MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

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Friday, June 25, 2010

ATLANTA: WRITE THE WORLD

KEYNOTE SPEECH: TAP-DANCING ON THE RAZOR’S EDGE


In cooperation with Atlanta-Rio Sister City Committee and the Atlanta Writers Club

© Kenneth Atchity

If you’re an authorpreneur, a writer, an artist trying to make it in today’s toughly competitive global market, you’re tapdancing on the narrowest bridge in the world—spanning the cactus fields of the UNKNOWN world and THE PROMISED LAND where the grass is greener and the trees are tall and mighty.

It’s the smallest and most dynamic and most important bridge in human experience—one that everyone would like to be standing on but few have the courage to attempt:

It’s the bridge of VISION--that links dream with reality.

It’s a very small bridge and very narrow and uncomfortable when you first step onto it. But the longer you’re on it, the more maneuvering room you realize you have. The more comfortable it becomes standing on what you recognize as the razor’s edge.

You learn to tap dance.

You learn to laugh and cry again.

You learn to enjoy the dance, to sing while you dance.

You learn perspective. You build character. You turn from butterfly to lioness.

Sooner or later you should begin to feel, as I do, incredibly fortunate to be doing what we love the most—STORYTELLING—and getting paid to do it. As a producer, editor, literary manager, author consultant, and brand launcher I get to be an alchemist, turning STORIES into GOLD.

And as someone who tries hard to always think OUTSIDE THE BOX—especially since the boxes either are crumbling or have already crumbled--it has been thrilling to see my clients’ DRACULA THE UNDEAD on page one of cnn.com and on the New York Times extended list—after I added a brand name to the mix; and to be producing my clients’ Jerry Blaine and Lisa McCubbin’s THE KENNEDY DETAIL, which appears from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster this November after we found a way to get Clint Hill to write the forward, and we managed to set up, with our reality partner Renegade83 a 2-hour Discovery Sunday special which will appear at the same time as the book launch. These clients danced the danced successfully, and because they, like all storytellers, are inveterate masochists are already back on that bridge dancing that crazy dance again.

No one is forcing you to do this. Remind yourself of that when the going gets toughest. You’ve chosen this career, and you can only lose at it if you quit.

What you are doing, in business terms, is creating the most valuable commodity on earth, “intellectual property.” And today that is worth more than real property! Who would you rather be, Donald Trump or Steve Jobs?

You are entering an infinite profession, of unlimited potential. Not even the sky is the limit—my client Nik Halik’s The Thrillionaire has been in outer space! In this world of studios crashing, networks retrenching, publishers conglomerating, where everything is changing all the time—at least one thing is constant: the need for stories never ceases.

“Trackers” are highly paid by the major studios to find stories and bring them in.

No wonder storytellers were considered sacred among the ancient Greeks--because they were the channelers of STORIES, stories that described reality in terms humans can relate to.

Therefore don’t let your ego prematurely destroy your career, as I have seen it do for so many writers. “No ego” should be your mantra, as you take your WORK, not YOURSELF, seriously.

Eventually, on that razor’s edge, you’ll learn that though the Promised Land IS worth the promise it’s the struggle to get there that is the most valuable experience of your life.

As storytellers who are here this weekend because you actively pursue your vision, you know full well how narrow the bridge we stand on is, how fragile. But you should also know that we’re heroes for even attempting to cross this bridge. I’d like read a tribute to your work by the greatest Greek poet since Homer and Sappho. His name was Constantine P. Cavafy, and he lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and died less than a hundred years ago:

The First Step


The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritus:
"I've been writing for two years now
and I've composed only one idyll.
It's my single completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder
of Poetry is tall, extremely tall;
and from this first step I'm standing on now
I'll never climb any higher."
Theocritus retorted: "Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you've done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it's a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you've done already is a wonderful thing."

So let’s pause to celebrate--and applaud ourselves right now--for even being here today, on this step—whether it is your first, or whether you’ve taken a few steps already. If you are among the latter, you’ll appreciate the words of the great playwright-poet Samuel Beckett: “Do not come down the ladder. I have taken it away.”

Let’s also face it :you’re in “show BUSINESS,” as my client and partner Michael A. Simpson constantly reminds me; and you must deal with it as the BUSINESS of SHOW. What years have taught me is how important it is, never more so than today, to understand the BUSINESS of being a visionary, a person others call “mad” or “insane.” Remind them of Salvador Dali’s response: “The difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad.”

I always say that the difference between a visionary and a con man in the creative world is SUCCESS. No one believes you can really do it, because everyone has told them how hard it is—and they themselves are too fearful to try.

Yes, it is difficult. That’s why, though everyone in the world has a story, NOT everyone—only YOU—are doing something about it.

Your personal cutting edge difference will be dealing with your career as a business on all fronts. Business requires a plan, an investment, a marketing program, and unceasing determination to move the flag across the field, remembering, for consolation, that if you die in the midst of your own dream that, by definition, has to be a happy death!

As Muriel Rukeyser said, for us humans, “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Whatever it’s really made of, all that matters is how we perceive it. And it’s through stories that we form our perception.

When you’re standing on the razor’s edge in fear, or complaining—as all of us constantly do--remind yourself:

No one is FORCING you to tell your stories to the world. No one is holding this gun to your head but yourself.

You’re here by your free choice, while they are behind their counters or their commuting dashboards or their tellers’ windows because they are afraid to take the chances you are getting used to.

Meanwhile, you are following your dream.

Welcome to the world of storytellers:

What is a storyteller? A storyteller is a simply a communicative dreamer—a person who dares to learn how to communicate her dreams to all of us.

Doing so is not only his privilege, it’s his responsibility. I always told my Occidental College students, “If you have a dream, and fail to express it, you have denied all of us a unique vision that only you can bring us.”

But Aristotle said, “Excellence is not a plan.” Dreamers need to plan. An authorpreneur who truly wishes to succeed in the commercial world of storytelling needs to analyze it from a business point of view. AMBITION and VISION are NOT ENOUGH. You must equal them with CRAFT, TECHNIQUE, AND SKILL.

In my book, A WRITER’S TIME, I wrote that four things are needed to succeed in Hollywood:

1) Persistence (endurance, determination)

2) Contacts (networking)

3) Being a fun person to work with (and its corollary, “Staying off everyone’s life is too short list”) and

4) TALENT

It’s sobering to realize that any one of the first three are sufficient in themselves. Bad movies can be made through sheer persistence; mediocre books can be published just through strong contacts. But the 4th, the one we’re all looking and hoping for, is NOT sufficient. Talent alone must be combined with the others.

And add LUCK or GOOD TIMING and, remembering what someone said that the “harder I work the luckier I get.”

You might also add ORIGINALITY—which Joe Roth defined as “being able to think of something that hasn’t been on TV!”

Recently, trying to maintain the business of show business, my company has evolved. We raise independent financing for films, and encourage writers to become filmmakers to move their projects forward. We consult with writers on their career strategies one on one. We launch brands. As literary managers, we look for the next Sue Grafton or Robert Ludlum whose vision CLEARLY extends into the future.

What we learn from the tap-dance on the razor’s edge is:

TOUGHEN UP.

KEEP MOVING FORWARD DESPITE YOUR PRESENT MOODS. A week from now, you won’t even remember how you feel today; so don’t let it stop you from working. My wife Kayoko is always reminding me that Gandhi said, “Full effort is full success.”

PERSIST. NEVER GIVE UP. Yes, you may be going through hell. But “if you’re going through hell,” Winston Churchill advised, “keep going!”

NEVER PUT DEADLINES ON YOUR CAREER.

TAKE YOUR CAREER, NOT YOURSELF, SERIOUSLY. Don’t go from saying “I just want to be better” to “I just want to write what I want to write.” I’ve repeatedly seen clients lose the humble perspective created before success hit them, and sabotage their careers.

NEVER PUT ASIDE YOUR VISION, BUT PERFECT IT, PERFECT IT, PERFECT IT and make allies of those who can help you do that to bring your craft and skills to the level of your talent and ambition. If you continue pursuing your dream no matter what until you achieve it—and then you’ll have bigger dreams, of course—by definition, YOU CAN’T FAIL. Carlyle put it this way: “Success is steady progress toward a worthy goal.”

Walt Disney was turned down 302 times before he got financing for Disneyland.

Frank Herbert’s DUNE was rejected 36 times. Don’t let your representative give up at 32!

George Lucas was forced to put up his own money to pay for “Star Wars” because NO ONE believed in his vision. By the time the film came out, he was bankrupt. He is now fabulously wealthy of course—PRECISELY BECAUSE HE WAS UNABLE TO SELL ANY OF THE RIGHTS TO THE FILM OR ITS SEQUELS. Shakespeare played politics to get the Globe Theater built for his own plays. Sophocles and Aeschylus had to do the same thing in the time of classical Greece. Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, in fact most late nineteenth century novelists began their careers SELF-PUBLISHING.

Jerzy Kosinski’s STEPS won awards, but was rejected by publishers 34 times—once by its very own publisher, after it had already been published.

Remember what William Goldman observed, in his Adventures in the Screen Trade: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.

In today’s tough world of authorpreneurship, be flexible and always THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX.

Yes, the business of becoming and being a professional writer is hard. The hard part is the great part. That’s why you’ve chosen to do it. The river is wide between where we are now and the success and attention we want is on the other side. The razor’s edge is thin and dangerous. You don’t NEED to do this. You’re DESTINED to do this.

What could be a happier mission in life?

How can you fail at being yourself?

And now you know what the bridge is—a razor’s edge--and how to dance on it, just promise me and yourself that you won’t fall off.

As for this great conference, organized by Atlanta AEI Associate Manager Mardeene Mitchell, Tudo Azul!

Muito obrigado – Boa sorte!

1 comment:

Vera Carvalho Assumpção said...

Dear Ken,

your speech in Atlanta was very good and very helpfull. I hope I could find the bridge of vision and, even living in Brazil, could link dream with reality.
Thank you very much
kisses
Vera Carvalho Assumpcao