Considering a Career in the Creative Arts

Welcome, everybody, to 2015! May your new year brim with joy and creativity. Recently, a long-time reader, and friend, emailed this note. I’ll include my response below. Feel free to pass it on to young adults in your life considering a career in the creative arts!

“Having three children in their twenties leads to some interesting conversations. My husband and I are extremely conventional in our careers. Our children are naturally a reaction to that. So my daughter who wants to be the illustrator in NYC has major anxieties at the thought of leaping into a creative career where she will have to hustle her own work, and I am sure the fear of failure or fear of not producing interfere as well. So my question to you is what motivated you to start your own publishing company and be your own boss? Looking back, did you have any time of fear or doubt before making your choice or did you just dive in? Any thoughts or advice? She desperately wants to do it and even knows her next steps.”

In a nutshell, yes, I had loads of doubts! After producing my first 5 books for established publishers in NY, I surmised that royalties and occasional speaking fees alone would not result in the sort of income needed to support myself and my family. That is why I started publishing my own material. I knew it would be a ton of work, but to me that was preferable to waiting for NY editorial boards to decide how, if, or when to produce my next book.

Many new writers / illustrators these days self-publish from the get go. I do not recommend that. But after I had a bit of a track record as an author, I felt that learning to publish made sense. For one thing, I knew that I enjoyed speaking and performing, not a bad way to support sales over time. For another, I didn’t have a problem trying to network and find new sales outlets for my books. (Back when I was being published by what I call the Big Boys in NY, it was, in fact, terrifically frustrating to initiate contact with catalog companies, etc. get them interested in my books, then watch the “special sales” people at the publishing house drop the ball and fail to return the new prospects’ phone calls.) I just got to the point where given all the leg work I was putting in anyway, it made more $ense to control my own wares.

Naturally, back in the 1990’s, I had no idea about how to run a small business. Joining and learning from the Independent Book Publishers Association proved indispensable, especially early on. To me, the crux of any young artist’s decision to embark on such a career (regardless of by whom she gets published) is a) desire, and b) life circumstance. Since your daughter is young and, presumably, not responsible for providing for others at this point, her circumstance may be right for such a journey. With sufficient desire, I believe, one can learn to manage the misgivings, prepare oneself, inform oneself and train oneself to make strides.

Will those strides ultimately lead to “success”? That’s a personal judgment call that will depend on many things: satisfaction and a sense of material security vary enormously from person to person. Artists seem to have a higher threshold for uncertainty than do people who choose conventional careers. (I can think of 4 practicing artists in my extended family, and that is definitely the case with all of us!)

Down the road your daughter may decide to supplement her “art income” with something more practical–like teaching, or marrying a non-artist : ) But I personally wouldn’t try to persuade an artist who REALLY wants to be an artist to opt for “security” from the outset. The hardest battle, as they say, is the battle never fought. Put another way, if, for example, she gets into teaching AFTER spreading her wings as an artist, I’m guessing she would be a really good teacher–and a happier one.

Another thought from my own experience: artists especially respond well to encouragement and thrive amid the moral support of people who (genuinely) believe in their talents.

In my next post on getting into the children’s book field, I’ll share my list of favorite resources for new children’s writers and illustrators. To all those artistic spirits out there with a flair for creating works for young people, keep dreaming. Take a deep breath and enjoy what the journey brings you.