Working on Two Tracks
When we finish any work of art or commerce and expose it to judgment in the real world, three things can happen:
- Everybody loves it.
- Everybody hates it.
- Nobody notices that it even exists.
[Continuing our exploration of the Professional Mindset, let me repurpose this post that first ran about four years ago.]
All three present you and me as writers and artists with major emotional challenges, and all three drive deep into the most profound questions of life and work.
It will not surprise you, I suspect, if I say that all three responses are impostors. None of them is real, and none should be taken to heart by a writer or artist working from the Professional Mindset.
When we labor in any field that combines art and commerce, we’re working on two tracks.
Track One, the Muse Track, represents our work in its most authentic, true-to-itself and true-to-our-own-heart expression.
Track Two, the Commercial Track, represents the response our work gets in the marketplace. In other words, points 1-2-3 above.
Track Two counts for putting bread on the table and getting our kids through college.
Track One counts for our artistic soul.
The problem with Track Two is it also represents the siren song of riches and fame, or at least applause and recognition in the real world.
Two weeks ago my friend Paul finished writing a TV pilot. It was the first time he had completed a project from FADE IN to THE END. He turned it in to a friend who is a serious producer and who was anxious to see it. Almost immediately Paul’s spirits went over a cliff.
He became depressed, anxious, irritable. He couldn’t sleep. He stopped working. He was waiting to hear his producer friend’s response.
In other words, Paul let himself get sucked over onto Track Number Two, the Commercial Track.
Hollywood (or any big-buzz field like music, publishing, games, software) is a Rorschach test for the soul.
Can we keep our focus where it should be? Can we find our real self and stand up for it? The dream of success/glamour/megabucks is like dark matter. It exerts a gravitational pull that’s so strong it can haul even the best us down into a black hole.
What’s the antidote?
The antidote is remaining grounded on Track Number One. There’s nothing wrong with success. I hold no beef with cashing a check or getting a parking place with your name on it. But don’t confuse Track #1 with Track #2.
While Paul was pacing his living room wondering if he could really kill himself by leaping out a second-story window, the real truth of his situation was this:
He had completed his first serious full-length piece of work.
He had shipped.
He had delivered.
His creative momentum was high.
The Muse was with him.
On Track #1, Paul was rolling!
My advice to Paul (which he did not heed, by the way) was to start another project immediately. In fact Paul was already working on Project #2. But he had stopped.
Why is it so important to keep working?
Because when we finish a project and wait around breathlessly to learn the world’s response to it, we have planted our butts squarely on Track #2. Track #2 means evaluating our work and defining our artistic selves by the opinion of others. (What Shawn calls 3PV, Third Party Validation.)
Nothing good ever came from 3PV. Even success can be bad, viewed through the prism of 3PV. How many people have won Oscars in one year, only to vanish into rehab the next? And failure? Ask Van Gogh how that worked out for him.
And yet: how was Vincent doing on Track #1? He was red-hot. True, a century ahead of his time, but still smokin’ hot.
The ideal position for an artist of authenticity is when Track #1 and Track #2 coincide. When he is working his real stuff—and that stuff finds a welcome in the wider world.
When an artist’s voice is true enough to his own heart and authentic enough to his own vision, Track #1 pulls Track #2 over to it. Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Hunter S. Thompson.
But we lose our way when we overvalue Track #2 at the expense of Track #1. “Sunflowers” was just as great in 1889, when Van Gogh couldn’t give it away, as it was in 1987 when it sold for $39.9 million.
Whatever Track #2 fate awaits Paul’s pilot, he knocked it out of the park on Track #1.
good stuff, steve…
maybe offer what edison said about failure: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
and maybe alos offer that if today you are a mlb batter and hit .250 (1 hit and 3 failures) you get paid over $1 million.
Thank you for writing this. It came just when I needed it.
The best marketing for your first finished book (or artistic creation) is the next one you are working on now.
What about those for whom Track 1 and Track 2 do not reliably align? Van Gogh was, as you say, smoking hot on Track 1 … and also supported financially by his brother.
I think those with writing (or a different creative passion) in their souls get two messages pretty consistently from successful writers: that they should hold steady on Track 1 and that they should not divide their energy by also maintaining an activity that provides an income stream.
But can all solid writers authentic to their voices count on this approach working out for them? If they work hard and put their faith in their muses and their effort, will they be able to eat also?
I’m recalling the wonderful 1977 film “Julia” with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman and Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett. There is a scene where the newly-famous playwright Hellman tells Hammett (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I’m famous…I’m rich…I can buy a fur coat.” He tells her “Yes you can buy a fur coat. Just remember that it doesn’t have anything to do with writing.”
This was a good reflection for me.
I’ve stumbled (perhaps walked unconsciously) into an odd playing field. I’m working on a screen play right now as an expression/outlet of my inner emotional mess, while relegating my novel (my write-to-market novel) to almost day-job status.
Not totally, of course, even in my fantasy/sci-fi novel that’s supposed to be fun and action/adventure there is a character named after my ex-wife and a character named for a young hard body who represents what I want/don’t want/want…need, desire, long for….blah, blah, blah.
FYI: Yesterday I read the screen plays American Beauty, A Few Good Men, and Dallas Buyers Club. Um, yeah, novelist friends, do this once in awhile, it was helpful. Today I have Tarantino scripts lined up for my reading pleasure…but I digress.
Wait: during my reading of Dallas Buyers Club, I actually had tears in my eyes during the reading of one of the scenes. This is good art and commercial success (tracks #1 & #2 married).
Well, maybe I’m still immature, but I want the million dollars. I suppose, for me, I figure that it’s impossible for me to not inject Track #! into everything I touch: politics, religion, philosophy, sex, relationships, inner healing; I can’t not include these things.
I hope that’s the message here. Be true to the Muse, make art, don’t pin your self-worth on 3PV, but also it’s okay to follow genre conventions and proper formatting so that getting a check in the mail is okay too.
Thank you for this one – Exactly what I needed to be reminded of right now. Just thank you Mr. Pressfield.
Great wisdom on staying true to self, purpose and calling. In addition, never resting on our laurels in which I hear the voice of my high school coach some 50+ years ago. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.??
While I normally think of poor artists ahead of their time as being painters, I recently heard about a household name composer. (I forget which one-Handel?)
(My numbers are dim) He wrote about 300 fantastic church pieces, of which about less than 200 survive.
Why? Because at the time of his death his sheets of music were more valuable as paper. They were bought to plug holes as insulation… music gone forever now.
I just had 3 pieces rejected from 2 exhibitions and I’ve been trying to keep working but the doubts keep nibbling at my brain….why didn’t they accept them, OK they’re not as good as last year’s pieces but they’re good….
Reading today’s post had my head wagging like a bobble-head in a fast moving car. Thanks so much for clarifying Tracks 1 and 2 so that I can see them more clearly! And, maybe get back to work!
Point One: Studying philosophy has helped me learn that there is absolutely no truth. Descartes-the daddy of early modern philosophy–couldn’t even prove that we weren’t dreaming, or being tricked by a demon. Human opinions are a tiny blimp of electrical energy in a soft, squishy organ behind our eyes. It isn’t God, or the foundation of the Earth, or even alpha and omega. Please, these dudes who reject our work are just as human as us.
Point Two: Fame, riches and soforth coming from art is the most pernicious phantom lie that ever beset the creative person. Those that DO get it are more rare than shark attack victims, yet because those are the only stories we hear, we think that maybe, just this next time, it will be us. Nope. Life goes on being the same. Horatio Alger was fooled by it, we are fooled by it. The question is: can you like your life if those treats never show up? If not, da world be hurtin’ fo you, bro.
Point Three: One should only create because one loves to create (it’s fun!) and the act of creation fulfills some need. One should try to get it out in the world, yes, but as Steve says, let it go when it’s done and out and start a new thing.
Point Four: Anxiety is the fundamental human emotion and is king of us all.
Thanks Erika for your philosophical take on this post. Steven’s WW post reminds me of one of Stephen King’s takeaways for his book “On Writing”. Once you’ve finished the manuscript and sent it out into the world of agents and publishers, get cracking on the next one.
Since this post is from a few years ago, I gotta ask…what happened next with Paul?
Great post Steve, this really resonated with me right now. Btw, what happened to Paul?
Thanks Steve! I call you my Art Rabbi. As in “I have to see what my art rabbi says about this (struggle)”. This writing could not have been more helpful. By the way I’m not a writer but an interior designer and your words are so universal and applicable. I share them with friends that are fighting addiction as well as other struggles. Forever grateful.