The War of Art

Today a reader, friend and BKF brother posted the following:

Bilal Al’amin “accomplishment is a continual thing, it is reaping the rewards that elude us. For all my prowess in martial arts, I’ve accomplished a lot, yet have never reaped the  rewards. One can say it doesn’t matter but it does matter, for it gives you a feeling of doubt and second guessing. That is where laws of attraction must be applied in earnest. Yesterday I wrote myself a bestselling review, which I posted on my refrigerator. So that everyday I look at it, I also wrote myself a check in the amount that I am worth, in regards to my writing, posted that as well. What I lacked was applying that concept to my successes. For if you desire to grow from one level to the next you must not limit your vision to just saying I want to be a writer, but to I want to be a successful bestselling author, I want grow financially enough to make a difference in the world, that was what I lacked and now I see so clearly. Works and the law of attraction it works, I was just using it on a minimal scale through limitations of my vision for the future.”


Back in about 1988 when Nicki was about two years old, my agent called me and told me I had a pitch meeting at Paramount for the “Friday the 13th” television series. The premise was simple: there was a haunted curio shop, and if you purchased an item, it forced you to murder people. The stars of the show had inherited the shop, and had to trace the items down and get them back before disaster occurred.  The question was: could I come up with an idea for this series?


I was a fan of the movies (hey, who doesn’t want to watch teenagers get hacked up?) and thought: “sure.”   I devised an idea I thought would work, and went in to pitch.  Drove onto the Paramount lot, filled with optimism, and into the bungalow where they had their offices. There were three or four guys in there, and we chatted a bit (they were “big fans” of my work. They always are.) and after a few minutes I pitched my story.


It was called “Purple Heart.”


It started in Viet Nam.  There is a unit being led by an incompetent young officer, the kind of idiot who would send you to retrieve a live grenade in a mine field under heavy machine gun fire.  The squad’s NCO is beloved of the men, and due to the officer’s asininity, is killed. The men respond by fragging the officer. Realizing what they did, and that they will be tried and convicted of the murder, they frame the dead sergeant for the crime.  There is only one problem: the sergeant isn’t quite dead.  He is medivac’d out and taken to the hospital, where he loses both legs, an arm, and an eye…but survives.


The brass is certain that he killed the officer, but realize they could never convict him–he would look too pitiable. An embarrassment. Instead, they find ways to screw him out of his benefits and discharge him dishonorably.


He is mentally confused, and can’t quite understand what has happened to him. Years later, as a squad reunion on his birthday, someone accidentally drops the dime about what really happened.   He is shocked, heartbroken.  “How could you do this to me?  I loved you guys.  I would have died for you..”


The party dissolves into acrimony, and he leaves, returning to his cold-water walk-up flat.   His landlady pities this poor young man, knows he has nothing, and that it is his birthday.   On the way home that day she passed a certain curio shop, where she saw, in the window…a Purple Heart medal someone’s grandfather won in WW2.  She bought it, and gives it to the sergeant.   She pins it to his chest. “Here’s the medal you should have won…” she says.


And a single tear rolls out of his single eye.  He goes up to his room, pulls himself up onto his lonely bed, and goes to sleep. But as he sleep…the medal begins to GLOW.   And BEAT.  Boom-boom.  Boom-boom. Boom-boom.   And metal VEINS  extrude from the sides of the medal and PLUNGE into his chest.  And his empty eye socket begins to glow, and the eye grows back. And the stumps of his legs begin to glow, and his legs grow back. And the stump of his arm begins to glow, and the arm grows back.


And he levers himself up out of the bed, reborn as a creature of vengeance, and goes after the men who framed him, killing them off one at a time, Commando style.  Karate chops, barbed wire garrot, pungi stakes dipped in human feces…




You get the picture.  I pitched that story, and after I finished, the room was silent.  The guys looked at each other, and then one of them said: “we can’t do that story.  Because if we did that story people would think that this show was about something. And our only excuse for doing a mass murder every week is that this is pure entertainment.”


I sat, thunderstruck.  Realized that my very quest for quality and meaning had sabotaged my efforts to support my family.  I NEEDED these men to say “yes”. With a wave of a pen, a single phone call to the finance office, these men could pay me TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS of desperately needed money.


“What else have you got?” they asked.   And…I began to babble out ideas, as their eyes turned to glass and they assumed attitudes of mild pity.


“Well, come back any time,” they said, ushering me out.  And I left, saddened, confused, and afraid.


But something odd happened. As soon as I stood in the parking lot, it was as if I’d walked out of an opium den, and the toxic lure of money began to lose its pull on me.  I breathed more deeply.  And I heard a voice in my head. Clearly. It was a child’s voice. And it said:


“Daddy, why did you have me talking to those terrible men?”


That was the voice of my inner child. The little eight-year old boy who first looked out at the world and wanted to be a storyteller. He was crushed. Because his father had tried to pimp him out for money.


For the next months something terrible happened. The natural flow of creativity, the endless fountain of ideas I had always enjoyed just…dried up.    I slogged on, but it was painful.  Where writing had always been a refuge from the world, now it was pure horror. Torture. I had betrayed my own creativity, and was paying the price for it.   I could not go on like this.  I remembered seeing the business card of an older writer:  “Freelance Hack and Literary Mechanic” it said.


Within a year he was dead of alcoholism.  I now understood how it had happened.  Somehow, he had betrayed the child within him, and he was a dead writer typing.


I had to heal myself, or die.



I began a daily meditation regimen. Every day I would visualize a place I loved as a child.  Santa Monica beach.   When I went there, there was no Little Stevie to be seen, but I brought toys and treats anyway, would sit quietly looking out over the ocean, then leave the toys and food and go away.


The next day I’d return, bringing new toys.  For weeks, months, nothing happened. In that dream logic way, the previous day’s stuff was usually gone, but it was as if I’d never brought them.  But one day…they had been disturbed.


Little Stevie had been there when I was gone. I continued, day after day, sitting for from 20 minutes to an hour, bringing him treats, and more and more often when I arrived the next day it was clear he’d played with the toys, or even eaten the snacks.


And one day, maybe eight months later…I saw, distant on the horizon, the figure of a tiny boy-child.  Day after day I kept coming, and noticed that, as weeks passed, he came closer and closer.   A sad, lonely little boy, terrified to trust.


And then one day I rose. Just stood there. And he was close enough for me to see his frightened, angry expression.  He turned and walked away.


The next day I did the same thing. And that day he stood facing me, but came no closer.


The next week he took a step toward me.  And the next day another step. And then I took a step toward him. He flinched, but didn’t run.


And over the next weeks we came closer and closer, until one day he broke, and ran to me, and jumped into my arms, and we hugged each other and cried.  “Oh daddy,” he sobbed.  “I’ve been so lonely. Where have you been?”


And I swore to him that I would never leave him again, that I would never EVER force him to do the work it was MY job to do.  That I would die first.


I’ve never broken that promise. And he has been within me always.


The job of the creative child is to dance, and be told he is wonderful and precious. The job of the adult is to build a safe space for that child to play.  To build the walls high, prune thorns off the flowers, and keep the pumas at bay.  The child dances. The ADULT works.




In the arts, the creative impulse is the child self.   It is the ADULT’s responsibility to market and sell and exert discipline and handle the rejection.  What should I have done at Paramount?  I should have had back-up stories before ever walking in the room. Or told them I’d be back. But NEVER exposed my creative heart to those men.  Never. It was child abuse.




The creative heart doesn’t understand money.   Children have NO idea how the parents suffer to protect him from the reality.  The children play while the father goes down into the coal mines to work. The child sleeps and dreams while the mother stays up all night mending cloths. The child eats while the adults pretend not to be hungry because there is no food.


The adult understands the world of exchange and symbols like money.   To the child, putting a price, a value on the dance, the song, the story is like putting a price on a kiss.  They are priceless, or nothing at all.


If you are to thrive as an artist, if you are to survive, you have to disabuse yourself of the notion that quality in art is tied to money.  It is not. It never has been, any more than the fact that McDonald’s is the largest and most profitable food organization is tied to the quality of their hamburgers.


If you want your creative “child” to thrive, your “adult” has to do HIS job.


“If you have mastered anything, you know how to master anything else.”


Jerry Pournelle said this to me a long time ago.  The implication is that YOU ALREADY KNOW how to succeed at anything, if you really look at what you know, and how you learned it.   Bilal is a wonderful martial artist. I so miss playing with him!  And he has struggled to make money with it, or with his art.


That means his “child” is not safe.   What are the lessons from his arena of mastery (martial arts) that he can apply to being successful in writing?   Let’s take a look at a belief chain implied by his note (there are others, but these are common among artists):


  1. Thinking “if I’m good, I’ll make money/ get rich” in the arts.
  2. “Talent” determines success.
  3. Since it doesn’t work that way, the “game” must be corrupt.
  4. Marketing and sales are bad, wrong, painful.


Let’s take a look at the Martial arts, an arena both Bilal and I have refined over decades. A core text of martial theory is A BOOK OF FIVE RINGS by Musashi Miyamoto.  In it, he has a list of nine principles for warriors. They also work for writers.


  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the ways of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop the ability to see the truth in all matters.
  7. Learn to perceive those things which are not obvious.
  8. Pay attention to even small things.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.



I am going to get you started.  I would do more, but really, you need to engage with these ideas personally if you want to learn.  So I will take those first four beliefs and couple them with the first four principles.  I could have coupled them to any of the nine.     PLEASE DO THIS YOURSELF.


  1. “If I’m good, I’ll make money/get rich.”   Couple this with “Do not think dishonestly.”  Look around.  Is this true?  Do the best artists make the most money?  NO never happened.  Get over it.  IT IS NOT TRUE.
  2. “Talent” determines success” is coupled with “The Way is in training.”  Day in, day out.  10,000 hours before you can dare to consider yourself expert.   And that’s 10k hours of conscious, focused training preferably following a path laid out for you by a master.  And the next one is critical.
  3. “Since it isn’t true that quality=reward, the system must be corrupt.”  couple this with “Become acquainted with every art.”  There is the skill and craft of dance, music, painting, writing.  And then…there is the BUSINESS of selling them.   Look carefully.  THEY ARE DIFFERENT THINGS.   The apparatus of money-making is NOT the apparatus that develops pure skill.      They are very different aspects.  And that means that either you find someone willing to take the “adult” role (a lawyer/ agent/ manager) or you will have to do it yourself. And let me be brutally honest: those “adults” are easiest to find if you have already developed your own “adult” in that sense.  Sending your “child” out to tap every adult it meets on the arm and say “will you be my mommy?  Will you be my Daddy?” is abusive.  It is YOUR responsibility to do this.   No one else’s.  This is why so many artists teach school and do their art at night.
  4. “Marketing and sales are bad, wrong, painful.”  Couple this with “Know the Ways of all professions.”  In every money-making enterprise, you need three things:
    1. To develop a unique skill or talent.  Otherwise you are in a race to the bottom with pricing. If you can’t be the cheapest, you are screwed with this approach.  Be yourself.  Be WORLD CLASS at being yourself.
    2. Find the “hive” of people who need what YOU have.  It is said that an artist needs only 1000 raving fans to support them. You don’t need the world.
    3. Find the right MEDIA to reach those 1000 fans.


Message, market, medium.  THOSE are the three keys.  IF you believe you have something worth offering, you have an obligation to share it with the world.  A baker must believe in his cookies, be willing to give free samples, put up delicious pictures of cookies, let the smell of fresh-baked cookies waft from his shop. Put his shop where there is traffic, people whose mouths can be induced to water.


Message, Market, Media.

The child dances, the adult markets and sells.


And…sales and marketing are as much a skill as anything else.  Don’t you dare think you can master it by reading an article or two. If you have a thousand novels and books on writing, but two books on selling, don’t you DARE think you know enough.  That is the child self, who wants and needs to believe his kisses and hugs are of ultimate value.  Who will cry if she has to read rejection slips, who just wants to be told she is precious.


It is the adult who can handle a thousand rejections, who can go into meeting after meeting and stand up to the other adults, and walk away without feeling beaten: it’s just business.


This is why I created the “Ancient Child” program, to help you separate the two.  This is why I beg people to re-read THINK AND GROW RICH once a year.  Why I implore you to use “The Morning Ritual” to shift your energy so that you can take action day after day after damned day.


EVERYONE wants to make a living doing something they love.   Something that expresses their hearts.   If you want your child to dance, your adult must be stronger, tougher, more resiliant and ruthless, more protective and cunning, like a frontier family whose mother and father must deal with Indians and bears and locusts and every other damned thing…so that the children can play.


It’s worth it, I swear it is.   The reward is the sweetest smiles, the dearest kisses, the warmest hugs.  “Mommy.  Daddy.  You never left me alone. You never quit”


And you will be able to answer, honestly:  “And I never will.”






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