The Three Ring Circus

When I first began taking my writing seriously (many moons ago), bemoaning the fact that rejection letters were coming in at an astounding 100% – a writer laughed at me and said, “It’s a Three Ringed Circus. Not with clowns and lions, but with Art.” He explained, and what he explained has guided my whole professional world. I pass it on to you to do with it what you will. 

In writing, like all art (maybe even professions… probably with everything in general) there are rings, tiers, levels. We’ll stick with rings because I like the circus metaphor. 

In the first ring there is craft. This is simply learning how to produce the art itself. This is the mastering skills part, the part that takes a lifetime and probably longer to achieve any modicum of expertise. This is Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers – the idea behind: To master a craft one must spend at least 10,000 hours. Of the three rings, this is the least glamorous, most tedious, an isolated act where an apprentice learns how to create an effect. The great poet Marvin Bell once said, “learn the rules, break the rules; make new rules; break those.” This is the life of a true craftsperson lived out. This is the circle where we fail, often, with gusto, learn what works by understanding the breaking point, the point at which the art stops working, the moment the art fails. Like the structural engineer in a lab, the artist pushes the boundaries to see what happens: the moment just before the glass blower shatters the velum-thin material; the moment just before that last layer of paint that ruins the composition; the added or retracted word that creates the unintelligible sentence. Yes, this is the ten thousand hours that no other human (save only those going through the exact same thing) understands, and when those two like-minded souls meet, they huddle in the corner delighting in that which was forged in the darkness of heat, pain and ecstasy. Seen for itself, as itself, it is the most crucial circle and the foundation for the Big Top. Without it, there is no circus at all. 

In the second ring there is the industry of writing. In this ring, one can (and does quite often) get lost. This is the process of writing for publication, the million hallways of making the thing itself. In this professional ring, much like the circus, expert and conman abound. In this circle inhabits the agent, the publishing house with its editors and endless committees, a business within a business, labyrinthian corridors as diabolical and confusing as an Escher painting. This is the marketing, promotions, distribution, returns, the industry insider analysis, the stock market of reviews, the latest greatest puff piece. To know them all (the who does what with whom, to whom, by whom) is both helpful and hurtful, but all of it can sidetrack, waylay, and sometimes snuff out completely the first circle of Craft. Without it, however, this 18th century machine built in the age of steam and gas lighting, a laborious, tedious, broken system of elitist gatekeepers and archaic distribution – without this, well, there would be no publication of the art form whatsoever. The industry of art has a rhythm, a process, and not to understand it – is simpleton, novice ignorance at its lowest level and inexcusable if one wants to be taken seriously. This is the circle of dreams, fantasies, of us/them, we. This is the Art Caste System writ large. And even at the perceived top, it, too, breaks down into irrelevant minutiae – which house, what agent, how many in the first run, how much the advance, and on and on and on, an eternally separating, schism of self-aggrandizement and other.

The third ring is living as an artist. Put simply, it is the day after: “And now what?” And this is a hard lesson for all writers, all artists, all humans (if we want to go there). This is the reality of living in a world that does not care at all about artists and art. This is the reckoning that all artists (and humans) come to as they live their life of art within the capitalist, consumer machine. This is a crucial circle, as important as the first circle of Craft (and perhaps part of it), for this is the circle where the dross covered steel touches the firy furnace, and we see what remains. The advance (that they didn’t tell you, because nobody talks about it) is small, certainly not enough to live off. The publication run is small (nobody talks about it) and distributed poorly if at all (again, crickets) and returned, remaindered within three months (and yes, nobody talks about it), and one is left like the finalists of a singing show after the finale, looking around and saying “Hmm. Okay, and now what?” 

This is the profound moment that separates the artist from the hobbyist. Few, very, very few hold up under such terrifying pressure and heat. Careers melt away and vanish, dreams evaporate like steam from a kettle, as does the accolades, the encouragement… and one finds one back in the first circle of Craft once again… alone, filled with doubt, staring at a blank screen or notebook, asking “So knowing all that I know now, do I begin again, or become a plumber. At least the plumber is paid well.”

My engineer brother once told me that the amount of time I spend writing vs the amount of money I make per hour doing it… well, maybe I should really rethink my goals. And that is what you do, in the third circle called “living as an artist.” You make time for the art no matter what. You teach or work jobs that grant you time to create, always with the Art in mind. You negotiate the space, delighting in the craft, understanding the process, and stuffing your ears with cotton against the siren call of fame and fortune and recognition, because, like all such things, it is fleeting, weightless, and just may costs your very soul. 


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