If You REALLY Want to Do This…

I want to speak to those of you who are at the early stage of what will hopefully be a long and successful career in the arts, whether it be with writing, performing, painting, sculpting, or whatever. Please note the word “hopefully” above. Many are called, but very few get there. I’m not attempting to discourage you. My attitude is that somebody is going to be successful and it very well might be me, or you, or both, so let’s go for it. Realize, however, that failure is a repetitive possibility, and that you have to be prepared to keep trying. 

That said, I am going to strongly recommend that you watch a documentary about an artist — a sculptor — who briefly tasted success and quickly lost it before dying in obscurity. Success? We’re talking a government-sponsored museum devoted entirely to his work. That is success of a sort by any standard. Six years after the opening of the museum, however,  it was closed and virtually all of the artist’s work was destroyed, memorialized only by photographs and some miniature models which he recreated. The guy picked himself up, supported himself with jobs that were by any standard a poor use of his talent, and continued to work at what he loved practically up to the day he died.

I am referring to Stanislaw Szukalski. Odds are that you have never heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until a friend recommended Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, produced by George and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose family helped to support the man in the twilight of his life. The video, available on Netflix, is narrated primarily though not exclusively by Glenn Bray, a bibliophile and comic book collector. I want you to be as surprised delighted, depressed and as startled as I was so I am going to only give you the general highlights of what you will find. Bray discovered Szukalski’s work by utter happenstance in 1971 and became obsessed with it, the more so when he learned that Szukalski was living only a few miles away from him. Bray reached out to Szukalski and met with him, forging a friendship which lasted for some fifteen years until Szukalski’s death. Bray, who was active in the underground comic book industry, introduced artists in the medium to Szukalski as well. They had seen his work without knowing it, and in all probability you have as well. Szukalski designed one of the more intriguing and unsettling sets seen in the original film version of King Kong. It is his freestanding work, however, that is stunning. His sculptors and artwork are by turns breathtaking, disturbing, erotic, and startling. He never stopped creating, whether it be sculpting, drawing, or writing. Szukalski was also obsessed with the origins of humankind and the human condition. He devoted a significant amount of time researching and writing the theory of Zermatism, leaving the world several bound volumes containing over ten thousand pages of text and over forty thousand drawings illustrating and, to his mind, proving his point. He believed that humanity originated on Easter Island and that human beings have been controlled by…but you will want to watch Struggle to get the rest of that story.

Struggle is loaded with comments from Bray, DiCaprio the elder, and various artists. There are also still shots of Szukalski’s work from the 1930s through the 1980s. The most interesting elements, however, consist of video recordings of Szukalski himself which Bray made and preserved. These are worth watching for many reasons, one of them being to observe Szukalski’s arrogance and charm co-existing simultaneously in the same place. Anyone who encountered Szukalski no doubt experienced approach-avoidance conflict. Szukalski may possibly have been wrong about some things but, if Struggle is to be believed, he was never in doubt.

The takeaway from Struggle — and it really rubs your nose into it, however unintentionally — is that real artists, and really, really good artists, don’t always succeed. They never, however, stop creating. You may not reach the heights of a James Patterson, Ernest Hemingway or Nora Roberts, but if you have a story to tell you need to — you must — keep trying to tell it. So endeth the lesson.

To take Jordan Dane’s excellent question of yesterday — what book first inspired you to write — a step further, please tell us: who or what motivates you to continue to create even as success might remain elusive?

(All photographs and illustrations are (c) The Estate of Stanislaw Szukalski. All rights reserved.)





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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

25 thoughts on “If You REALLY Want to Do This…

  1. Another winner column, Joe.

    Why start writing fiction at my age? At a time when the publishing industry is a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of opportunities and dead ends. When traditional publishing seems a reasonable bet only for blockbuster authors. When self-publishing requires platform-building and algorithm-manipulation, and a million writers are trying to jam through the narrow door.

    Egotism? Self-gratification? I know I get a unique sense accomplishment when I see my story on the computer screen and when I actually print a story out? Wow!.

    And, of course, when my wife likes the story–hyper-wow.

    And, ultimately, maybe a handful of other people will get some pleasure and some insight from the stories. And maybe even let me know about it.

    Maybe something more, something that explains that unique_ sense of accomplishment, something that explains Szukalski’s persistence. Maybe we were created to be creative: Tools, clothing, homes, businesses, philosophies, sciences, statues (and statutes), paintings, symphonies, poems, novels.

    • Created to be creative…I really like that, Eric. That’s the reason I keep doing these posts. It’s a selfish one, but I get back much more from our readers here than I would ever be able to give. Thank you.

  2. Good morning, Joe.

    Great subject, and it even ties into Szukalski’s interest in the subject of origins.
    The first book that inspired me to write was my father’s memoirs. He wrote the book as he was descending into dementia, but never edited or published the book. It was almost lost as a result of the few hard copies printed being tossed by family, and the computer he worked on being given away. In any case, we saved it. I edited it, we self published, and I presented it to him on his 90th birthday. He happily autographed books while he had no idea what was going on.

    I began studying nonfiction, but quickly fell in love with fiction. I write now to created a children’s series that my grandchildren will be able to read when they are older.

    Good to think back on our origins. Sometimes it holds the clues to our motivation.

    • Good morning, Steve. Thanks so much for sharing that story. What a tribute to your dad. How fortunate he was to have a son who not only carried on his medical legacy but also preserved his creative one. That’s quite a tale.

      Hope you and Cindy are well!

  3. It’s the love of the process. Seeing sales is good, but that’s fleeting. Seeing a story appear on the screen is what rewards me. Facing problems, solving them, facing new problems, solving them, until there’s the magical “The End.”
    And if I wasn’t writing, I’d be expected to do things like clean the toilets.

    • Terry, those are great reasons. Thank you for sharing. By the way, speaking of cleaning…your last sentence made me choke coffee all over my laptop! Did you ever wonder if whoever is cleaning the toilets in your stead is using your toothbrush?

  4. Hi, Joe. I’m retired and living in an apartment that’s paid for in India so whatever I write doesn’t need to support me. I enjoy writing and plan to try selling little stories. I’ve succeeded at some attempts and failed at others in my long life so I don’t worry about such things. I just try to keep learning and trying. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Thanks for sharing, Suzanne. Learning and trying are the best reasons of all to keep doing something!

  5. Well now you have me curious if for no other reason than wanting to know how his work came to be destroyed instead of just re-housed.

    I create out of curiosity. Simple as that. I have very little time to create outside the day job and all the chores of life, so whether it’s writing, drawing, painting, doing leather work etc, I create to experience. For example, at the moment, I’m obsessed with the idea of learning to draw a moose. Unlike Mr. Szukalski, I don’t create art with some deep story in mind. In writing, I don’t know that I have any message greater than the idea that I want people to care about each other. That’s a super-important message but I’m hardly going to change the world and wouldn’t try. But if I get a book or a piece of art into someone’s hands and it DOES change their life, awesome.

    I was just speaking with a friend about the glory days of all the mass market paperbacks that came out on Star Trek the original series in the 80’s & early 90’s & how I LOVED going to the bookstore almost every month to get a new book (& consequently when they stopped putting out the good books was when my appearance at bookstores trailed off). I want someone to be able to read and enjoy my books as many times as i’ve read and enjoyed my favorites. But if they don’t, I won’t know one way or the other. So just keep creating.

    • BK, this is a no-spoilers zone, but let’s just say that Szukalski was the inadvertent victim of one of modern history’s worst circumstances. I thought that my sense of timing was poor until I watched Struggle. One thing…not all of Szukalski’s work was done in support of his theory of Zermatism. Zermatism was something he developed with later in life. I don’t know when the guy slept. Maybe he didn’t.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and particularly your memory of the mass market paperbacks. I loved that era, particularly in the 1950s through the 1970s. It was stunning. The turnover was incredible, too. It seemed as if every two or three weeks there were entirely new stacks of books on the shelves and racks. What happened? That’s a question for another time.

  6. Good morning Joe,

    Your story about Szukalski is the exact thing that motivates me. I love the unknowns, the underdogs who make a difference by never quitting.

    My nonfiction writing spun out of a need to share what I saw happening in the seafood industry—lack of transparency, distrust, even a criminal element. I wouldn’t know where this would take me (possibly nowhere!) yet I couldn’t and don’t let the unknowns stop me.

    I’ve had a few surprising turns in my short-ish writing career—national speaking, photography and drawing successes, even a dystopian thriller (in revision). The turns keep me motivated.

    Also fear keeps me motivated. Fear that my existence would mean nothing. Sounds egotistical as I write. But it is what it is.

    I hope my work makes a difference, but I know that is out of my control. I hope to create an awareness if nothing else through whatever medium I can imagine—which I’ve found is limitless.

    My second book opens with this quote by Kennedy Warne. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

    Can one person make a difference? You bet.

    Thanks for this thoughtful article,
    Motivated Maureen

    • Good morning, Maureen,

      Thanks for sharing. I don’t think it’s egotistical at all to want to leave your mark on the world. I think our whole purpose for being here is to leave things in a better state than which we first encounter it, and by trying to so do we inspire others, hopefully, to do the same. It sounds as if your career has been very interesting so far and I hope it continues to be so. Good luck!

  7. I’m not certain why–they are not around any more for me to ask–but my parents had a great many creative friends: writers, artists, motion picture directors, and so forth.

    I remember coming home one New Years Eve and finding a world-famous artist with paintings hanging all over the world, covered up and watching TV on our front room couch. She was a strong soul, but she became frightened of drunk and drinking drivers to continue driving home from whatever activity she had gone to, and stopped at our home to spend the night. She stayed for the light breakfast my mother fixed, and she spent time talking to me, though I don’t recall about what.

    Then, my Dad and several friends helped a dying painter through his last days, each one taking a day or night shift, to help with the obvious needs of a dying person. I remember Dad being a little depressed, as anyone would be, after the man’s passing. We had spent time with the artist and his wife in their getaway home near Sedona.

    Dad was a librarian and school teacher. Yet, he knew several famous authors whom we would visit or who would come to our house. (When you’re a child, you’re not so much interested in the visitors who come to your house nearly as much as the dishes of candy, cookies, and other treats left over after the visit. But I’ve often wished in later years that I would have paid attention to what the adults were talking about.)

    As for Dad’s own efforts at writing, he took courses in short story writing and fiction writing at our local university. I still have some of his efforts. Unfortunately, he was not a good writer. I’m not certain if he simply didn’t have the knack, or they were written when it was just too early in his writing career to be of any worth. The only thing he ever had published was a short story I published as editor of a small newspaper, a story I had to edit heavily and rewrite. But I was proud to see the story in print, with the title and the byline–the byline, especially.

    So I guess my own family provided me with the impetus to begin writing–that, and the snide words of a college English 101 instructor who assured me that I just didn’t have what it takes to be a writer. She may have been right, but I work every day to prove her wrong.

    • Jim, thanks for sharing those memories. That is some deep background, particularly about the authors and artists who passed across your doorstep. What a great childhood you must have had in that respect. And good on you for using the discouragement of that college instructor as an inspiration. Harlan Ellison had a similar experience and sent the offending professor a copy of every single one of his books as they were published. Thanks again.

  8. Excellent post, Joe. I’ll add the movie to my watchlist.

    There’s a deep yearning inside me that propels me to keep writing and creating (it fails me in the marketing dept. 😉 ). The fire still burns even when I get stuck and need to walk away to gather my thoughts. We only get one lifetime to say what we gotta say, and I don’t want to waste a second of it.

    • THank you, Sue. I hope you enjoy Struggle. And thank you for sharing your own experiences and motivations. May I be so bold as to say that the marketing department in all probability failed YOU! And I’m totally with you on not wasting a second of each day. We have noooo idea of how many we are allotted.

  9. What timing. Just watched “Lust For Life” the other night, the Van Gogh bio-movie starring Kirk Douglas. Talk about a life of futility…the man skated the edge of sanity only by cleaving to his art. He painted to live. A part of me envies that primal drive…I don’t have it. I write because it’s what I seem to do best. I am “middling good” at a bunch of stuff — cooking, art, playing the piano, growing things, organizing things. But I am not really really good at any one thing (Salieri is my patron saint, alas!). But I love words, love arranging them on a page, and making enough pages to make a story that someone gets a kick out of.

    That’s enough for me. Thanks for the great column today. It reminds me that I am blessed.

    • Thank you, Kristee. And we are all certainly blessed with the manner in which you arrange words on a page!

  10. Thank you for mentioning Struggle. I read your post and immediately watched it on Netflix. All I can say is, “Wow”. I can hardly believe I’d never heard of this man.

    • Carl, you’re welcome. Thanks for checking it out. What is interesting is that in all probability more people will check out Struggle based on your recommendation than mine. The reason is that it’s one thing for me to write about it but then someone else — you — comes along and says, “Wow,” meaning, “yeah, watch this thing, it’s worth your time.” And that’s terrific!

      I consider myself fairly well informed as to the arts but I had never heard of him either. Consider this: who else is out there, unheralded, unknown, creating works of genius for an audience of themselves? I know of one person. He’s the guy who told me about Struggle, ironically enough.

  11. I may end up being like Grandma Moses and I’m okay with that.

    I have a full.time day job that keeps a roof over our heads and the lights on. It also takes up a lot of.time.

    I do a lot of theatre at night. (If you’re in the Orlando area, A Crazy Little Thing Called Love featuring yours truly and a bunch of other people is playing this weekend and next).

    In my earlier life I was a working musician and teacher. Sadly, I can only squeeze in so much these days so my piano, flute, and violin sit idle (for now). Church choir keeps my voice from.getting too rusty.

    I like to draw, but I don’t have time for that either.

    Most of my writing is done on weekend mornings in my garden or backstage between scenes. One of my frequent cast mates is a playwright and we sit near each other while we write for moral support.

    It’s slow going, but it’s going, word by word.

    • Thanks for sharing Cynthia. I’ve done some video acting, but I tell everyone…the REAL actors are the ones like you, who get up on stage in front of a live audience. No second takes, no nothing, what goes out there goes out there. I can’t do that. Real actors like yourself can. It’s great that you’re sharing your gift. Don’t stop.

  12. Another great post, Joe.

    “[W]hat motivates you to continue to create even as success might remain elusive?”

    The first requirement maybe is to define success. For me, it’s a low bar. If I tell a good story and have fun doing it, that’s a success. (grin)

    But in the bigger scope, I challenge myself a lot. I’m currently involved in a challenge to write 10 short novels or medium-length novels in 150 days, so an average of 15 days per novel. I’ve written 4 thus far and am writing the 5th.

    So back to the question of failure. If, in 150 days from the start, I have written only 4 novels, or only 9 (instead of the targeted 10), I suppose in a way I will have failed.

    Yet I’ll have at least those 4 or 5 or 9 new novels out there, so how can I look at that as a failure? I will have failed in my challenge, yet I will have “failed to success.” And I will have had a ton of fun while doing so.

    So it’s all good. (grin)

    • Thank you, Harvey, for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts. I think that your definition of success isn’t a low bar at all. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t have success at ANY level without telling a good story and having fun doing it. Anyone missing one of those two things should be doing something else. Good luck with reaching your goal!

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