I remember one day over twenty years ago when I was bellyaching to a friend of mine about how nobody was buying my work. He looked me dead in the eye.
“What’s your job?” he asked.
“To sell my work.”
“No,” he practically barked. “Your job,” he spoke slowly, “is to build a body of work.”
I blinked. Wow, I thought. Somehow that took all the pressure off of me. I don’t have to worry about what people think of the work. I don’t have to worry if it’s commercial enough, whatever that means, and I don’t have to tie up my self-worth with whether or not it sells.
My friend just happened to be a guy who published three novels in quick succession to enormous acclaim, and then became stuck. He read the first twenty pages of his new novel to his wife, and she told him she didn’t like it. Instead of writing through the resistance, he retreated to his successful law practice, and never wrote again. He was fighting for me. He didn’t want me to make the same mistake.
A couple of years ago my film, Interior Night, did not get accepted into the Toronto Film Festival. I’m from Toronto. Even though I knew it was a bit of a long shot for a tiny-budget film with a relatively unknown cast to get accepted, you would think they would want a hometown boy to represent. And you would be wrong.
I have no idea why they didn’t accept the film. But I do know they get thousands of submissions (I heard the number 2,500 feature film submissions) for a little over a hundred spots—many of which are already taken by the indie studio films which have a standing relationship with the festival manager. (In other words, they’re not going to turn down premiering Brad Pitt’s next film). But that doesn’t stop my brain from wanting to obsess on what it all means. Why didn’t they choose us? Should I have tightened that scene in the third act? Etc. Insanity.
Which is why I give myself five minutes to indulge in the grief. Seriously. My wife says to me, “You never let anything get you down.” I used to. But it’s not worth it. Any more than five minutes and I go down a rabbit hole and lose a perfectly good writing day.
A week later, we got this note from the Boston Film Festival: “Every one of us on the screening committee for the Boston Film Festival were astounded by the driven energy of your film’s cast and the gripping movement between narratives to form a complex, provocative whole. An official letter of acceptance with further detail will follow shortly. Congratulations on crafting a fantastic, visionary work.”
Here’s the thing: Good news is as dangerous as bad news.
The creative life is a rollercoaster. I gave myself five minutes to celebrate. I called my wife. She screamed, “Boston! My friends and family can come to the screening!” We chatted about how cool it was. And then, I got back to work.
I don’t do it perfectly, but going down the rabbit-hole is a luxury I can no longer afford. In your twenties you can go the café and bitch about your unacknowledged genius, but as we get older, the clocks starts to tick.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole.
We all have busy lives. We’re trying to make ends meet, spend time with friends and family, and get to bed at a decent hour. But our creative life keeps calling to us. We have to feed our soul. We want meaning, but Facebook and Instagram are calling for your attention, and they offer great short-term gratification.
Turn off your internet for a while.
Life is short. You have something to say. You have something to tell us, that can only be told by you. Don’t deny us. Don’t deny yourself.
As my prolific author friend, Eric, says. “I hate writing. But I love having written.”
Don’t worry about being published. Let go of the result. Don’t worry about whether or not people will like it. We have no control over these things. Let it go, and let the thrill of creation be your reward.
Start today. Build a body of work.