On Not Winning Prizes (as my birthday draws near).
On not winning prizes as my next birthday draws near and telling the truth about making art.
You know how comparison is terrible and the enemy of all that’s good and kind about art? But somehow it’s tricky not to fall into the pit of thinking you’ve been spinning your wheels while someone else finished their book and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It’s been that kind of month where prizes were awarded. I spent a lot of time during my childhood and teens winning awards. I even kept it up through my early twenties. I didn’t give much thought to the other 1199 people in my high school or college who didn’t win the particular award that I won. Many of the awards were merit based – i.e. based on grades – and I had the grades. That was how it worked. I never thought about how much winning these awards would lead me down a treacherous mental path where the awards would become more scarce and the pool of competitors would become immense and I would start to feel irrelevant or like a failure.
While walking up on the high school stage in my floral dress and Mary Jane shoes, I didn’t foresee a time when I might never win another award ever and what that might mean for my working life.
If we take the Pulitzer Prize for fiction or music and look at the odds of winning that prize versus the number of writers or musicians out there in the world, our brains might explode. But suffice to say that the odds are terrible. Google can’t even give us numbers for the people who work in the arts because there are so many tiers, organizations, tiers of organizations, etc. How many people are out there starting theaters, closing theaters, heading out on the road to play shows, squirreled away in a cupboard with their computers and dreaming up songs or stories? We just don’t know. But there are a lot and all but the tiniest percent of them do the work without the prospect of winning anything much less finding an agent, a label, or a grant.
So, why when the odds are SO impossible do I still think I should be out there winning something? Because I need to say with complete honesty that it can be devastatingly hard (not famine and war hard, but privileged first world creative person hard) to find motivation when the chance of your work even reaching more than a handful of people is SO infinitesimally small. So small, like atom small, in the grand scheme of things. Normally I am riding high on the latest box of secondhand yarn I’ve found for ridiculously little money at a flea market or I’m delightedly grappling with a chorus for a song that’s SO close to being finished. I get into my stuff. Hours can fly by when I’m knitting my first two-color cuff for a glove. While I’m writing this to you, I feel like I’m talking with you and I won’t notice the time flying.
BUT, sometimes, my friends, I just get down. I think why did I write that novel ten (TEN!) years ago and put it in a drawer? It was about Appalachia. It was strong and true. It was feisty and unafraid. But I was afraid. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next place. No one wants unsolicited manuscripts. It says so on their websites. Would I have to find a literary agent? Go to book fairs? Was it even possible to find a literary agent or is that a lottery too? Yes, it is a lottery too. I have a friend who spent ten years of his life getting his first book published. Now he’s on his third published book and things are going well. But he spent ten years of his life courting agents, changing agents, re-writing, editing, working with peer groups of writers, editing again, changing the ending, etc. Back when I wrote my Appalachian novel I thought, I’m already trying my luck at being a touring songwriter. Do I want to try my luck at getting a novel published too? Do I have the energy to make two gambles and promote myself to two creative industries at once? No, I didn’t.
And then this month, the first book about Appalachia to win the Pulitzer Prize in seventy years was all over social media. My home county is mentioned in the book. Folks like my kin, like me, populate this book. I had a book, too. And I did nothing with it.
This is me being mean to me. I know I’m being ungenerous to myself because I made musical work – work of which I am proud – when I had my Appalachian novel in the drawer. But this kind of negative thinking is what happens when you used to win a lot and your mind gets in a certain groove about making things and the destiny of those things. In other words, I sometimes wonder, does my work “count” to anyone other than me?
At the start of the pandemic, I had fine readers who kindly gave their time to reading and commenting on my novel. And then I promptly put it in a drawer again and wrote nearly a hundred songs and released three albums. At the start of this year, I went through all of the comments of my readers and made a master document of my novel. I began adding sections and re-writing sections and then I just had to put it away.
I put it away not because I wasn’t enjoying it or because I didn’t think it was good reading. I just couldn’t cope with not knowing what to do with it after I edited and re-wrote it. In contrast, when I was touring all of the time and making albums, they went together like peanut butter and jelly. Tour, make a new record, sing new songs on tour, sell new record on tour. Make another record. Repeat.
Knit gloves: wear gloves. Sew quilt: sleep under quilt. Make skirt: wear skirt.
Finish novel. And?
I was talking with the Englishman about this and that’s when I realized how important a destination of some kind is to me. Not necessarily an award, but a future for what I’ve made, and preferably a future for that thing which involves being with other people around that thing. Make pie. Share pie.
The enjoyment of the thing, the presenting of the thing, the looking forward to the enjoyment of presenting the thing becomes part of the joy of making the thing.
There’s a great BBC documentary from the 1960s about visual art where the filmmakers spend time with the abstract painter John Hoyland in his studio. He’s in the process of making a huge abstract painting and he talks with them about art-making. At one point he says, “The thing is; nobody wants it.” And he doesn’t mean that in a sad and complaining way. It’s just a fact. Everyone want breakfast or coffee or tea or a comfortable pair of shoes or a house. But no one particularly wants his paintings, not like they want a more reliable car. And at the end of the day, most art is like that. No one is looking for it, waiting for it. The maker just makes it because it’s in them to do so, but the future of the made thing is unclear.
I imagine that David Hockney’s agent wonders when Hockney is going to hurry up and do another iPad painting of Yorkshire because they will both make quite a lot of money when he does. A lot of people look forward to the next Bruce Springsteen record and will buy it sooner than immediately. When the economy is booming, Ford will open another factory and build more cars because they know they can sell them. But for the thousands of us not-so-famous performers, writers, and artists, only a handful of people are wondering when we’re going to release our next single, make a new batch of bespoke doll clothes, or pen our next chapbook of poetry.
If artists only made things when they were sure someone wanted them or they knew they were going to make a boatload of money from them, then I think the world would be sad, bankrupt, and the lesser for it. I see that, but there is something motivating about an audience of some kind (or at least about wearing the glove you make).
Certainly, there are a lot of artists out there whose work just flows from them like a tap and they don’t care what its destiny is or who is listening. They will literally paint all day, forget to eat, and stuff their paintings in an attic. And there are folks out there who put out another album and go on tour and have the luxury of knowing they can make mountains of money because their fans are definitely waiting for that next album and that next concert. But there are also folks like me who have made their fans one at a time and who aren’t famous or un-famous, but who look to something a bit tricky to pin down for motivation. Do I need to know the audience is there? But I know that even when I don’t have an audience waiting, I wake up thinking about a new song, a glove design, and a knitted teddy bear. My first thought is about the thing I’m making and the next things I’m going to make. Perhaps, it’s just nice to have some kind of affirmation from time to time. I can hear my Dad in my memory saying, “Good work, kid. Keep going.”
In the case of my novel, before I can get to grips mentally with finishing the editing, do I really need the mailing address of someone at a publishing house who has heard about my novel from someone else? Or do I finish editing the book and just start reading a chapter at a time on YouTube and see what happens? How does it all work? I honestly don’t know.
The thing that I do know is that by telling you that I don’t know, I feel better. Most people don’t know the answer to “success” in the arts. What is “success” anyway? And who keeps that gate? The truth is that there is no one answer. We’re just on this funny art trip and the bus might break down or turn into a spaceship. But as the fortune cookie says, “The secret to getting underway is getting started.”
If I bump into someone at a textile fair who happens to be an editor or agent or publisher, my book isn’t ready to hand to them right now because I haven’t thoroughly edited it. So, perhaps the best idea is to imagine them and to imagine that moment which is just as likely to happen as winning the Pulitzer Prize, but DOES happen sometimes, after all. And I want to be ready. I want to be ready with my book, my music, and my hand knitted gloves. I want to be ready for it all and I have always wanted to be ready for it all. I do get tired and downhearted sometimes. And then I wake up ready to start making things again because that’s just who I am deep down, a maker of things.
So, here goes to taking my novel back out of the drawer, doing the work, and visualizing that publisher who is looking for a book and who happens to sit next to me at the next Yorkshire Dales glove-knitting study day.
And here’s to my artist friends who, like me, wake up with the intrinsic need to make something each day and who create without knowing exactly where it’s all going – without a grant behind them, or a show at the Guggenheim ahead of them. Here’s to picking up a pen, paintbrush, or knitting pin and joining along in the maker’s parade to an inner tune.
In the meantime, here’s a prize for you. This is the “Thank you for reading prize.” And thank you for encouraging me when I was out on the road, for cooking a nice dinner, for offering me a place to stay, for saying you liked that song, and for complimenting my red shoes. And for the many many more nice and good things you do to make life go a bit gentler for me and for yourself and for the other people around you.
Time to fettle that chorus on my new song.
P.S. It’s my birthday next week! Here I am in the present in my new reading glasses.
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