It’s been almost a year since publishing my book Real Artists Don’t Starve. During that time, I learned some great lessons in writing, art, and business that seemed good to share with you.
Heads up: the paperback version of the book comes out later this month, and you can pre-order it here.
After talking with thousands of readers who loved the book and several who didn’t, I’ve learned three incredible lessons:
- Your work is not for everyone
- Commercial success and creative success are not the same
- We need more artists
Not only did I want to share my thoughts with you in this blog post, but I also recorded a special episode of The Portfolio Life to expand on these valuable lessons.
Listen to the podcast
Lesson 1: Your work is not for everyone
One of the biggest struggles I had with Real Artists Don’t Starve was the title. A friend recommended the title, and as soon as I heard it, the idea of “real artists don’t starve” both scared and excited me.
In general, I try to lean into the stuff that scares me, because that’s where life is. Of course, I want to make wise decisions, but I never want to avoid a risky endeavor or a bold, creative move just because someone might not like it.
So, when the book came out, and people said, “You’re saying I’m not a real artist,” that bothered me. No matter how much I protested and defended and explained, some people got mad.
One guy, who is some sort of Christian blogger, called me a “douche bag” and then said that writers shouldn’t insult their readers. Which I thought was a little ironic, since he was a reader insulting a writer, but I digress.
Anyway, some people didn’t like the idea. They didn’t have to read past the cover to know that the book wasn’t for them. But here’s the thing: for those who did pick up Real Artists Don’t Starve, many of them loved it.
In fact, I get an email or social media message (usually Instagram) about once a day from someone sharing how the book has forever changed their creative work. And almost always the parts that one group hated, other people loved.
This scenario raises an interesting question:
Who is your work for?
Seth Godin likes to ask this question often, and it’s a question I’ve been considering more and more.
Who is my work for?
Probably not everyone.
If I know from the get-go that my work won’t resonate with everyone, I don’t have to play it safe. I’m free to go all in on a specific message for a particular group of people.
I can take risks and say bold things like “real artists don’t starve” and know that while it isn’t for everyone, it will be for someone.
Don’t play it safe. Your work isn’t for everyone, but it is for someone.
Lesson 2: Commercial success and creative success are not the same
David Bowie once said that he would prefer to do work that was artistically important than work that is merely striving to succeed. I think that’s a fantastic take on an age-old question:
Can you make money making art?
The somewhat-obvious answer is yes, but the practice of how this gets done is complicated. Almost every creator I know, including the case studies in the book, understands the constant dance between art and commerce that professionals face.
In my case, Real Artists Don’t Starve was, in my mind, the most important book I had written. It is by far the best-written work I’ve created to date and has the most poignant message.
And yet, it didn’t sell as well as previous books. Don’t get me wrong. It did well, hitting the Wall Street Journal bestsellers list twice and selling tens of thousands of copies in the first year, but the process was more slow burn than a huge explosion.
To be honest, part of me was disappointed with those results. Then, I would read the incredible stories of people who read the book and applied it.
Like the painter who reached out via Facebook to share how they had applied the principles and, as a result, was now painting the royal family in their country (Romania, I think it was).
Or the songwriter who’s making half a million dollars a year and told me, “Every word you wrote in that book was true.”
Or the actor I chatted with on Instagram who told me the book emboldened her to pursue her dream.
And so many more.
Look. I like success. I sometimes even crave it in unhealthy ways.
On the Enneagram, I am a 3, which is also called the Performer. My whole life, I’ve loved accomplishing things—making them and sharing them with the world and getting a little applause.
But sometimes, success isn’t merely topping the charts or putting cash in the bank. In fact, real success rarely looks like that, if ever.
Success is about doing the thing you set out to do, and if I’m honest, all I ever wanted to do as a writer was know that my words mattered to someone else.
Success is doing the thing you set out to do.
So when someone reads a book of mine—or listens to a podcast or takes a course or attends an event or whatever—and their life is changed, truly changed, I am on Cloud Nine.
And so, I embrace these stories of life change. In many ways, the book has reached people in a way I never imagined. And for that, I’m grateful.
The lesson here is reasonably clear: creative success and commercial success rarely happen at once. The latter can follow the former, but we must be careful not to confuse the two. They are not the same.
Lesson 3: We need more artists
One truth I am convinced of after seeing this message go out into the world is this:
We need more artists. We need more people willing to share their hearts with the world through spilling their proverbial guts, pouring themselves into their work. We need more bold souls willing to do that.
We need more artists. We need more bold souls.
I never wrote Real Artists Don’t Starve to shame anyone. It was a challenge. A challenge to you, or maybe your child or student or next-door neighbor. But it was a challenge to take your work more seriously.
To not believe the myth that you had to suffer and starve for your art. To understand you could indeed do important work and get paid for it. To realize you have to learn the dance between commerce and art if you want to stay in this game and keep creating the rest of your life.
And to my surprise, many took the challenge.
In this next season, I hope many more will.
Take up the challenge today and pre-order the paperback version of Real Artists Don’t Starve. When you do, you can pick up incredible extra bonuses:
- Artist edition of the RADS workbook
- Writer edition of the RADS workbook
- 7-week book study Facebook group
- Exclusive discount on Real Artists Don’t Starve Course ($80 off)