Several years ago, I went to hear a panel of illustrators at the Eric Carle museum. Whoever organized it clearly did not have much experience with panels, because this had something like nineteen amazing illustrators crowded onto a single stage, among them, icons like Brian Selznick and Barry Moser.
After a few questions, a woman in the audience stood up and asked the panel what their Plan B was. Nineteen illustrators stared at the questioner blankly. Silence filled the room. Finally, one of the artists said, “Uh—could you rephrase the question?” The woman asked something like, “If you weren’t artists, you know—what would you do instead?”
More silence. The illustrators looked at each other, with giant “Yo no comprendo,” question marks over their heads. To the audience, the question was a rather straightforward one: “How would you feed yourself if no one wanted to buy your art?” But for the artists, it was as if this woman were asking a flock of birds, “If you weren’t a bird, what would you be?” How could a bunch of birds be anything but birds? How could the artists ever be anything but artists?
Finally, one of them seemed to manage a tentative translation. “You mean—how would I make money?” Yes, the woman said. One or two of the artists said something about teaching. But, for most of them, it was clear that there really wasn’t a Plan B. Success was Plan B, as well as Plan A.
I often say that the people I have seen have success as writers are the people who keep working. If you really commit to something, you can’t help but develop skills and get better. In Mindset, Carol Dweck writes that intelligence, and even artistic ability, are not fixed. The harder you work to improve, the more intelligent or artistic you become. This isn’t opinion. This is scientific fact. Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point in his book, Outliers. The people who succeed are generally the ones who have devoted the most time to their profession. (Both books cite the example of Mozart. We think of him as a young genius, but by the age of 28, he had played so much piano and composed so much music that his hands were hideously deformed.) Does this work in all cases? No, of course not. There are some artists who toil in obscurity and never make a living from art. But being an artist is separate from making a living. These people would make art no matter what. And that kind of commitment usually leads to success.