Whether you’re working with an established company or rolling up your sleeves, poking your thumb in the eye of the establishment, and doing it yourself, the business of being creative is a funny thing. Truthfully, like Mel Gibson and little Joey Finklestein’s Bar Mitzvah, or Taylor Swift and my ears, the words “creative,” and “business” simply don’t belong together.
Quite a few years ago—not long after I left the brat-gobbling, beer-swilling Midwest and headed for the shores of sunny California, I stumbled onto my first professional job as an illustrator. It was for a picture book being published by a small publishing house local to the area that specialized in direct market stuff. I’m pretty sure that the company has long since folded.
Maybe it had something to do with me? Maybe? Naw.
Anyway, I was pretty damn happy when I got the call to do this thing. I was still working as a production artist for a local newspaper at the time and this was going to be a big break for me. Sure, it was a smallish, semi-local publisher, but it was much closer to what I had always wanted to do with my life.
Believe it or not, when I was twelve years old my lifelong dream wasn’t to. spend five days a week whipping up ads for local video stores that still offered Beta movies in their selection and local real-estate “tycoons” that insisted on using pictures of them taken in the 1970s for their bios.
You aren’t fooling anyone, Fred Anderson of Red Wagon Real Estate. The three-foot afro is a dead giveaway.
This was going to be a job drawing! It was going to require me to spend days lurched over my drawing table! I was going to dive in and let it all hang out! I was going to blow the minds of these people! My work was going to be so damn amazing, and fresh, and heart-wrenchingly honest that I would single-handedly take their company to the next level! After the book hit the shelves, I’d have editors lining up outside my door, just begging for me to illustrate their next book!
There was no doubt in my mind that they would start throwing cartoonish bags of money with dollar signs painted on them through my bedroom window. I was going to be the next Chris VanAllsburg. Plain and simple. I’d be better than him in fact. Chris wouldn’t be fit to wipe my keister after a particularly stick bowel movement.
As you’ve probably already guessed, none of that happened. In fact, none of what I ever think is going to happen actually happens, and Chris Van Allsburg has yet to see my sticky poop.
My plans started to crumble almost immediately after I received the story I was going to be illustrating from my editor. You see, it sort of sucked. I mean, it was really, really bad. I’m not talking about Michael Jackson dancing, parking garage bad, either. This was more like Michael Jackson luring young boys to his bedroom with the promise of “Jesus juice” bad.
I immediately convinced myself that the story wasn’t my problem. I couldn’t control it. I had nothing to do with that. Bad or not, I was still going wow them with my illustrations. I was going to hit the illustrations so far out of the park that I would take this remarkably crappy story and elevate it to a higher plain.
I dove into on my preliminary sketches that night. The editor asked to see them in a week. He didn’t seem to know who he was dealing with. I didn’t leave my drawing desk. I’d get home from my day job and work my tail off til three in the morning. Nothing was going to stop me! The sketches were supposed to be due by the end of the week and I managed to get them things done in a measly two days. Two days!
They were good too, quality stuff, the kind of sketches that convince rich socialites to get undressed for you and pose if you happen to be a stowaway on the Titanic.
I called my editor and told him I was faxing them over. (Yep, I typed fax. This was quite a few years ago, and no, I’m not your grandpa.) He sounded impressed with my speed. “You’re done already? Wow! Fantastic! Send them over. We’ll take a look and get back to you tomorrow sometime.”
Send them over I did. Tomorrow came and there was no call.
What the hell?
I imagined he would’ve been doing back flips in his office – knocking over furniture as a trickle of urine leaked down the leg of his pants. Maybe he would have decided to take his buddies out for a beer to celebrate just how damn incredible the sketches I’d given him were. I pictured him being so happy that he’d somehow stumbled across this diamond in the rough of an artist in the middle of nowhere . . .and yet there was no call.
Maybe he was so hung over from partying that he took the day off?
It didn’t make sense.
The next day came and finally my phone rang. He didn’t sound as excited as the first time we’d spoke. “Yeah, ummm . . .I’ve gotta tell you, Steve. This, well . . .hmmm . . .this just isn’t at all what we were expecting. In fact, I really can’t think of anything nice to say about what you sent over.”
My heart sank into my shoes.
“Ummm, we’ll give you a chance to fix these up, but, I don’t know. Things might not work out.”
My ego dropped to the floor as well.
Unsure of what so say I responded with, “So, no back flips then?”
Okay, I’m lying about that. I didn’t actually say the back flip thing. I was thinking it though. The back flip thing and something along the lines of, “Holy hell, I’d love to smash my fist into your face so hard that when I pulled my hand back, I’d wearing your brain as a boxing glove.”
I reworked the sketches, keeping in mind the suggestions he’d made. When I was done they looked like an absolute pile of shit. They looked so bad that I considered giving Chris Van Allsburg a ring and asking him to come wipe them up.
Feeling completely defeated, I faxed them to the editor a few days later. A day after that I got another call, “These are much better Steve. Absolutely fantastic! We love them!”
Well, that’s just peachy, I thought to myself. Because I can’t stand them.
To this day I still can’t look at the finished book because I hate it so damn much. In fact, I think it’s easily the worst work I’ve ever produced. It’s also got my name right there on the front over in big red letters – which is just slightly less annoying than an evening of awkward stand-up comedy from foul-mouthed troubadour John Mayer.
So what’s the moral here? Screw doing your best work, because business loves crap and crap means business.
Okay, maybe that’s actually not the moral.
I just thought it sounded funny.