Monday, October 7, 2013

A Crazy Little Thing Called Competition

Do you want to get better at your craft? Do you want your art and name to be recognized and do you want to be paid for your work? Sounds like the beginning of a self-help book. The problem is that there are only a few slots available and far too many people who want them will get them: a publisher may only be able to publish ten books that year; a collector may only want to buy one sculpture. How do you increase your chances? I can't say I've found the answer—if there were a cure, we would all know it by now. But I do know a couple of things to try: a) want to get better, I mean really better, at what you do and b) know the market and understand your competition. However crazy or jarring it sounds, if you want fame or fortune (on any scale), you have to compete. You are competing.

I want to stress first that if what you are doing is a hobby, then you can just enjoy it, keep doing what you love, get better on your own schedule, give yourself personal deadlines if you want them: no pressure. I've loved to dance since I was a child, taken lessons most of my life, but I knew I never wanted to work at becoming a professional dancer, being the best, becoming known, or make money from dancing. It was nice that practicing helped me get better, but I didn't want to work hard beyond classtime and I didn't want anyone to yell at me to improve (and I witnessed some teachers who did this). I just enjoyed going to class and dancing.

Writing and art have always been different. I've wanted to be a professional. I want my art to sell. I want to have my stories published by someone else. I'm willing to work hard and try to figure out how. There may be a little subjective luck involved—we are dealing with a publisher's or collector's taste, for one thing—but these fields are competitive, whether we like it or not. We may read in the news that someone's art was seen on Etsy and now it is manufactured and sold around the world, but that's rare: that's why it's news.

Grad school or serious classes or reading instructional books are a great first step. You can learn how to read, see carefully, analyze, learn what to look for, and learn about how different artists/writers approached their craft and what subjects they chose. Reading biographies of artists and writers helps, too. How did they do it? But until you start reading or seeing your competition here and now you may not completely understand what's at stake. When you put yourself in the position of curator, editor, or buyer, then it becomes clearer how the works are competing for your attention, and through this, you may be able to understand how your work needs to be strong enough to get the attention of others. You may not know if your work is fresh until you see a hundred others that are similar.

When you familiarize yourself with contemporary work, you will find that there are stories everybody writes, collages that everyone makes. It is both comforting and scary to see this. Comforting because you know you are part of a human collective with similar needs, scary because you think you are being original, and maybe you are being original for you but not new to the rest of the world. As an undergrad I was told that you can't make art in a vacuum, and now I can see why. Only when you see two or more stories or artworks side-by-side, in competition for your attention, can you really begin to understand what you need to do. Why does one work and not the other? How do they both work, but differently?

Occasionally, stories are written in a fresh and moving manner. This should be the goal. I've found that published work and artwork in galleries is all over the place, qualitywise and subjectwise. This is more a reflection of a certain kind of taste, something the editor or curator is looking for in a work. For my own magazine, I decided that I wanted to publish work that is both written well (i.e. every word is carefully chosen, each sentence has a nice sound) and that has a subject that either has a plot or a point. Describing something interesting is a great first step. Shaping the material into a story with a point is what's needed. At the moment, I am watching a squirrel in the oak tree hanging upside down at the edge of a swaying branch and foraging. It is funny to watch and it may be the beginning of a story, but it is not a story yet. To propel this into a story, I might start asking: what if we had to stand on our heads to get our meals; how we might twist ourselves into knots getting something we want; or I might think about a person who is just holding on, just getting by.

As an editor, now that I'm reading what writers are trying to get published at the same time I'm trying to get my own work published, I am re-evaluating my older works. I'm guilty of some of the same kinds of introspective stories with no interactions, for example. So I'm searching for the ones that stand out, that I think are different from the majority of stories I'm reading. I'm also working hard to redo my earlier works. They may be interesting enough to read, but many don't have a clear plot or point yet. Back to work.

You have to decide that you want to get better, that you want to be chosen, that you want to be the best, and you have to do the research: evaluate why you think one piece is stronger than another—how does one grab the viewer's attention? Will you make money or get known by doing this? Will starting a gallery or magazine help? The odds are against it, but it may help you to see both the gems and the flaws in your own work and it may inspire you. You have to analyze and understand your competition. But despite whether or not you are chosen, by being aware of what is being made around you, you can still sustain your creative self and grow like heck.

No comments: