What It Takes

Apollo and the Muses, Nicolas Poussin

The Riddle of Success in the Arts

How does one become a successful artist?

A little while back, there was an interesting story going around about the famous director Ang Lee, who had a six year stretch of nothing—just being lame—while his NYU classmate Spike Lee directed three movies, including Do The Right Thing. This fellow Jeff Lin wrote a thought-provoking post commenting on Lee’s dry spell. In many ways the post is a validation of the awful Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule (which, to be fair, was based on actual academic research). The idea there is that great expertise can only be achieved at the cost of enormous amounts of time. This echoes the indie darling Ira Glass’s advice to young creative types, which, like the Ang Lee story, was also a huge hit on the internet:

Coincidentally, the person who created this has yet to get through the typography gap.

In short, put in the time. Success will come to those who grind out the hours. Here is part of the Lin post about Ang Lee’s lost years:

1984: Graduates NYU, signed by William Morris agency after winning the Wasserman prize with “Fine Line”

1990: Wins prize for two scripts in a contest sponsored by the Taiwanese government. Gets backing to direct his first feature, “Pushing Hands”

From age 30 to 36, he’s living in an apartment in White Plains, NY trying to get something — anything — going… That’s a six-year span — six years! — filled with dashed hopes and disappointments. “There was nothing,” he told The New York Times. “I sent in script after script. Most were turned down. Then there would be interest, I’d rewrite, hurry up, turn it in and wait weeks and weeks, just waiting. That was the toughest time for Jane and me. She didn’t know what a film career was like and neither did I.” It got so discouraging that Lee reportedly contemplated learning computer science so he could find a job during this time, but was scolded by his wife when she found out, telling him to keep his focus.

He stuck with it. And now, Ang Lee is both commercially and critically successful. Lin uses Lee’s story as a reminder to always do what you love, so you have something to get you through those thin stretches, when there is zero external validation for all the hard work you’re doing. I’m more interested in how got Lee out of White Plains. To a certain extent, his rise seems inevitable now. Was it just a matter of time before he found success?

What if he never made it? Are there other Ang Lees out there, who are similarly talented and who worked just as hard, but remain completely unknown? How many others?

What does success demand of art?

Let’s consider another story: Stephenie Meyer, the bestselling author of the Twilight ‘Saga’. Meyer had never written a short story before Twilight. According to Wikipedia, the story of Twilight was inspired by a dream she had on June 3rd, 2003. She wrote the entire novel in three months. By November she had inked a $750K three-book deal with Little, Brown.

Do you want to know what Ang Lee’s story has to be with Stephenie Meyer’s? Absolutely nothing.

I chose Meyer as an example because her books are commonly ridiculed for their lack of well, any literary merit whatsoever. People far more excited than me about throwing shade on Meyer have written extremely convincing criticisms of Twilight and its messages about feminism, relationships, sex, and coming of age, not to mention its more basic problems of voice, plot and dialogue.

Let’s assume her books suck. Was her artistic success inevitable, or the result of a cosmic accident? That crazy phenomenon didn’t have to happen. It seems completely coincidental.

It’s almost a mirror image of Ang Lee’s artistic practice, and the 10,000 hour route of countless other artists. For them, success was the result of both cultivated talent and perseverance.

Meyer had none of that. Imagine her at her kitchen table, her brow furrowed in the glow of her laptop, hard at work on her first work of fiction, Twilight. She hasn’t written a short story before this, let alone toiled for years, perfecting her craft. Twilight seems to laugh in the face of the ‘practice’ prerequisite for success.

That leaves the question of talent. Does Meyer lack innate talent?  I’m surprised to say I find that unlikely. Ok, Twilight isn’t a great work of art. It’s bad, to be more precise. But Meyer depicted the inner turmoil of adolescence in a way that obviously resonated with a lot of people. It wouldn’t surprise me if its success was due to a lack of cultivation— and perhaps if her artistic taste had been more cultivated at the time, Twilight would have never seen the light of day. A little taste goes a long way. It succeeded in part because it is so awful. Like a similar cinderella story of publishing, Amanda Hocking, or, dare we speak her name, E.L. James, if Meyer had been at all in touch with/cared about what passes for ‘literature’ these days, she would probably still be slaving away on her pedestrian debut story collection at a middling low-residency MFA.

Is there such a thing as rough charm? A common problem discussed among writers is the ‘overworked’ story—writing stripped of its idiosyncrasies and half-baked metaphors by overzealous workshoppers, or worse, the brooding editor living inside the writer’s head. Many graduates from MFA programs put out fine debut novels. But they are often very safe, very quiet. You can tell it’s been whittled down until there isn’t a single word out of place, i.e., boring.

So blame Meyer’s success on the aesthetic sensibility of the average consumer of Twilight. Nonetheless, in the current climate, it seems like neither talent nor practice is required for success. In fact, nothing about success seems consistent so far. Now think of all the greats whose names will remain forever untouched by mainstream literary triumph. Do we even know their names? For the most part, no. Oakley Hall, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe, Anna Kavan—in short, Writers No One Reads. They enjoy niche popularity among their genres or the literary elite, but are virtually unknown outside of that milieu.

What separates them? Couldn’t they just sit down and write a bestselling novel? Can you become too good to be successful, an inversion of Steve Martin’s contribution to adages about creative practice, ‘become so good they can’t ignore you’? Cordwainer Smith, for sure, was so good at writing SF during a time when the genre was still working out FTL travel that hardly anyone understood he was shattering the limits of what was then considered possible in speculative fiction.

One thing that might unite these authors is disdain/indifference toward middlebrow taste. The people I’ve just named are pioneers—and if no one else is coming with them into the wilderness, so be it. Genius can toil quite comfortably in obscurity. It waits for the world to catch up. Sometimes it never does. There’s that Schopenhauer quote: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” A better answer is that many of the greatest novelists simply couldn’t write a Twilight on command. And think of Melville, or John Kennedy Toole: two master practitioners of their craft—both successful after death, but both through largely arbitrary means. How many other masterpieces languish in shoeboxes?

So, what does success demand of art? If the answer is fluid, there isn’t much to do—besides maybe get going on those 10,000 hours.



  1. Jan

    Your post sets an uplifting and encouraging tone for writers. Thank you for including the Poussin painting. I am a fan of the putti hovering overhead.

  2. Molly

    Get going on the 10,000 hours, but stop once you’ve finished your first novel and submit it for publication. If it doesn’t become a breakout bestseller, then you have to keep writing?

    Your definition of “overworked” is interesting to me because I’ve often thought “overworked” was the criticism workshop members would apply to those half-baked metaphors that would then lead a writer to whittle down the prose. (As in, the writer tried too hard with the writing and needs to pare it down.) But your definition makes a lot of sense and I think you’re right about the quiet MFA novel. The thing to do is to use the MFA to get in some of those 10,000 hours but ignore everything you’re told there, maybe? Ho hum.

  3. Pingback: Practice, Practice, Practice? | The Copybara

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