003: Being a "YES AND" CreativeNov 15, 2022
How do you think of yourself? When it comes to your work, what words do you use to identify yourself? I am an audiobook narrator. I am an actor. I am a cellist. I am a soprano. An umbrella way to describe all of those things is to say that I am an artist; I am a creative. I will happily and readily own those labels, that of artist and creative. Those labels feel comfortable to me. And if you’re listening to this podcast, they probably feel comfortable to you, too. Like me, you are an artist. You are a creative. But that’s not a complete description for the people who make up the audience of this podcast. In the intro to every podcast episode, and in all the information on my website, I say that this is a podcast, this is a community, designed for creative entrepreneurs. There’s a second part to the label. You’re not just a creative; you’re also an entrepreneur. And I know that second label is one that a lot of creatives don’t find quite so comfortable. “Of course I’m a creative. But an entrepreneur? I don’t know …” Today, we’re going to talk about that, about what it means to be both a creative and an entrepreneur. I can’t wait to dive in.
Hey there, thriving artists! I’m Jennifer Jill Araya, your host, and I’m so excited you’re here for Episode 3 of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I can’t wait to dig into what it means to be a creative entrepreneur. There’s so much room to grow and learn!
Before we get to the meat of this episode, I want to let you know that, if you’ve been struggling with the “business” side of your business, I have a free guide available on my website that I think will help you out. It’s called “Say Goodbye to Feast or Famine: Three Financial Must-Haves for Creative Entrepreneurs,” and it is available for free at StarvingArtistNoMore.com. Just navigate there and fill out the contact form, and you’ll get this guide, absolutely for free, no strings attached. There are ideas in there that I think will help you get a handle on the finances of your business, which – let’s face it! – many creatives find to be the most difficult, most daunting part of their business. I know the ideas in this guide really helped me, and I think they can make a difference for you, too. I hope you’ll check it out.
And with that, let’s dive into today’s topic. I’ve titled this episode “Being a ‘YES AND’ Creative,” and to get us started, I have a question for you: Have you ever done any improv? Do you know what “yes and” means? If you’re an actor or a narrator, or even if you’ve just taken an acting class or an improv class somewhere along the line, I’m sure you answered a resounding yes. The concept of “yes and” is a pretty basic principle in improv and acting. But for my musician and maker creatives who might not have heard that term, or for any of you who haven’t ever taken an acting or improv class, let me take a step back and explain what “yes and” means.
“Yes and” is a concept that underlies improv and improvisational comedy. The first part of it, the “yes” simply indicates that, whatever your scene partner or partners bring to the table – whatever they suggest – you commit to saying “yes” to it. Improv is not a place where you hear the word “no” very often, and it’s understandable why not. “No” shuts things down. It stops the scene from proceeding. If I, your scene partner, make a suggestion for where our scene should start and you immediately say “no,” you’re putting the brakes on our combined creativity. You’re stopping things before they even get started. You’re saying no to the collective creative process. It just doesn’t work very well. In order to move the scene along, you have to be open to what others bring to the table. You have to say, “Yes.”
But you can’t stop there. If all you do in improv is say “yes” all the time, you’re not actually contributing anything to the scene. You’re only reacting to what others suggest. You’re never actually responding with a meaningful contribution to the improvisational process. That’s where the “and” comes in. You say “yes,” and then, you take it a step further. You add something more. You take what your scene partners give you, and you run with it, giving them in turn a chance to say “yes and” to you. And that cycle, that process of creative agreement and creative growth is what makes improv work.
If you’ve ever seen a really great improv team or sketch comedy group in action, you know that this kind of improv is magic. In September, I was lucky enough to snag tickets to a performance of Second City while I was in Chicago for an audiobook convention, and I haven’t laughed that hard in years. It was a delight! Some of the sketches still randomly run through my head and make me laugh even now, almost two months later. The scenes were so funny, and the chemistry and cooperation of the actors was just sizzling. They were so connected to each other and to the material they each brought to the table, and the combination was fabulous. It was a joy to watch those creatives work together.
So, that’s what “yes and” means normally. It is saying yes to the creative process and contributing to make it even better. Today, I want to challenge you to look at this principle of agreeing and creatively growing – the concept of “yes and” – a little bit differently. I want you to be able to say, with confidence and with excitement, that “YES,” you are a creative, you are an artist. You can probably do that already. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s still an “and” to deal with. And what is that “and?” It’s this: “AND” you are an entrepreneur. Yes, you are a creative, and you are an entrepreneur. You are both. You are a “YES AND” creative and entrepreneur. You are an artist, a creative – you are committed to the creative process – AND you are willing to help your creative process grow by doing what is necessary to make your creative business work. YES. AND.
Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur? You must think of yourself that way at least a little bit, on some level, or you probably wouldn’t be listening to this podcast. But how comfortable does that label feel to you? Does it rub a little, like a shirt that’s not quite the right size, or has an itchy tag? Does it feel like it’s not quite something that applies to you? I know that being an entrepreneur sometimes seems like a decidedly left brain characteristic, and I hear you telling me, “Jennifer, we’re artists! We’re right brained people! We deal in creativity and ideas and concepts and feelings and emotions! We’re not logical! We don’t focus on facts and analysis and details! We’re creatives!”
But I want to challenge you on that sentiment. If you, a creative, never focused on facts and analysis and details, you would not be able to be the excellent creative, the incredible artist, I know you are.
Every writer I know almost obsesses over facts. You have to get the details right for your created world to be believable, right? One of my good friends (and if he’s listening to this, he knows who he is) is almost obsessive over getting the death and murder scenes just right in his science fiction novels. He’s always joking that if he didn’t search in incognito mode in his browser, his Google search history would make him a target of every law enforcement agency out there. The facts matter.
Every photographer I know pays careful attention to analyzing the composition of a photograph, precisely adjusting to get the scene in the viewfinder *just right* and making sure the camera settings are spot on before clicking the shutter.
And what is the study of music but the study of minute details about the character of the tone quality and the shaping of each note within a phrase and the precise placement of each note within a rhythmic passage?
Being a creative is all about focusing on facts and analysis and details.
It's just that those facts and analyses and details don’t typically deal with bookkeeping and the finer points of contract negotiation and project management. Being an entrepreneur does require that we creatives use our skills in ways that we’re maybe not used to, or maybe not completely comfortable with, at least not yet. But it doesn’t require any skills that you don’t already have. If you have enough grit and dedication and willpower to devote to your art the 10,000 hours of focused practice that are necessary to truly become a master of that art, then you have everything you need to become an amazing entrepreneur. It just requires a bit of, well, creativity to see how you can apply your existing skills to this new pursuit. You can be both a creative and an entrepreneur. And in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is necessary for you be both.
I come to this “creative entrepreneurship” paradigm with a bit of a different background than most. I don’t think I realized just how unique my background and perspective were until my husband, Arturo, and I were having a conversation about our college jobs a few months ago. When I was in college, I worked a collection of different college jobs, as many people do, but the one that was most consistent was private music teacher. My freshman year, I taught a few voice students using my church’s chapel piano during the week, when the chapel wasn’t in use, and once I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment, I taught beginning cello students and voice students out of my college apartment. While I was in college, I never had a lot of students, and I frequently had other gigs or jobs in addition to my teaching, but I taught private music students throughout my entire college career.
Arturo, however, didn’t teach at all during his college years. He is also a cellist – we met when we studied with the same teacher – and his college jobs were all over the place, but he never taught. He worked for a paper manufacturing company and had retail jobs and at one point had an on-campus job at his college, but no teaching. About a month ago, I asked him why not, why did he never teach to make money during college. To me, it seemed like the easiest of all possible ways for a college music student to make some money. His answer shocked me. He told me, “Well, I did get hired on at a music store to be their cello teacher, but I guess they never had any cello students call them for lessons, so they didn’t have any students for me, and I never actually worked there.”
My instinctive reaction was, “Of course they didn’t have any students for you! You were a new cello teacher at a music store that probably had never offered cello lessons before, and parents didn’t know that they could call this store for cello lessons. You needed to go out there and let people know you existed and bring your own students to the store!”
And right after I had that thought, I took a mental time-out. Our two contrasting reactions to the situation honestly puzzled me. Arturo didn’t see any option other than waiting for students to call the store, while my instinct was to go out and find students. Why did Arturo and I have such different perspectives about the situation? Why did I automatically see a possible solution to the problem of no students, when that possible solution never occurred to Arturo? What made our perspectives different?
And like a lightbulb going off in my head – it really was that sudden – I realized why. I approach my creative work from an entrepreneurial perspective. Of course I saw that, in Arturo’s relationship with that music store, Arturo needed to be a creative entrepreneur, not just a creative. But Arturo wasn’t approaching the position at the music store as an entrepreneur. He was only thinking of himself as a creative, one who happened to be employed at a music store that offered private lessons. The idea of being entrepreneurial in his approach never even crossed his mind. He never even considered the possibility that getting students depended not just on the store, but also on him.
A lot of this difference in perspective is thanks to my parents and their business. I mentioned in Episode 1 that my parents are entrepreneurs, and that is true. They are. They own a small business together and have since shortly after I was born. In fact, my mom turned in her notice to quit her “day job,” her position as an employee working for someone else, the day I was born.
Because of their business, I grew up knowing exactly what it meant to own your own business – the good and the bad and everything in between. But that’s not all. The specific type of small business that my parents own is a small, boutique accounting firm … that specializes in small business accounting. This meant that not only my parents owned a small business when I was growing up, but that almost all of their clients also owned small businesses, of all shapes and sizes. Their clients included doctors and lawyers and physical therapists and psychologists who owned their own practices. They had clients who owned logging companies and landscaping companies and oil & gas companies. They had one client who was an artisan and made incredible, hand-crafted works of art, some of which are still in my parents’ home today. They had another client who was an inventor, and I still remember with fondness getting to try out some of his toy and game inventions. That was so much fun! Their clients owned day cares and hobby shops and boutiques and hair salons and (I might be dating myself here) video rental shops. And my parents’ clients were also my parents’ friends. These amazing small business owners, entrepreneurs, were the people my parents spent time with socially. So all of these small business owners were the adults I was exposed to during my formative growing up years. My parents were entrepreneurs, and all of the adults my parents exposed me to as I was growing up were also entrepreneurs. My role models of what it meant to be an adult looked like a small business owner, an entrepreneur.
So is it any wonder that, when presented with a problem like a music store that’s not sending their cello teacher any cello students, I instinctively approach the situation with an entrepreneurial, make-it-happen kind of perspective? This perspective is virtually all I know! Arturo doesn’t have that perspective. His experience is primarily that of an employee, not an employer or business owner, so his approach to the situation he found himself in at that music store was drastically different than mine would have been. And as a result, he had no cello students, and he never was able to use money he earned while teaching as part of how he supported his college career.
Now, to be clear, I’m not criticizing Arturo. He did the best he could with the tools he had at the time, and he had plenty of jobs during college to support himself, they just weren’t jobs teaching music. He was hardly slacking his way through college. But the difference in our two perspectives really served to show me just how unique my entrepreneurial mindset is, particularly in the world of creatives and artists.
Thinking as an entrepreneur can sometimes be uncomfortable for a creative. In fact, sometimes it is more than uncomfortable – it can feel downright wrong. Our culture tells us that “selling out” as an artist is the worst thing you can do, that focusing on making your work commercially viable cheapens your work so much that you are doing a disservice to your talent.
I say that this is a lie, another example of the many lies that our society tells us about who artists are and how they exist in this world, and this lie is just as harmful as the “starving artist” stereotype that I spoke against so forcefully in Episode 2 of this podcast. Earning money from your art is not an evil that must be avoided. It does not lessen your work or diminish your talent. Quite the opposite. Being financially fulfilled from your creative work serves as a testimony to the number of people you are serving with your art. It is a tangible witness that your work is important and that your art is valued by and valuable to other people.
I know that a lot of artists have an instinctive reaction against this, against the concept that they should be thinking of their work in a commercial context. And I get it. As you are creating your work, you don’t want to be worried about the reaction of others. Our creative work should pour out of the depths of our soul, and sometimes that will result in artistic creations that others will love, and sometimes it will result in projects that are for our eyes and ears only. And that’s ok! The problem comes when we start buying into the lie that art is only valid if it exists in the void separate from a viewing or listening public, when in fact, part of what makes a work of art come alive is the interactive dance between artist, artwork, and audience. My best performance experiences as a musician have all occurred when the audience was just as excited and just as invested in the performance as the musicians on stage. Actors regularly discuss the energy level of an audience, rejoicing when the audience is enthusiastic and bemoaning audiences that are too quiet, to the point that “dead crowd,” referring to an audience lacking in energy, has earned an entry in the Urban Dictionary.
Film critic Wesley Morris said, “A movie is just like a work of art or a book or a piece of music. The intent of its maker is one thing, but its interpretation by an audience is something else.” …. The intent of its maker is one thing, but its interpretation by an audience is something else…. Wesley Morris is absolutely right. Our work comes alive, is made richer and deeper and more complex thanks to the investment and involvement of our audience. When I record an audiobook or perform a piece of music, I am transforming the author’s or the composer’s intent into sound, layering in my unique artistic perspective, and the listener is absorbing that sound and interacting with the story or the musical lines in a way that is absolutely unique for each individual. If any one of those elements is missing – the author or composer, me the performer, and you the listener – if any one of those components is taken away, the work of art suffers. Far from being a bad thing when an artist thinks about the eventual audience for a work of art, I would argue that thinking of your audience is exactly what you should be doing, since your audience’s reaction to your work is part of what makes your work complete. And thinking of your work from an entrepreneurial perspective, viewing your art through a business-focused lens, is what allows you to get your work in front of an audience and therefore make possible this life-giving interaction between artist, artwork, and audience.
Stephen King is arguably one of the most commercially successful writers alive today, but he is also widely regarded as writer who has significantly contributed to the craft of writing. He’s received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and a National Medal of Arts from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to literature. His skill and brilliance as a creative mind is undeniable. His commercial success has absolutely not cheapened his craft or diminished his artistry. I guarantee you that he does not think of himself as a “starving artist”! And he is also open about his excitement for the business side of his work. He enthusiastically embraces his dual role as a creative and an entrepreneur. Here’s a quote from King’s introduction to Everything’s Eventual, one of his short story collections. This quote is a little long, but I think it’s worth it, so bear with me. Here it is:
I’ve written more than once about the joy of writing and see no need to reheat that particular skillet of hash at this late date, but here’s a confession: I also take an amateur’s slightly crazed pleasure in the business side of what I do. I like to goof widdit… it’s not about making money or even precisely about creating new markets; it’s about trying to see the act, art, and craft of writing in different ways, thereby refreshing the process and keeping the resulting artifacts—the stories, in other words—as bright as possible.
A fresh perspective on one aspect of creative writing—the commercial aspect—can sometimes refresh the whole.
- Stephen King
I so love what King has to say here! “A fresh perspective can sometimes refresh the whole,” and for King, the commercial perspective of his work does exactly that. How amazing! (As a sidenote, if you’ve never read the introduction to Everything’s Eventual, it’s a wonderful discussion on the art and craft of the written word, and I highly recommend it.)
But the important point to recognize here is that thinking of the audience, thinking entrepreneurially about your work, does not cheapen or lessen your work in any way. Rather, it actually breathes new life and excitement both into your creative process and into the created work itself. Thinking like an entrepreneur can refresh your creativity. “YES AND.”
The opposite side of this refreshing process is when an artist’s creativity is slowly suffocated under the weight of financial pressures and public criticism, the absolute worst of the starving artist. Author Catherine Baab-Muguira, who wrote Poe for Your Problems (an absolutely delightful nonfiction book I narrated last year for Hachette Audio), recently wrote a blog post titled “What sells books, and why should you care?” addressing this exact situation. I’ll link her original blog in the show notes [ ] because her article is definitely worth a read, but I also want to discuss it a bit with you right now.
Baab-Muguira uses Herman Melville and Moby Dick as an example of what happens when lack of commercial viability kills off an artist’s creative drive. I didn’t realize until I read Baab-Muguira’s article that Moby Dick sold less than 4,000 copies during Melville’s lifetime, less than a quarter the number of sales as Melville’s previous novel, Typee, which personally I had never heard of. This is crazy to me! Moby Dick, which is sometimes referred to as one of the strongest contenders for the title “The Great American Novel,” was a flop in its day! Enough so that it ended Melville’s writing career. That’s right. The novel that is today considered one of the best novels ever written by an American author initially had such a poor commercial reception that its author quit writing. I’m going to quote Baab-Muguira on this. Again, this quote is a bit long, but Baab-Muguira says it better than I can, so please bear with me.
In its time, [Moby Dick] was regarded as something of a bomb (all the more so because Melville’s earlier book, Typee, had been a blockbuster...). And in the wake of this “failure,” Melville gave up. He stopped writing big, ambitious books.
Low sales don’t indicate a lack of literary or artistic merit. Not then and not now. By the same token, low initial sales don’t necessarily equal long-term failure, either. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Low sales do correlate with the end of careers (or with a “soft withdrawal” as John Updike characterized Melville’s career post-Moby).
If I don’t sell books, and you don’t move units of [whatever the product looks like in your creative discipline], then we may not be able to go on working in our respective fields. We may quit, or be forced to quit.
- Catherine Baab-Muguira
Baab-Muguira hit the nail on the head. If you stick your head in the sand, if you refuse to acknowledge that you are not just a creative – that you are BOTH a creative AND an entrepreneur – it could come back to bite you. Viewing your work with an entrepreneurial perspective opens doors. It expands your possibilities. It gives you the possibility of being financially fulfilled from your creative work, which allows you to do more of that work. Being a “YES AND” creative means saying yes to the creative process AND saying yes to the refreshing of that process that comes when you add an entrepreneurial perspective to your work.
You are a creative entrepreneur. You are both a creative and an entrepreneur. One or the other of these labels might feel uncomfortable to you, but that does not change their truth. And the moment you start accepting your dual role as an artist businessperson, you will see your creativity blossom. Living into your identity as a creative entrepreneur is an amazing place to be.
Thanks for joining me on this episode of the Starving Artist No More podcast. I am so glad you’re here. I know time is a precious commodity for creative entrepreneurs, and I cannot tell you how much it means to me that you chose to spend some of that valuable time with me, listening to this podcast. I’d so appreciate if you’d leave a review or rating for this podcast. Reviews are what help new podcasts like this one find new listeners and reach a broader audience. And if you know a fellow creative you think might benefit from hearing this perspective, please share this episode or the whole podcast with them. Thank you so much! If you have any thoughts you’d like to share with me, or if you have questions I didn’t fully address in this episode, please reach out to me! You can contact me through my website, StarvingArtistNoMore.com.
I wish you all a wonderful week full of both commitment to the creative process and allowing your entrepreneurial mindset to grow and refresh that creative process. YES, you are a creative, AND you are an entrepreneur. You are an incredible, thriving artist, and I can’t wait to see what you create.
SUBSCRIBE FOR BI-WEEKLY DOSES OF CREATIVE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL GOODNESS
Every other Wednesday, my newsletter subscribers get ideas to help them build, grow, and scale their creative businesses. Sign up to get this creative entrepreneurial goodness delivered straight to your inbox.
I hate SPAM. I will never sell your information, for any reason.