I say this every year, but this year has been particularly bad for it so here I am tentatively saying it again. I’m going to stop applying for ‘opportunities’.
To put this decision into context and start with the positive, here are some of the nice things that have happened to me, in the last 10 years, in order.
- 2007: A publisher saw a website I’d made and emailed me, out of nowhere, offering me a book deal.
- 2008: A BBC Comedy producer read one of the books, turned it into an animated serial and commissioned me for a column on the BBC website.
- A famous comedian saw one of the books and started drafting radio and TV pilots with me.
- 2009: Someone saw a talk I’d done about one of the books, and approached me for an interview for a major national magazine.
- Someone else saw the same talk and asked me to do a podcast with them, which ended up having a listenership of thousands, and enabled me to interview at least 60 really interesting experts and celebrities over a few years.
- 2010: That podcast lead to many speaking gigs, reputation gains, other podcasting work, an expansive network, new friends and collaborators.
- 2015: I co-created and put on a musical in London which was featured on the BBC World Service and the Independent.
- 2016: I had an exhibition at the Lowry, one of the UK’s major contemporary art galleries.
- I was asked to speak about my work at the Excel Centre for New Scientist Live.
- 2017: I was invited to be the first Digital Art Curator at the Site Gallery in Sheffield.
- I was invited to be the AI & Apocalypse digital artist in res at CenSAMM.
How many of these opportunities came from writing to people and telling them how great I think I am?
I mean literally, not one of those things came via contact from me. They all found me through something I’d made and got in touch. Telling some winsome story about oneself has rarely worked, for me anyway.
Very occasionally I do get one of the things I apply for, so I’ve continued to do it. But this year I’ve hit my limit, and I’ve resolved to try to break my pattern.
I can think of five times in recent months that I was told I was shortlisted for things which I then didn’t get. That’s five times that I knew of, so perhaps there were more. While there’s a fair case to be made that just getting one’s name out there is all good promotion, it’s a jolly slow burner compared to the urgent passion of the influential fan. Right now, I feel like a professional maker-up-of-the-numbers.
So why have I applied for so many things over the last couple of years, despite dozens and dozens of rejections? I think two reasons:
1) The arts economy is a kind of institutionalised gambling addiction.
2) I have a pattern.
Let’s look at 1).
Trying to make rational long-term plans is incompatible with applying for funding, residencies and fellowships.
This is an industry that invites you to constantly enter into competitions (even the ones not called competitions… are). There may well be a lengthy interview process. If you get through, fireworks will go off. Bells will peal. It’ll be fun and educational and you won’t believe your luck at being finally paid to do what you love! Maybe this will be the leg-up you’ve been hoping for, for so long!
It’s amazing how good we are at ignoring the reality. The prize is usually a very small amount of money, if any money at all, for a job in an inconvenient location, that starts immediately. The industry prefers people not to have anything better lined up, to have their lives permanently on pause, playing the one-armed bandits, ready to give everything at any time.
Even if you win one, it’ll all be over within 6 months and you’ll be chucked back into the pit with everyone else, not significantly ahead. Mostly, though, you won’t even get the gig. The more senior you are, the more of your time you’ll have wasted before the rejection. And whether you win or not, the machines are rigged against you – fixed to take your money and time in the long run.
2) Here’s my pattern. Back in the mid-late 2000s, I was young and had no sense of a future, so I made comedy stuff for fun. People saw the fun, and actively sought me out. Sensing I had something of value, I spent years trying to take control and be a professional about it, seeking out literary agents and producers, writing treatments, having meetings. But none of them were interested. Absolutely every time I took my work out for sale, it got knocked back. Surely if my stuff was any good, I should be able to sell it, rather than just wait for people to come knocking? But I couldn’t sell it, so I concluded that a) I was no good, and b) anyone who’d approached me out of the blue or believed in me over the years must therefore be a bit deluded or desperate. I went to work as an agency copywriter instead.
I don’t want to make this about being a woman, but I’ve often wondered. A woman who goes out into the world and knows her worth is a problem. Only the bravest investor would take her on. And there’s more kudos in discovering a hidden gem than an obviously shining star. (Can’t win though: if you keep quiet people will tell you you’re doing it wrong, too.)
My pattern shows up again in my approach to the arts industry. Opportunities came to find me, and I took that as a vote of confidence that meant I should go and seek more. But my attempts to take charge and spring off past successes have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful. People are fine with success, just as long as you don’t ask for it.
For me, at least, actively seeking out funding, fellowships, agents, and all that other good professional-sounding stuff simply doesn’t work. In fact it backfires, costing me confidence and motivation. I don’t know what I’ll do instead of applying for things, just yet. But I’m open to all ideas, and many of them will be gambles too. But it sure is a relief to decide I won’t be wasting any more time filling in forms.
If there’s something cool you’d like to discuss working on with me in 2018, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.