When I asked Mark J. Ferrari, author of THE BOOK OF JOBY (which I'm over halfway through -- progress report coming tomorrow) to do a guest post, he graciously accepted and then proceeded to exceed all my expectations with this wonderful and inspiring post. I was going to include photos from his drawings on his website, but I decided to delay no further. If you want to explore Mark's online portfolio, it is here. I advise you to set aside a good chunk of time; there's a lot of great stuff there.
When Tia invited me to do a guest blog on her site, I was really honored and excited … and utterly clueless about what to write. When I turned to her for help, she asked how an artist got started as a writer, or got started as an artist for that matter, and I had my answer, though maybe not the one she meant. But thanks Tia.
For almost 20 years prior to publication of The Book of Joby, I made my living, and my reputation, as a commercial illustrator. These days, however, I find myself telling people, with a fairly straight face, that I’ve really always wanted to be a writer, but since writing for a living seemed both unrealistic and irresponsible, I’d decided to be an artist instead. That’s as good a summation of my life as any, I suppose: one long series of improbable pursuits. So, having had the tremendous privilege of answering quite a few questions about The Book of Joby in quite a few places lately, I’ll take this opportunity to set my novel aside for a moment, and share some thoughts about the pursuit of unlikely dreams in general. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written this down before, but here are all 7 steps of my 12 step program for un-recovering knucklehead dreamers:
#1 - Don’t disqualify yourself. That’s everybody else’s job:
Almost anyone will tell you why the unlikely things we wanted to do as children, (be an astronaut, a baseball player, movie star, ballerina, artist, writer, or animal feeder at the zoo …), are “virtually impossible” to achieve. “Just look around!” they say. “How many people do you see doing those things? Go to college, get a ‘real’ job.”
The real question is this: How many people do you see seriously trying those things? What would happen if so many people didn’t decide after just one or two innings that this wasn’t likely to happen, and quietly eliminate themselves before really finding out? While there may not be a lot of openings for ‘huge celebrity’ out there, there is an amazing amount of less visible but very satisfying work in most ‘improbable’ fields, often begging for qualified takers. Do people tell us this?
My youngest brother used to go down into our father’s basement workshop with a bunch of odds, ends, and household trash, and create spectacular model spaceships as good as anything at the movies. I’m talkin’ all the tiny details and surface gloss, lit-up windows you could look into, meteor scars and exhaust stains. He knew what his passion was, but for years he just worked at a Four Wheel Parts Store, and whined about how pointless it was to try breaking in to the special effects industry. So few people did it. You had to have connections. There was no degree in that (then), etc. etc. etc.
Then one day I put a few of my drawings up at a local science fiction convention and was offered a job with Lucasfilm Games. My brother was appalled – and, perhaps, inspired. A short time later, he packed a bunch of his best models into the back of his truck, drove almost 300 miles to Los Angeles without any appointments or preparation, and began walking into big special effects studios, (whose addresses he’d found in the back of Cinefex Magazine), to tell the receptionists he’d just driven 300 miles with a truck full of models, which he’d like to show to anyone who’d look. The second place he walked into was Boss Films, who shrugged and took a peek. After seeing what he’d done with next to nothing, they offered him two weeks work, but made it clear that when that was done, he was outta there! No arguments! He said, “Great!” and they gave him his first day off two years later. After working on lots of films you’ve heard of, (Aliens, Cliffhanger, True Lies, Apolo 13, Titanic, just to name a few – his name buried and misspelled in the credits of each), he now has his own model fabricating business down there, living – for better or for worse – his dream. Don’t believe it? Just go online and Google The Shape Shop.
Think your dream’s impossible? Risk letting the world prove it to you before deciding not to try too hard. … And don’t worry; the next six steps are mostly shorter.
#2 – Go out to play BEFORE you’re homework’s done:
“Go to college first,” ‘they’ say. “Then get some real work until you’ve saved a cushion to see you through in case things don’t work out. Then, if you still really want to do this, as long as you’ve got your bases covered, you can give it a try … and get it out of your system …when you’ve had a little more experience, … and it’s safer.”
This is the perfect recipe to become one of those who eliminate themselves. My advice? Go balls out for your most improbable dream first! There will still be time to do those more ‘realistic’ things afterward – unless, of course, there isn’t ‘cause you’re dead, in which case, it’s not your problem anymore anyway, so why not “die trying,” as the youngsters say? If you’re lucky enough to be reading this while you’re still in high school or college, try your wildest dream NOW. Everyone expects the young to fail, so no one’s nearly as scandalized when it happens. You’ll still have lots of time to get back out of debt, and probably no wife or family yet to cope with while you wrestle with the rest of it. Reckless bets are what youth is for! Believe me, shooting for stars does NOT get easier, safer, or more respectable as you age.
And of course, if you succeed, all your more sensible friends are balding accountants with developing bellies, while you’re a rock star who didn’t waste a moment of your precious life on ‘more realistic’ second choices.
#3 – Do what you love most and do best – not “what will sell”:
When it was time to put together my first serious art portfolio for potential employers, a lot of my art friends advised me to include plenty of black and white work, because 75% of the work for new illustrators out there was B&W only. They also urged me to include a glass of ice cubes full of subliminal nudes, and at least one bright and shiny drawing of either cherry pie or hamburger, because all the best paying work was in advertising.
Finding myself insurmountably uninspired, I went to the illustration teacher at my art school for advice. “Is that stuff what you want to do?” he asked. “Well, sure,” I said, “if there’s nothing else.” He smiled and said, “Mark, if you go get work doing things you don’t really want to do, you’ll either do a crummy job of it and get no more work at all, or, worse yet, do such a good job that you get more of exactly the same work until you’re too miserable to do it anymore. So what do you really want to do?” I said, “Full color fantasy illustration, but isn’t that incredibly hard to make a living at?” He said, “Put nothing but the kind of work you most want to do into your portfolio, and go find out.” That’s what I did, and for the next few decades, I was virtually never short of work – or the ability to do it well.
When I finally sat down to write my first novel, I knew that writing a fantasy that really wasn’t Christian literature, but was set in a blatantly, and not unsympathetically, Judeo-Christian context was probably not the safest marketing scheme. A lot of fantasy readers weren’t going to be comfortable with literature from a tradition that burned witches and thinks Harry Potter is Satanic. And a fair number of Christian readers weren’t going to be comfortable with … well, Harry Potter and those witches. I was writing a book that might well offend just about everyone, and there were nights I laid awake wondering whether my writing career would just sink quietly on launch, or enjoy enough success to necessitate a shared hotel room somewhere with poor Solomon Rushdie. But it was the story I wanted to tell, and the way I wanted to tell it, and why bother working that hard just to succeed at something else I didn’t really want to do? So, I bought a Kevlar vest, and did it. Thus far it’s worked out pretty well. J
#4 – If you’ve really got something to show them, avoid the front door if you can. As often as not, it leads only to the roach motel:
When attempting to enter an ‘improbable field,’ the door marked, “apply here” is often designed primarily to keep you safely out of everyone’s hair until you go away on your own. The people you need to see really are very, very busy.
If you really want in, (and you’ve really got something to show them when you get there), look for side or back doors. You’ll notice those are the entrances used by people who WORK there – like you hope to. Go to events where ‘the public’ can meet professionals in the field, and ask them (intelligent) questions. TALK to them while they’re NOT at work, (if you can be pleasant company). Ask someone who’s NOT supposed to interview or hire you for advice about the business in ways that make you seem fascinating and enjoyable. Instead of making an appointment, walk in and say, I’ve just driven 300 miles with a truck full of models; won’t someone please look at them? Four out of five times you’ll be crossly informed that they’ve, “got an application policy here.” The fifth time you may get someone who will bother the boss.
When I first wanted work as an illustrator, I was invited to leave my portfolio at front desks, and come back for it in a week. Only the receptionist would be bothered that way, and even her not that much. Happily, a friend of mine who was an editor helped me contact a few of her friends who were editors at the big book houses in New York. I told them I was coming all the way from California for just 3 days, (not long enough to leave my portfolio anywhere for the prescribed reception-incubation period), and asked if they’d mind glancing at my work and offering any advice. They all explained that they were merely editors, and had nothing at all to do with art or artists. I assured them that my friend, (who had given me permission to use her name), thought they might enjoy the work, and would know far more than I about whether any of it was on target. When three of those generous editors agreed to give me 10 minutes, I made my gratitude impossible to miss, and showed up promptly for those appointments. In all three cases, after perusing my portfolio, they left me briefly, to return a minute later with the art directors who’d had, (quite honestly), no time, and, frankly, no reason, to see me when I’d tried to call directly. I hope I won’t be skinned alive for relating this subversive story, and I do wish to stress that using such side doors, if you do NOT have something you love passionately and do very well to show them once you’re in, will most likely have only disastrous results. In that case, please do NOT tell them I suggested it.
#5 – The first three things you attempt will fail. Keep trying:
No matter how hard you try, or how well you do, someone along the way will find it either more convenient, or even more satisfying, just to toss your masterpiece into some handy dumpster and go on with what they were doing before you interrupted. It may be your future boss, or just the Fed Ex delivery man who had to choose between delivering your package on time or having an extended lunch with people he knew, that mattered. You cannot avoid this, and it really isn’t personal … unless you actually know a real contract killer, I suppose. When it happens, grin up at the sky like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, and shout, “Is that the best you can do?” Then, as he did, keep sailing.
#6 – The next three things you attempt will fail worse. Try harder:
In my own limited experience, history repeats itself, whether you were paying attention the first time or not. Repeat instructions above.
#7 – You never know what your luck means at the time:
These days, when people ask me how I’m doing, I usually tell them to ask again in six months, because by that time I may actually know how I was doing today. I cannot count the number of times what seemed like really great luck turned out to be the prologue of some tragedy, or things that seemed excruciatingly bad luck turned out to be but prologue to some great good fortune. Getting hit by a truck, for instance, (yes, I have actually been hit by a truck. For further details see my interview on Aidan Moher’s blog, A dribble of Ink), helped turn my life toward writing – and eventually helped resolve so many other more personal difficulties, that I went from imagining some guardian angel helping me to survive the impact to imagining that angel pushing me in front of the truck to begin with. On the other hand, I fell in love once, which seemed like such a great thing at the time …
The Book of Joby was first ‘acquired’ by a midsized publisher in 2002, just months after I finished it, to be published in 2004. Seemed like the best luck in the world at the time. Then, nearly two years later, just a month and a half before the ostensible release date, I was informed that for reasons beyond anyone’s control, that publisher would have to cancel a number of their 2004 titles, including mine. Seemed like the worst luck in the world at the time. Three months later, my heroically tireless agent, Linn Prentis, sold the book to TOR, who has done far more for me, and for the book, than the previous publisher possibly could have. Yet, had it not been for that previous publishing deal, I might never have secured the agent who was there to sell it to TOR. If you were able to follow that at all, keep it in mind when principles 6 and 7 above come into play. If all it takes to thwart your pursuit of improbable dreams is one or two prolonged periods of improbably catastrophic misfortune, well, what are you doing out here to begin with sissy?
Thanks Tia. This was fun!