A number of years ago, I was invited to speak to a college writing class on the topic of freelancing. I brought along a stack of rejection slips from my novel-writing years and said, "If you decide to go into freelancing, your lives will be punctuated the way my talk today will be punctuated."
Then I proceeded to talk to them about the business of freelancing, but, every five minutes or so, I'd stop and read them another, "While we admire your writing skills, we don't feel this manuscript ..." and, as the lecture went on, I could see them sinking lower and lower in their chairs as the reality began to sink in.
Today, I got to see more or less the same effect at the Maine Comics Arts Festival in Portland.
The above panel is (from left) Corey Pandolph (Barkeater Lake, Toby: Robot Satan, The Elderberries), Norm Feuti (Retail, Gill) and Lincoln Peirce (Big Nate), under the leadership, at far right, of Mike Lynch, who sells cartoons to a variety of magazines. Their topic was "Surviving as a Print Cartoonist," which is right up there with "How To Be A Successful Pontiac Dealer."
It was an interesting group, because Corey is pursuing a mix of print and web, Lincoln has a couple of ventures going in writing for animation and licensing Big Nate to an on-line kids' gaming site, and Norm has just begun dipping a toe into the web world with "Gill," so, while each of them has a syndicated feature, they had a good deal more to talk about than simply "How to get syndicated."
And that's a good thing, because the number of new strips coming out this year is just about none. Universal is launching a strip called "Sticks" that has been in development for several years, and I think there's another somewhere, maybe out of the Washington Post Writers Group, but I forget what it is. That's down from about a dozen a year in the past, which still isn't very good odds but at least it was something.
They weren't trying to discourage people from giving it a try, and Mike, who works with editors regularly as a freelancer, did a nice job of directing the conversation into helpful areas and adding his own advice, but there just isn't that much positive vibe to share, and it was a somewhat grim presentation.
What saved it was this: Towards the end, they got away from nuts-and-bolts and began talking more about how, discouraging as the prospects are, it's still something they want to do. Hard as he scrambles to make a living, Corey said, "I still can't believe I get paid to do this," and both Norm and Lincoln delivered variations on that same theme.
My own take on art-as-a-career is that it's hard to make a living in the creative arts even in the best of times, and that anybody who can be discouraged probably should be, sooner rather than later. If you can walk away from it, go ahead. But then don't talk about what you could have done or should have done or are going to do some day. Scratch the itch so you can put it away and move on.
If somebody in the audience today got discouraged and saved himself some heartache and wasted years, more power to him. On the other hand, the years I tried to be a novelist helped me perfect my craft and led me into some interesting and even mildly profitable areas, though not specifically in novel writing.
And I think their passion and drive was clear, along with the message that, if you want to do this, then you should. Just don't count on making money doing it.
That's a pretty good message for young artists of any medium.
(PS -- don't miss Mike Lynch's more complete report on the gathering.)