I promised myself I would never say the words when I was your age. But it happened yesterday during my conversation with Donna, a millennial who describes herself as a designer/writer/artist/barista. She has written a collection of short stories and is ready to begin the journey of self-publishing. We talked about the tasks she faces: editing, proofreading, cover and interior design, typesetting, marketing, promotion, distribution, and pricing, to name a few. All the necessary tools—so many tools!—are at her fingertips.
“When I was your age,” I said, wincing, “publishing a book was a completely different experience.”
Many of you reading this column are like Donna: millennials born in the 1980s who work in the creative arts. I can’t help but make comparisons to the early stages of my own professional life. Like you, I was encouraged to follow my passions and dreams. I did, and I still do. But I fear it is harder for you.
Compared to my generation, who embarked on careers thirty to forty years ago, the opportunities and outlets for your artistic talents have grown exponentially. But so have the burdens. You are told you can do anything, and you are expected to do everything. As one young Brooklynite who is juggling acting, playwriting and a catering business said to me, “I’m drowning in choice.”
BURDEN #1: DIY
Thirty years ago, if you were a writer lucky enough to have a publisher, you also had professionals to produce, market and distribute your book. But along with the personal computer came desktop publishing—an early indicator of the DIY revolution— introducing a set of digital tools that offered more control and subsequently more pressure. Now, as a writer—or a musician, filmmaker or any other creative professional—you can (“should”) Do It (all) Yourself.
Clearly, the time required to learn these tools is overwhelming. But the bigger problem is the resulting lack of quality. Training yourself in Photoshop or Final Cut Pro is one thing, but gaining experience in design, photography, filmmaking, writing and marketing is another.
The growth in opportunities to publish and exhibit creative work online is matched by a decline in professional expertise. Many online outlets have no submission criteria, no editing, curating or critiquing. And because numbers are the easiest form of measurement, we judge the success of a creative work by the quantity of likes, views, shares and retweets it receives, many of which are generated by bots.
BURDEN #2: BAD MEN
In my column “First, Accept No Harm” (Communication Arts November 2007), I wrote about a young woman attending art school in the early 1980s. Her photography teacher showed interest in her work and praised her inventiveness. Hungry for guidance, she was pleased with the attention, until one day that “guidance” occurred in the darkroom. She pulled away, and the teacher’s praise soon dried up. So did her confidence.
This behavior was rampant, but a new awareness was emerging. Young people began talking, identifying the problem in open dialogues. We could see that supposedly “mild” transgressions were harmful, and that power, when abused, crushes creativity.
We expected the abuse to go away. But as we’ve learned from the disclosures about Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and God knows who else by the time you read this, bad men are more covert and still use their power not only to dominate, but also to cover their tracks.
BURDEN #3: CONFLICTING EXPECTATIONS
Early in my career, my expectations for success were ambitious but realistic. I was part of several startups: small groups of entrepreneurs who wanted to combine art, design and technology, with an emphasis on creativity. As the startups grew, we received pay raises and stock options, often before we even asked for them.
Then a shift occurred. We began to hear about speedy fortunes made in Silicon Valley, and expectations changed. One friend told me that his primary goal was to sell his small design firm. His role models were not Paul Rand or Massimo Vignelli; they were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Pursuing creativity was not enough; now you had to pursue wealth.
This exposes the problem for the elders who know and love you and want you to be happy. We are conflicted. “You can do anything,” we say. “Follow your vision.” So you take that inspirational path, and suddenly, when you graduate from art school, those of us who supported your creative explorations start nagging you about health insurance, student loans and credit card debt. We tell you to dream, and then we yell, “Wake up!”
These are just a few of the growing burdens that you millennials must contend with. But I will continue to tell you—implore you—to pursue your creative passions and dreams. And thirty years from now, as you hear yourself say to your students or children or young colleagues, “When I was your age... ,” I hope you will do the same. Otherwise, we are lost. ca
© 2018 W. Richmond