I’ve already mused that enthusiasm isn’t enough to make it in the arts. However, a lack of skill does not necessarily seem to be the hindrance I thought it would be.
I think artists become artists because they feel they have compelling ideas that they want to share with people. I’m sure a ton of great art has been lost because those that produced it didn’t understand that it was a compelling idea to others. To be an artist obviously is to be somewhat egotistical. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, this is a really great idea.” There has to be a follow up, which means the artist says, “Hey, this is a really great idea and I think everyone else will think it’s a great idea too.” The artist has to believe there is some value in their idea (and the artist may be wrong). Therefore, the artist is enthusiastic about that idea. While enthusiasm isn’t enough to make an artist’s idea a success (however that is defined), the artist must be enthusiastic about their idea(s) for it to have the best chance at success.
As a writer, the ideas I want to share are stories. Now, if I had a spectacularly interesting real life I could spin into an autobiography that would rocket to the top of the bestseller list, I would absolutely sell that story for a quick buck (my soul goes for cheap). But my life is not that interesting. I have never assaulted Tom Cruise nor gotten mixed up with a drug cartel. I spent a month working in an explosives laboratory and have nearly been run over by an airplane three times, but that is not as exciting as it sounds. My real-life anecdotes are like that distant uncle that shows up only to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and keeps going on about taking down Charlie in Nam; and when you’re old enough to understand this could be an awesome story and finally listen to your uncle it turns out that “Nam” is some tiny town in Wyoming or Minnesota or maybe it was South Dakota but anyway Charlie was just his fishing buddy and by taking him down your uncle meant “catching a bigger fish.” In short, the story had a good lead, but ultimately was lame. So since my own life is not exactly a rich source of compelling stories to tell, I make up stories.
I have read a lot, and from a young age. I’ve been forced to write through my public education. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I thought what I wrote might be compelling enough to share with other people. Honestly, the public education system in the U.S. can be a great tool for squashing enthusiasm for any art or science. I had some great teachers, but I also had some pretty lousy ones. The most humiliating writing experience was the result of a really good, but sorely misguided, teacher. My junior high English class was given an assignment to write about what made us who we were. I made the mistake of writing a rather honest assessment of myself. My teacher really liked it and then she did the worst (but well-meaning) thing imaginable – she read my essay out loud to the class. My soul (such as it was in junior high) was laid bare for 30 of my peers to mock mercilessly. Even now as I write this, I cringe in horror at the memory. At the time, I wanted the Earth to swallow me up whole (which it stubbornly refused to do) and I swore if I lived through that humiliation I would be more tempered in what I wrote.
The fall-out was less than I expected. I was mocked, briefly, until my peers got bored and moved on with their lives. I really can’t blame my teacher; she really liked my honesty and wanted to share that with the class. But still, there are few greater embarrassments at that age. I did hold back on my writing for anything I had to share with strangers after that. I would still show my work to my parents or, rarely, their friends and occasionally my friends. My parents encouraged me to keep writing but neither encouraged me to try to find commercial success (my literature teacher parent was in fact quite jaded on that subject anyway). So I wrote mostly for myself, which was enough for quite some time.
I have no idea what changed. I think college was definitely a turning point in my willingness to share my writing with others. I had a larger group of friends and more common interests. With encouragement, I started to feel more confident that maybe I really did have an interesting story to tell and maybe I should try to get published. I didn’t leap into a novel. I tried to publish short stories first, with a bit of success, but not a lot (although I got a nice mug out of the deal). I met other writers, as mentioned before, and shared my experiences with them. I don’t know why they thought they had stories to share either; I wish I had asked. Now, I didn’t trust that everything my friends said was great really was. I have a dear friend who still tells me everything I write is really awesome, and I’m grateful to him, but I’m not quite sure if he really thinks so or just wants me to do well. At some point, I just decided I was going to try to make it as a writer.
I do think any writing (or any art) done because the writer wants to create the work is going to be better than something produced to meet a deadline (I also say this being a freelance writer who submits work on a deadline to a monthly e-zine). Again, without skill, that enthusiasm for the work may still result is something that’s not very good, but it at least it might be compelling and interesting. Writer G was really trying to be a professional author. He had some stories he worked on for himself and others he was working on solely for the purpose of getting published. I once asked Writer G why he tried to write stuff specifically to get published. His answer was that once he got published he’d be in a better position to really write what he wanted. This is probably true. I countered that if he wasn’t really enthusiastic about the publishing-focused work that it might not be as good as his other works and therefore not stand as good a chance at being published. I don’t recall he had a good counter to that argument at the time. At this point I could counter myself and say writing something marketable is probably more important to commercial success than writing something you really want to write (my counter self is very cynical).
To try not to wallow in cynicism, I remind myself that two of the biggest commercial successes of the past few years (the “Twilight” series and the “Harry Potter” series) had some glaring execution errors, but the authors believed in the compelling nature of their stories enough to try to share them with the world. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your point of view, I suppose. Even the most famous of writers probably doubted their own work (such as the venerable Tolkien, and it was his good friend C. S. Lewis who encouraged him to publish).
To sum up, since this is getting long and rambling – I write stories I like, and I will publish the stories I think other people will like. If they like them, then that’s great! If I can make a living off of writing stories (one day…), then that’s even better! I really do think enthusiasm is key to a good story (or any work of art) even if lamentably the skill required for proper execution is not key to being a commercial success.