Yes, I Know How Hard It Is
When I said I was majoring in Creative Writing, it began.
“Do you know how hard it is to make a living as a writer?”
Then, when I said I was applying to graduate school programs, they said, “Do you know how hard it is to get into an MFA program?”
When I said I was trying to publish short stories, they said, “Do you know how hard it is to get published?”
When I said that I was working on a novel, they said, “Do you know how hard it is to write a novel?”
When I was pregnant and starting to have kids, they said, “Do you know how hard it is to write and have kids?”
This was all part of Phase I, though I didn’t yet know this beast even had phases.
When I had two kids and said I was publishing a novel—okay, here they were outright baffled. We moved into what I’ve come to call Phase II – which is: You seem to be saying you’ve experienced legitimate success and I’m confused.
“A novel that you’re publishing yourself?” they said.
“No, it’s coming out with Simon and Schuster.”
“But how did that happen?”
“I have a literary agent.”
This appeased them. Okay, someone else made this happen for me.
“Is it a children’s book?” they asked.
“No, it’s an adult literary novel.”
Then they circled back to Phase I and said, “Do you know how hard it is to get good reviews and have a bestseller these days?”
Let me be clear. These were accountants, teachers, lawyers, doctors, stay-at-home parents, chemists… People who did hard things to make a career and who knew absolutely nothing about publishing and yet, still felt free to—maybe even compelled to—explain things to me.
And, of course, when I mentioned that I was pitching ideas in LA for film and TV, they said, “Do you know how hard it is to get something picked up in LA?”
This incredibly consistent cultural effort to keep my hopes down—and therefore keep me in my place—continued on for a few decades. I published over twenty books, had four kids—my career kept going.
Fast-forward, I was recently at a small dinner party with friends and mentioned I had a new book coming out, a collection of mostly high-concept, literary short stories, intimately told, written with an eye primarily for film and television.
The man hosting the party seemed very interested. I explained what I enjoy—making a film or the beginning of a television show appear in someone’s mind as they read—and also explained my business model, that the stories go out to producers.
“And have you had any luck selling them?”
“Yes, we’ve sold many of them.” At this point, my spouse, Dave, and I were thinking about setting up a production company —“do you know how hard it is?”—which we now have done.
“And who have you sold these stories to?” the man asked.
I understood we’d moved into Phase II, and I needed to help him make sense of this.
The conversation went on as he ate, saying very little. His spouse asked some questions, and I tried to explain how the stories worked as intellectual property…. And then, as he was trying to make sense of it all in his head, something clicked for him.
And he said this new line–one I’d never heard before.
Friends, get this.
He said, “So, I guess it must be easy to sell things in Hollywood these days because there are so many streamers.”
This was Phase III. I didn’t know there was a Phase III. I felt like I witnessed innovation. To rationalize my success—as a woman because it always seemed gendered to me—he had to completely recalibrate his entire view of the entertainment industry, a complete overhaul.
It had to be the only rational reason why I could succeed at this level.
It couldn’t be that I was actually good enough to succeed at this level.
It had to be that success was suddenly so easy that even I could manage it—a half-witted woman, a dipshit, a mommy with four kids, me.
Let’s take a beat here.
This won’t just be familiar to women artists; it might be familiar to almost all artists, on some level. But it might be especially familiar to artists who come from marginalized communities—those who, by asserting that they have a voice at all, are upending our hierarchal structures that want to elevate and maintain voices that are white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, financially advantaged… those who look like the artists from our various canons.
Our culture is dependent on artists to do their emotional processing—we help people process fear, grief, joy, longing, love, hate… for better and for worse. Artists make people feel things. We make people laugh, cry, clench their fists. We make their hearts race …
But, in general, our culture believes it’s their responsibility to stop individuals from trying to become artists.
I’ve found that the ones who try to hardest to stop others are the ones who had artistic aspirations and have already stopped themselves.
If you’re an artist and find yourself in Phase I with someone you don’t know well, ask a few questions. Trust me, you’ll usually find someone who wanted to be a musician or a painter or an actor. They’re vehement.
These people are American culture’s collective critic, which I’ll refer to as the “outer critic” so it’s not confused with our own “inner critics,” which are often working against artists, too.
Look, artists know how hard it is. We’re not idiots. When starving is the most common adjective to describe your aspirations, you get it. We all have our own inner critics who are often telling us exactly how hard something is going to be and questioning our ability to do it.
I have some suggestions for artists on how to handle both the outer critic and the inner critic.
1. Know the signs. The tell is “do you know how hard it is…” but there are other subtle ways in which these folks operate. They usually work under the guise of concern, but make no mistake—they want you to stop. So, for self-preservation, notice them in the wild, tag them, and then move on. If you can see them for who they are and what they’re actually trying to do, this will help create space between them and your art. I wrote them and your art on purpose. This is you protecting not only yourself as an artist, but your art.
Our culture—all cultures—needs art. Without it, we stunt emotional processing and thinking.
Remember: these people are everywhere.
Sadly, they’re not just people who don’t know anything about your field. Sometimes the outer critic is inside the house, meaning they might be a fellow artist or even a teacher and mentor, who, because they know better and have suffered this themselves, should not be perpetuating the cycle.
2. Frame it in terms of love. Yes, yes, yes, these folks are usually, consciously or not, trying to keep the power structures in place. But, deep down, I believe that they’re also trying to spare you the pain and suffering of defeat and rejection.This is exactly what your inner critic is trying to do.
Your inner critic can be noisy and very negative. It tells artists that they can’t do it and should stop trying. Why? Maybe out of loving kindness. They don’t want to see us suffer.
If you ignore the inner critic or rage against it (and therefore rage against yourself), then it just gets louder.
So, instead, thank the inner critic and, if you’ve got it in you, thank the outer critic.
You can say—or more importantly reframe this on your own without them around—something like, “I get that you’re trying to protect me by telling me how hard it’s going to be. Thank you for that. But I’m fine. I’ve got this. I know what I’m up against and I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to worry about me.”
This helps the inner critic feel heard and they can usually calm down. The outer critic is a wild card. If you say something like this to them, I have no idea how an individual will react. I tend to do this with them not around. I imagine those comments coming from their own losses and being projected onto me, and I imagine saying something like this to them, feeling it.
It’s been helpful for me.
3. Know when to engage. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to respond, sometimes it’s not. Full confession: In the moment, if I respond, I don’t say the above. I tend toward laughing, joking, and sarcasm. These aren’t great tools, but sometimes they disarm and, I don’t know, maybe they make the outer critic pump the brakes before they do it to the next person. If they’re a professor, and someone on their level or higher up the chain can tell them to knock it off, that’s good. I’ll say, as someone who teaches, it can be a tightrope because you do need to impress upon writers that they have to drill years of practice into their craft and sometimes that’s a hard thing to sell. But there are ways to do it while believing in the student. Because, honestly, professors sometimes think they know who has that power within them—the power to keep drilling years into craft—but they don’t.
4. Use it as fuel. I can’t always get to framing it in terms of love.
Do you want to know what my brain does with Do you know how hard it is…?
It viciously translates that into being told to shut up and sit down and let the real writers write—namely the manly men of literature.
But here’s the thing about me. This first floods me with anger and adrenaline, but that flips into fuel. Is it a positive reason to work harder at my craft? No. But it exists. And fuel is precious. And when negative stuff comes at me and I can use it for the benefit of me as an artist and my art in general, I will.
5. Protect your relationship with your art. As a writer, protecting my relationship with the page has become my most important job. It takes attention and focus, a good defense and a good offense. It requires insulation and love, just like any lifelong relationship. The page insulates me, takes care of me, allows me to process and run wild and make… And, in return, I have to take care of it.
Don’t let others interfere. Show them the way out and then plunge into the work at hand.
Do you know what’s hard? Living a life and trying to do it well. No matter what you do—or stop yourself from doing—life comes at you. That’s the part they don’t say.
And why only do easy things?
So, for whatever this is worth, let me counter some of this thinking:
What if doing what you love could be framed as challenging but worth it? And what if we could acknowledge that doing something you love and are challenged by is much easier than doing something that’s thought of as easier, but is boring and not challenging?
Give me an easy thing to do? I wouldn’t last.
Give me this hard work that I love, and I’m in it for the long haul.