Being an independent creator is hard work. Getting a project finished is hard work. Getting a contract to publish/distribute it is an uphill battle. Getting noticed is an endless and typically fruitless endeavour.
But there’s a lot to like about it too. Being an indie creator at the start of your career is a baptism of fire, an unbelievable pressure cooker of tribulation and inspiration in which time behaves extremely unpredictably, the notion of rest is a theoretical concept at best, and all your nerves are blazing rapturously at the entire process. It’s sink or swim time, and by all the gods you ever believed in, are you going to swim.
This post is going to chronicle my early experiences as a creative professional. My hope is that it will guide the expectations of prospective hopefuls, resonate with those who have gone through this stage of their careers (or who are going through it now), and strike a chord with me in many years to come when I look back at the ‘early years.’
The Creative Process
The book you write tomorrow is not the book you could have written today.
When you have a job that takes you away from your creative work, you feel this keenly. You try to make every moment count. You give up sleep to work on your masterpiece. You work through sickness, through typhoons and disasters, you fight through depression and disappointment, through adversity and compromise, and when you finish your work, you appreciate it all the more for all that you’ve had to endure. Your angst fuels the passion that filters into the finished product, and when you look back over it, it all comes rushing back.
But by then, you’re already hip deep in another project and barely even notice.
The downside: The odds are against you even finishing a project are steep. Getting it to a publishable standard, even steeper. Countless obstacles of life lie in your path. Creative work now means sacrificing other aspects of your life, including family and leisure time.
The upside: It’s no secret that creativity thrives on adversity. These could be your most prolific times, and your best work could be the one you’re working on now. Never in your career will improving your skills be such a high priority for you. While your creative identity is your own, you have the freedom to experiment with your voice, freedom that you might never have again. Long story short: if your commitment is unquestionable, there’s no problem here.
Marketing and Engagement
You’ve been published by a small label. Or you did it yourself. Either way, you probably won’t be seeing your name on bus benches or billboards any time soon. You’ll be doing grass roots marketing, with a heavy reliance on social media and the incestuous tendency of other independent creative artists to support each other.
Every now and again, you’ll get an opportunity. Maybe an interview or an article, a table at a convention or conference, some chance to get your name out there a little. You’d better not fuck it up, that’s for sure, because you might never get another chance. Sometimes it feels like you can’t afford to upset even a single person, professionally or personally, because you need all the potential customers you can get.
And if you’re lucky – really lucky – you’ll have a strong network of friends and family who will carry some of that marketing burden for you, who will spread your work widely and enthusiastically.
You don’t have a big budget to sucker in the gullible, so you’re going to be relying on the genuine excitement of word-of-mouth. God help you.
But there’s something genuinely special about this whole thing. The challenge is intoxicating (though the returns often negligible and always intangible), and there is nothing quite like your first fan reaction from someone you don’t know.
The downside: No matter what you do, your audience will probably always be small.
The upshot: Being in charge of your marketing is a new creative challenge you should relish, and is a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. Engaging directly with your audience (for example, at conventions or via email) is a thrill and feels like a privilege. A small audience is no less passionate for being small.
While I still value artistic integrity over ‘selling out,’ anyone who knows me knows that I want to make money from my writing. Serious money, if I can. Enough to quit my job at least, and preferably a bit more besides.
Financial independence is not something that comes easily to the indie artist, if at all. Indeed, commercial success is hard enough for most folks who have broken into the mainstream, let alone those stuck on the periphery of notice.
The downside: Have to work extra jobs to support life, limiting creative time. For all the time you put in, you’re not making much money at all. Resources to create more work are extremely limited.
The upshot: Still have that determined single-minded drive, and the work still feels romantic and unsullied by the taint of money and commercial success.
The life of an indie creator is not a sustainable one. The thrill and exhaustion, surviving on adrenaline instead of food, tight deadlines and countless adversities, financial hardship and frustrating obscurity… none of it can last forever. At some point, the indie creator will be pulled into the life of the full-time professional creator, or they will jump off the edge into the oblivion of part-time hobbyist.
Not knowing which way you will go is terrifying. Both options seem equally impossible. But the terror is inspiring, and the true indie artist will harness the power of uncertainty to fuel their work and – if all goes well – propel them to greater and greater things.
And if you never miss an opportunity (by the way, you should check out my published work), there is no limit to the personal and professional rewards that could be awaiting you. Certainly, you’ll never be prouder of your achievements than right now.
I am an indie artist. And, for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.