There’s No Ladder for Creative Success

Loknath Das

From a very early age, I had a Path. I was going to be an Artist. And who was an artist? She was fiercely talented, ambitious, and uncompromising. She bucked convention. Her emotions were deep and profound, and the world clamored for her to share them. Back then, making it as a professional violist seemed not only within reach but the inevitable outcome of all my hard work and big ambition.

For a while, I coasted along on natural ability, high on the gold-star stickers my music teacher bestowed each time I mastered a new song. It wasn’t until my first summer at Interlochen, an intense arts camp for kids, that I understood how much talent was out there in the world. Suddenly I was surrounded by truly phenomenal musicians, kids who practiced hours a day. I was no longer content merely to be good. The camp stoked in my 11-year-old self an ambition to achieve musical greatness.

The camp was (and still is) boot camp for creative kids. It’s where my friends and I learned just how committed we were to our callings. We musicians spent our days in auditions, orchestra rehearsals, sectionals, and private lessons, and if you were Serious, you sweltered several hours a day in one of the muggy practice huts scattered around the 1,200-acre pinewoods-covered campus. There were six auditoriums and around 500 performances throughout the summer.

Interlochen is where I really cultivated discipline. It is where I learned that an artist is always and forever practicing, that practice is the thread connecting one day to the next. I found this repetition liberating, as opposed to confining. Every morning I woke up knowing exactly what I needed to do.

In college, though, everything changed. At Interlochen, it had mostly been older kids who were better than me. In college, I was the weakest of the three freshman viola performance majors in my program. I spent four hours a day practicing, but I just couldn’t get better fast enough. In fact, the more anxious I was to improve, the worse I seemed to get.

I knew music school was supposed to weed people out. I’d just assumed it would be other weeds. And certainly not that I’d be the first to get yanked from the garden.

I quit viola before the end of my freshman year. Halfway through sophomore year, I transferred to another university in a different city. I declared myself all washed up at the tender age of 19, directionless, purposeless, ordinary — now just one of the scores of young adults trying to figure out what to do when they grow up.

Still feeling lost after graduation, I decided to get more lost by backpacking and waitressing my way around the world for a few years. I wanted to put an ocean between me and the question on every adult’s lips: “So what’s next?”

I suppose it makes sense that when I quit viola, writing moved in to fill the creative hole it left. While I was traveling, I unconsciously transferred my musician’s discipline to writing, carving out time each day to describe raucous Irish bars, Australian ghost towns abandoned after drought and dust storms, and death-defying bus rides through Bolivian mountains, as well as all the ordinary details of daily life suddenly re-enchanted because I was experiencing them far from home. By the time I returned to the States, I was determined to pour my energies into professionalizing this other creative passion.

By my early thirties, I’d published a book and carved out a freelance career. I’d taught writing classes. I’d won a prize here, had an essay anthologized there. Yet I was constantly attuned to all the ways I fell short of my own lofty expectations.

I’d published a first book, but my second book had been rejected. I wasn’t an esteemed creative writing professor but instead had held various low-paying adjunct and summer positions. The prize was a small one. The anthology wasn’t the best one. I had a circle of wonderful writer and editor friends, but I certainly hadn’t been invited over to Gay Talese’s for a bottle of Cabernet.

I knew I was being too hard on myself for not achieving the artistic greatness I’d envisioned and also truly believed I was failing to live up to my potential.

Remember that scene in Friends when Joey laments having to serve coffee at Central Perk? “I was an actor. Now I’m a waiter,” he says. “It’s supposed to go in the other direction.” A more recent real-world example was when a photo went viral of Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens working at a Trader Joe’s.

We’re collectively incredulous at these kinds of stories because of our deep belief in linear success, in continually improving lives and careers, in “making it” as a final destination. But I know plenty of writers, actors, and musicians who veer back and forth over time between artistic and non-artistic ways of making a living, myself included.

The psychotherapist Adam Phillips helps explain these expectations when he writes about how we are a culture “committed above all to science and progress — to create societies in which people can realize their potential, in which ‘growth’ and ‘productivity’ and ‘opportunity’ are the watchwords (it is essential to the myth of potential that scarcity is scarcely mentioned, and growth is always possible and expected).” We talk a lot about growth and potential but far less about the very common experience of “touching it” — whatever “it” is at any given moment before it slips away or morphs into some new elusive goal — then losing it, then maybe if you’re lucky touching it again someday.

Those Interlochen summers were the most self-assured time of my life. Those were magical days before anyone had tasted real success or failure, before anxieties and self-doubt had settled in alongside our art. We were ambitious but not calculating, hopelessly earnest with no shortage of energy.

I started to wonder about the others, if they’d become artists or if they had abandoned their early talents. Having left behind the relatively even playing field of our exploratory twenties, were they, like me, grappling with whether or not they had fulfilled their potential? Or had they achieved exactly what they wanted?

I was deep into my interrogation of “making it” when I reconnected with Adam, an old friend from camp. The sweet, gangly theater kid I remembered from Interlochen was now a TV and film writer in Los Angeles. Like me, he’d figured out a way to cobble together a living doing what he loved. Also like me, he’d watched from afar as some of our campmates achieved a scale of fame that had eluded us in our own careers.

During our first phone conversation, I learned that a show Adam had created was in its first season on MTV. The critical reviews were mixed, but skewed more positive than negative. He was waiting to see if it’d be picked up for a second season.

“My new show is pitched to teenage girls,” he told me. “That’s not necessarily where I saw myself as a writer, but I feel like I’m really good at recalling emotions I’ve had or someone else has had and turning them into something that feels authentic.”

“Have you had enough success at this point that you believe in your own talent despite how tough it is?” I asked him.

“The idea of talent is something I grapple with on a daily basis,” he replied. “Am I going up or down? Am I as good as I was yesterday? Will I be tomorrow? What’s my trajectory? I am proud of my show, but in no way do I just breathe a sigh of relief.”

“Do you think it’s possible to relax — to just trust yourself so fully that you don’t worry about what happens to your work?”

As a response, Adam told me how one of his best friends from Interlochen is now a well-known singer. “He is legit famous,” Adam said. “Even he’s not immune from these concerns. There’s not anybody who is successful who doesn’t worry that success will go away.”

Adam started writing and directing plays in high school. “People liked my first play. It got a really good response. But then I didn’t get into the same writing program at my high school the following year and I was like, ‘Did I peak at 15?’”

In college, a film he wrote was the top short of his sophomore class, but then his junior-year film wasn’t as good; it had a lot of technical problems. His senior-year film won a bunch of awards.

“And finally,” Adam said, “I was like, ‘Okay, it wasn’t a one-time fluke, but also there are peaks and valleys.’”

After that, he spent years shooting wedding videos while trying to write a decent screenplay. “But by then, I had realized this comes with the territory. Eventually I worked again. The projects piled up.”

“Was there ever a moment when you thought, This is it. This is my big break?”

“I went out to L.A. with my former writing partner and we had a bunch of meetings based on a spec script. One producer liked the script and said she’d like to be in business with us on it. We walked out of that room and erupted in celebration as though this was the best thing that could have ever happened. Then we called our manager and he was like, ‘Oh, cool, so what are you doing?’ And we were like, ‘This idea, this TV idea with this producer!’ And he was like, ‘Well, she’s never done TV, but sure, it doesn’t hurt to try it.’”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Nothing! We worked on it with her and we learned a lot, but it never got made. That moment of ‘Oh, wow, this is my big break’ is an expectation you have when you’re younger. Of course we fantasize about that because people are presented to us all the time as having ‘burst onto the scene from nowhere,’ when that’s really never the case. That’s not how it has been with me or other people I know.”

Adam’s career, like mine, had ebbed and flowed. I had learned after my first book was published that creative success wasn’t about one big break, but I still worried about slipping backward and somehow not being able to leap ahead again. So Adam’s bluntly laying out the number of times he’d gone forward and back and forward again was helpful in thinking about my own trajectory. Enduring as a writer for Adam wasn’t about a “making it” moment but about a constant process of trying and trying again.

Something the photographer Tammy Rae Carland tells her art students has stuck with me as a useful reframing along these lines. She advises them to “view their careers as a checkerboard rather than a ladder.”

Creative success is a thing other people bestow on you. And while success has a relationship to the quality of creative work, art is subjective. We all know this, and yet you still must think carefully about how much external validation you need, if any, to keep going, to weather the inevitable ups and downs of touching it. Are you determined to be Beyoncé famous, or are you happy in the middle of the pack? Are you happy doing the work even if it never gets published or produced?

I asked Adam whether he’s good at weathering the ups and downs of a non-linear career trajectory.

“I think I’m okay with them, but I could be better,” he answered. “I weather it as well as the next guy. I work five or six days a week, and seven if something is really pressing. I know some of those days will be all brainstorming, and I’ll realize I have nothing usable and that the only thing I learned is that I have nothing usable. But that’s part of the process.”