Dealing with ups and downs (and 2 unpleasant stories)

J K Rowling will most certainly go down in history, but when she does, I’m positive that it wont just be down to the success of Harry Potter. Ms Rowling has become a byword for the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of ‘being an author’. All those years of poverty spent scribbling away in a cafe, cups of coffee becoming mugs of butterbeer have, arguably, inspired more would-be authors than the goings on within Hogwarts. For she embodies that glorious success at the end of so much struggle – royalty cheques replacing rejection letters.

Accepting that I won’t achieve Rowlinghood in my career took the best part of 17 years of rejections. Now, some people will probably think that I’m being a little smug right now, especially considering that I’ve managed to make my way into the ranks of the Undiscovered Voices finalists – after all isn’t it easier to talk about failure from the perspective of someone who’s achieved some measure of success? Or perhaps this is my own insecurities speaking? What can’t be denied is that one illustration does not make an illustrator, and frankly, UV18 may be as good as it gets – I’ve certainly progressed no further beyond the positive feedback stage.

I guess the moral of this is that there are no guarantees.

Now, this post was written in response to a discussion on the SCWBI Facebook group in regards to how writers and illustrators deal with the ups and downs of their lives as artists. It’s been timely for me because this month marks the 20 year anniversary of the end of my first term at university (and I won’t specifically mention the college or course here for reasons that will become clear later), and around 17 years since I first started trying to make my break into the creative world.

17 years is a long time (unless you’ve just become a parent, when it seems to rocket past faster than a UV winner who’s spied the table with the free drinks and canapés), and I’ll admit that there have been long stretches of that time where I did give up with the subs to publishers, or just wasted my time chasing down creative roles which I was unsuited to. Recently I’ve started wondering exactly what it is that keeps artists plugging away through these wilderness years (as Francis Hardinge said  at the Undiscovered Voices party – this really is abnormal behaviour)?

Is it arrogance? Possibly – there’s an egotistical little bugger inside me that won’t admit defeat. There’s also part of me that would kick myself if I felt that I’d let myself down. I’d also feel guilty if I felt that I ‘d let other people down who’d expressed how much faith they had that I’d be able to make a success of things (thank you, Mum and Dad – sorry I’m not a millionaire artist who can provide for you in your retirement!).

What has kept me sane, though, is that I acknowledged very early on just how impossibly difficult it is to find ‘success’ and that I should never get hung up on it being the be all and end all of everything. It was two rather unpleasant stories this helped me achieve this perspective, and that perspective is fairly simple.

Don’t take the dream of ‘making it’ too seriously.

My first story is set during either my first or second year at uni (I forget which). I was visiting my parents and was glancing through the local paper one morning. A story caught my eye about a graduate from an old art college that I’d attended for my foundation year. A promising student – not someone I’d known, or one whose name I can now remember – she’d graduated from a fine art course a year previously and had spent a year trying (and failing) to get work as a picture book artist.

Her family and friends told the paper that a year of rejections and making ends meet in a dead-end job was the reason that she took her own life.

I’ve no idea if she had underlying issues with depression, or had contemplated suicide before, but this was an eye opener for me as to just how important chasing the dream of being published is to people (myself included), and how it comes to deeply define their sense of their own worth and value. I’ve no idea as to whether she had a support network, or what kind of ‘dream’ she’d been sold while studying – a university degree is a far cry from the real world and most students only discover this after they graduate and it’s too late.

Two years after my own graduation I’d done some stage design, some storyboarding work that was cut short because the writer was blatantly racist (he asked me to stop drawing black people in 1970s New York). I cooked pub lunches alongside a qualified architect and later on spent early mornings making sandwiches for Greggs (interestingly, Greggs was the only place I worked where none of my co-workers were admitting to be writing a book or trying to become an artist). I eventually embarked on a quest to find a job that would allow me a measure of creativity (so that at least I wouldn’t have that nagging feeling that I was wasting talent), and that I was actually doing work that was of real benefit to people. I gave teaching a try, and was pretty crap at the whole classroom discipline thing, but I eventually found my way into librarianship, which I love despite the shadow of cutbacks that makes every April an exercise in anxiety attacks.

This leads into my second story worthy of the subplot in a YA novel and it concerns an old lecturer of mine. Now I’m really bad at guessing people’s ages, and when you’re 20, anyone over 35 is an old fart, and so now at 40 myself, I’m at the very least approaching the age of the person in question, if not already there. It’s only in the last 10 years – when the reality of my continually receiving rejection letters really started to bite – that I’ve started to understand him. He was (he admitted himself in a roundabout way) a failed artist – not for want of trying, nor of talent, though his work – like all fine artists – was not to everyone’s taste. I don’t believe that he’d gotten used to the idea that ‘success’ had eluded him.

He had a good job – I may have been mediocre at classroom and behaviour management as a secondary school teacher, but I’d loved 6th form teaching and had been pretty good at it. It didn’t help that he spent his days surrounded by smug undergraduates so self-assured in their own destinies, and we really could be abominable, self-righteous little shits. I’m not sure whether it was this,  that he didn’t enjoy the path his career had taken – that he had never gotten over his failure as a painter, and spent his days surrounded by the next generation of artists who were basically a bunch of wankers –  or a combination of too many factors. Whatever the reason, he’d taken to drinking far too much. By my final year I’d been given a replacement tutor for my dissertation. The last time I saw him at the college he was clearly either drunk or suffering from the previous day’s overindulgence.  A few years later at a reunion I heard that he’d died – too young – from complications arising from his habit.

Over my next years of study, I became aware of how there really was nothing in place to prepare students for dealing with the lows of the arts industries – the sheer random nature of it all and the intense competition. It’s ironically appropriate that these days so many breakthroughs are via competitions – effectively lotteries, possibly unless you’re a graduate of an elite institution and have already impressed the correct people. I promised myself then that I’d never take myself and my ambition so seriously that failing to succeed in that ambition would drive me down such a dark path. I’d certainly never take any success or achievements for granted, and I’d never consider that I had some innate ‘right’ to success.

And that drive to success seems to be a road without end – as I’m writing this, the storm around the Carnegie and Greenaway awards is clearly not going to blow away any time soon. And while I’m not going to wade into the wider discussion about diversity in this post, what shocked me a little was how the discussion by a number of published authors turned away from the issue of diversity in the awards, to a general series of complaints about how they were coming to terms with never being shortlisted for the award. Clearly it’s no longer enough just to be published – for some, it’s all just another rat race. Or an endless quest for adoration and recognition.