15 YEARS OF SILENT WORK
Thousands of sheets of paper overflowed on our kitchen table.
Stacks of pages were held together with black clips, indicating where one project ended and another began.
This mess represented my life for the last fifteen years, and I didn’t know what to make of it. With my wife and kids out of town for the weekend, I woke up early on a Saturday and printed every significant project that I had written since I was 18.
The stories crept out of the printer one page at a time. That included the miserable novel I wrote as a college freshman about a kid who wakes up in a fantasy world called Pernicas. It also included scripts that have been produced, stories that have been published, and heart-projects I’ve rewritten half a dozen times only to leave on a hard drive. At least 75% of the work had never been seen by anyone but my wife and a few trusted writer friends.
What’s the point of sitting on all of these projects?
Wouldn’t it have been better to make this creative journey public rather than private?
My motivation for printing all of these stories, and spending all of the money it takes to print thousands of pages, was to create a record for my family in case I die unexpectedly. Really, that’s why. I wanted my kids to see the kinds of stories their Dad wrote when he was young and passionate and didn’t care what anybody thought about him. I wanted them to see the wildness of my mind and the fire in my heart. I wanted to surprise them with how I thought about the world and about God. Maybe the stories would amuse them, and maybe they would learn something about me they never expected.
By mid-afternoon I printed the final novel and laid it on the table.
15 years of writing stories. 15 years of excitedly telling my wife that this was the novel. This was the script. This was my voice from now on. This could be a break. This meeting was important . . .
What was I to make of this? Was I supposed to be proud?
I wasn’t. I was embarrassed.
At age 18, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. Mostly, I wanted to be someone who could make things up and be paid for it. That dream came true, just not in the way I imagined. I've made a good career out of writing and communication. But there's no book on the bestseller list.
All of them lead into one another. Sprinkled between these moments are hundreds of videos, scrapped ideas, and projects that have brought me joy and community. But for the most part, this creative journey has been a private one.
That has been my greatest regret.
Another significant roadblock for me has been the variety of content. My work didn’t tell a cohesive story. Someone reading through these projects at random would assume they were written by different people with varying morals and worldviews. Every time I considered releasing a project to the world, I questioned how it would impact the other things I had written. For instance, I made a feature film about the Book of Genesis. I also wrote a book of poetry about deeply flawed and often R-rated characters living in modern Texas. I created a promotional Mother’s Day video where a kid pees on a houseplant. These projects don’t belong together, even though they all came from me.
So that’s how I came to be here, looking at a table overflowing with papers.
Much has changed over fifteen years, but here are a few of the things I’ve learned so far:
1.) Interesting is on the other side of failure.
I’ve screened a film I wrote and directed to an empty theater. I wrote a summary of the entire Bible where every chapter was reduced to a single sentence, and attempted to have a respected seminary give it credibility (they declined). I’ve had multiple literary agents at respected firms, and zero sales through the traditional publishing route. I wrote a feature script for free at the request of a director who never used it. I submitted novels, stories, scripts to agents and producers and never heard a response. I spent money protecting copyrights and buying domains and hiring artists for projects that never left my hard drive.
This is a brutal game. Embarrassing mistakes and missteps are the price of admission.
However, these failures always lead to new places.
Because of this wayward journey I have been on, work has taken me to amazing locations like Big Bend and the Italian coastline. I’ve had the chance to sit down and interview hundreds of people with incredible stories – individuals who lost family in natural disasters, cancer survivors, domestic and sexual abuse survivors, soldiers, addicts, cultural pioneers. Too many stories to recall. Amazing individuals whose stories have taught me about myself. Then, I have the responsibility and joy of crafting those stories and bringing them to a wider audience. Each failure has been a rung on the ladder. I’m grateful to have failed so often.
2.) Success must be defined on your own terms.
If only I could get paid to write something . . .
If only writing could be my full-time job . . .
If only my book could be in Barnes and Noble . . .
If only I could make my film . . .
If only my film could get distribution . . .
If only my film could generate enough revenue to give me royalties . . .
I can tell you from personal experience that none of these markers of success are a magic pill that brings fulfilment. My definition of success has been slowly shifting since having kids. Rather than thinking in terms of one project that takes years to come to fruition and then hits big, I’ve started thinking of my work as a whole. Success is the commitment to giving voice to your soul over a lifetime.
That may manifest itself in various formats and outlets. But when I move on from this world into the mysteries of eternity, I want to leave behind a collection of stories, thoughts, and ideas that color the world. Maybe it will mean something to my family and my community. The joy of actually creating is always going to outweigh the joy of receiving a return.
3.) If you can tell a story, you can make a living.
This is the message I share with college students when I speak to classes. Tech and culture will continue to create new demands for workers, but if you can engage an audience with language, imagery, and story, there will be a place for you in the current and future economy. In fact, the future always belongs to storytellers.
4.) There is no good and sustainable business model for creatives.
From what I can tell, no one has figured out a sustainable business model for creatives. The model that shows the most promise is the patron/artist relationship.
Meaning, fans and patrons donate money so an artist can work, and then that work is often made available to them for free. Based on the trajectory of the economy and technology, I don’t see a legitimate alternative. If you do, let me know. Seriously, contact me. Here are the models I see that currently exist. Smart creatives are using all of them simultaneously.
1. Sell your work – Write a book and sell it to readers on Amazon. Make a movie and sell tickets to people who want to see it. Record an album and sell the album. (The problem: We have been trending towards free for almost two decades now.)
2. Sell ads – Create a podcast, radio show, book, article that has corporate sponsors. The advertisers pay you for clicks, conversions, and eyeballs.
3. Sell a product related to the work – A cookbook author may direct fans to buy a set of pots and pans. If you loved the movie, perhaps you’d like a poster. Enjoyed the concert? Buy a t-shirt.
4. Sell extra access - Fans who pay extra will see behind the curtain with special videos about your process. Maybe they have the chance to talk with you on the phone, or submit questions you answer live on the air. If you’re a big star, they pay for backstage passes or a meet and greet. If you join the fan club, you receive a signed copy of the book and a password for a private Facebook group. The more they pay, the closer the fan can get to the artist.
5. Sell a live event
5.) The brand doesn’t have to be tight.
Make great work and share it. The brand will catch up to you.
After directing Genesis, I had a guy write me a long note on Facebook about how important the movie had been to him. I thought to myself, what if this guy read my other work that is more playful or vicious or...? Would that break the image he has of what I stand for? The answer is maybe. But that’s okay.
6.) At some point, you have to stand behind the work.
Without excuses. Without apologies.
This is when your life as an artist begins.