possible.
Artist A realises that there is a particular group of people who like their artwork for a reason and that reason aligns with their values, goals, and theming in their works. Therefore, Artist A shifts their goals a little for greater motivation.
Artist A decides that the market is getting too overwhelming and decides to switch to another medium that will give them more joy and/or align with their goals.
All of which are valid. And all of which can be accepted as long as the artist is clear with their intentions and will take responsibility for them. That said…
What about ‘goals’ that are made because you have ‘no choice’? My goal is to be a full-time writer and have my fictional universe published internationally. That’s not up to me right? I’ve been rejected so many times, I have “no choice” but to do something else.
To paraphrase Stephen McCranie - Yes. As artists, we rely on channels, platforms, and external organisations to have our works out and help keep our careers sustainable. Many of our goals do depend on others. How then, can we set goals that will not throw us into this loop of rejection, resentment, resignation, or just releasing the practice altogether?
Enter the concept of Validation and Control.
External vs. Internal Validation
We all know what external and internal validation are from a definition standpoint. However, what does it look like? Let’s have a look.
Which one is better? If you were to ask me - Neither is better nor worse than the other. It’s really up to you on the amount of value you want to place on either form of validation.
However, if you were to ask me which one you have more control or say over, I would have a different answer. There is no correct answer, just the answer that you may or may not have to put effort into.
Remember what was mentioned earlier? That paraphrase from Stephen McCranie about how a lot of the creative process may not depend on us? That’s the difference between setting goals that depend on external validation and setting goals with internal validation.
Is that goal you set something you have causal control over?
Does this mean that when you put A + B together, and only A + B together, it will, without a doubt, cause C? In applicable / example terms, is the goal of being traditionally published by the end of 2023 something that only you get to decide?
If it’s not, what can we do? Do we then just give up? What’s the point in setting goals and dreams then?
NO. NEVER GIVE UP ON THE FIRST TRY. (Unless you truly want to and blame no one in doing so)
Note: This is mostly from a fiction publishing POV. However, I hope the points being raised here will help with similar thought processes and practices.
You might have heard this many times - publishing careers are non-linear and are a marathon.
Does the publishing industry have a long way to go to become better? Absolutely. Does it mean it’s reasonable to demand that they make an exception for you and change overnight because you’re ‘the next big thing’? I’m not so sure.
Our current landscape still prioritises sales, celebrity authors, certain communities and motivations, and a plethora of intentions that we may or may not be aware of. Sometimes, publishers and agents can outright reject your work not because it’s not good or fitting, but because it’s really wrong place, wrong time, too similar to what’s currently in trend. As we noted in a previous issue, publishing a book also means the manuscript goes through many hands.
So what can we do as creators? How will “positive thinking” get us out of this?
The truth is - you don’t get out of “this”. However, you have the power to manage your expectations but stay true to your values and alignment through practice. This is because ultimately, you will still be creating day-in, day-out. Life will go on. Time will still pass.
So if you were to try evaluating your goals, it can look something like this:
Initial Goal: I want to publish my manuscript, Story A, through an agent and traditional publisher and have it be in popular bookstores by the end of 2023.
There is NOTHING wrong with this goal. It’s specific (what), measurable (how, where), time-bound (when), relevant (why), and somewhat achievable. Why somewhat? Therein lies the control factor -
Unless you already signed with a traditional publisher, you would still have to revise your manuscript and pitch it to literary agents, considering how many trad publishers need agent representation. That not only hinges your goal on something not within your control, but on top of that…
Publishing moves at a glacial pace (Thanks Bianca Marais from The Shit They Don’t Tell You About Writing!). Therefore, even if your journey to a publisher goes incredibly smoothly and you got an agent by the first quarter of the year, the average duration from manuscript to printers lies between 18 months to three (3) years.
After which, the process between publisher and distributor - how books go from publisher to bookstores - will take some time. And this is without the mention of marketing efforts.
All of this culminates to one common thing - control. This is something we need to be aware of. When we make goals that pin all our hopes and desires on external validation only (“I will only be happy after people applaud me.”), it may not be the most sustainable way to maintain your creative practice.
Does this mean that we “can’t have goals”? On the contrary. Here is how the awareness of your ‘lack of control’ of the system can help with your goal-setting and mindset in practice.
Control is often a tricky thing. And we can look at it different ways: Either we can go - “Since I cannot control my audience / the publisher’s decision / the system, then there’s no point in doing anything or anything well” - or go - “Okay, since we cannot control everything, let’s do things that I want to do since I will be doing it anyway.” The difference between the two? One is fuelled by external validation, and the other, internal validation.
While having goals that only hinge on external validation is your choice, you will need to be aware that there will always be a factor that will be out of your control (e.g. audience opinions and actions, bad reviews, launch presence etc…)
Can we ‘solve’ that? It depends. You cannot make your audience say only nice things about your work, or force a reviewer to say only what you want to see, or force your audience to turn up at every launch event and buy your book repeatedly. However, after all that, and if you still want to create, there will be mindset shifts and actions you can make to help you manage ‘low’ days / days without external praise, so to speak.
Validation: Positive feedback or encouragement about your actions / outcomes (can be external - reviews, likes, opportunities - or internal - confidence, alignment, practice habits).
Control: The ability to produce a desired result, as directly caused by your actions (e.g. you have a manuscript because you took the time and process to write regularly).
Intention: The reasoning behind your goals (e.g. wanting to be published because you want to entertain your audience with fiction that was fun for you to create and consume).
What can I do as an individual practitioner?
How are we going to do this in a way where you can make practical applications to your own practices? Overall, the points above can sound overwhelming. Therefore, here are a few steps to consider -
Instead of only focussing on external rewards, start small by looking at the processes you would like to maintain. Regardless of how well an event went for you or how many likes you get on your social media, you only have work to put out there because you put in the work.
You can add one or two process goals on top of your current goals first (if all your goals are based on external validation). An example of which can be something like this - “I would like to write a piece that I would be proud to use to represent my best and most authentic self by practising my craft (e.g. write / draw/ craft) for 1 hour a day.” - This switches the responsibility (and control) back to yourself.
Combining your internal and external validation goals and desires can balance out your view and expectations of the environment that you are working in.
Ultimately, shifting your goals to something you can control does not negate your ambitions. Instead, it gives you actionable steps (based on your choice and capabilities) that will give you a process to trust / fall back on as you work. This is so that you do not have to completely depend on the opinions of others to maintain your motivation or fortitude.
I hope you will be able to glean something helpful from my reflections moving forward as well!
And that’s it from me this round! If you like what you’re seeing, have any questions about publishing that you would like me to look at, or just want to say hi, do drop me a comment or send me a message. I would definitely like to hear from you.
Keep the pages turning!