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shakespeare toon
By Darren Johnson


Recently, I was in a discussion with another writer – someone who only makes his living off of writing –about people’s perceptions when one says simply, “I am a writer.”

(Or, for the sake of this piece, an artist, actor, etc.)

To the average person on the street, when one professes to be a writer or similar, it is met with incredulity. “OK. What do you really do?” may be said, perhaps that bluntly, or perhaps with more diplomacy.

My writer friend seemed bothered by this. If one professes to be a lawyer or a plumber, he surmised, there would not be any cross-examination after. Why assume he also buses tables to pay the rent?

But the skepticism is totally understandable to me.

It’s true that most people who study an art as a college student rarely make a go of it in the real world, and their creative abilities wither and die before age 25 or so if not practiced. And one doesn’t need a fancy degree or certification to hang a shingle up and call oneself an artist or writer.

At one point, most people had a creative dream. They didn’t have the energy to pursue it or let the naysayers bring them down, and their abilities disappeared. You walk through the halls of grade schools and see tremendous art, poems and other creative works posted all over the walls. The potential!

Then it’s gone. By college, how many students are even doodling in their notebooks?

Those in creative majors continue to put out litmags, put on shows and exhibits, but the rest of the students barely care about these works and don’t bother lending support.

In the creative workshops, a few students rise to the top, others wilt with the classroom criticism (which is usually relatively mild compared to the real-world rejection beginning writers and artists face).

Shortly after graduation, those few brave souls who are left attempt to enter a creative field. Many give up too soon and end up selling insurance and the like while spouses and kids make the creative dreams deferred, but as I said above, creativity can just disappear in that time.

Some, like me, who studied writing very intensively, get into fields that are an adaptation of their training. I mostly write in the journalistic style, though preferred fiction back when and had a novel that did not do so well.

Though now I own a couple of small media properties, I do understand people’s skepticism. While I have met many people who only live off the income derived from being creative, they are very few in numbers compared to the overall population. And while we know that a lawyer probably makes about $100,000 and a plumber $50,000, we don’t know if someone who calls himself a writer is making $5000 or $500,000, or anything at all.

But mostly I think the skepticism comes from people who are jealous that they gave up on some vague creative dream many years ago. Few kids hope to someday, if all goes right, sell insurance.

So, if you have a creative dream, start goal-setting. Here is my advice for realizing goals:

  1. Put on blinders and don’t let negative (jealous) people get in your head.
  2. Read books written by people who have succeeded, especially in a field similar to yours.
  3. Test the market; poll those people who will be your customers/constituents/etc. as to what they would like so that you can tailor your plan for success.
  4. Start small – do all the work yourself in years 1 and 2, and then start to delegate some business responsibilities, if possible.
  5. Don’t be afraid of the competition or angering people. Whenever you take a chance, you will anger the status quo. Grow a backbone and take them on.

Most of all, don’t look at anything as a failure. I’ve had little magazines that only lasted a few issues, but I learned a good deal about layout and the business by putting them together. I learned Photoshop and web skills by poking around fun web sites, playing with images and posting my work and determining which ones worked and which ones didn’t by thumbs up and responses from people better than me at the skills. Even if I found myself in a mundane day job, I would keep freelancing, even if just for $50 per article, just to keep my creative muscles fresh.

I’ve found that teaching, too, keeps one in the game. Students like it when the instructor is a practitioner of the art that they are studying.

I know “follow your dreams” is the clichéd sendoff you may get at graduation, but, more specifically, don’t defer your dreams. Even if you are selling insurance to pay the bills, have a sideline as a writer/actor/artist. Work lunchtimes, nights and weekends on your art — quit the video games, the softball leagues, the bars and clubs. Don’t waste any time.

Else, you will become one of those bitter people who rolls their eyes when meeting a younger person who says he or she works in a creative field. Strive, instead, to be an inspiration.