If you’re doing anything even remotely creative, you have to first be willing to play for an audience of one.
I’m not saying you’ll have an audience of one. I’m not even saying your audience of one is going to be any good. Maybe you have only one person at your show and they’re hooting and hollering and basically treating you like garbage. Maybe someone’s heckling you the whole time you’re up on stage. Even worse, maybe they’re not even paying attention to you, treating you like you’re part of the scenery.
But none of that matters. If you’re going to put yourself out there, the first thing you have to decide is that you can get up on stage for that one person, and damn it, you’re going to give the best performance you possibly can for that one audience member. You are going to perform your fucking heart out. This is going to be the best performance you can possibly give.
In other words, you have to decide that you don’t give the tiniest shit whether or not you’re popular. You’re going to perform either way.
What do I mean by that? Well, go ahead and read this comic. Not just because Winston Rowntree is magnificent, but because that’s one of the most beautiful summaries of the creative process ever. If I had my way, that comic would be required reading every day for everyone, because it shoots down every single question you could ever ask about why you’re doing something. “Why am I bothering?” Read the comic again, pal.
No one starts off popular. Oh, sure, you have people who are already popular who have more of a built-in audience when they start a new project, but that doesn’t translate to starting off with popularity. That translates to banked goodwill. You did something that resonated with people, and now some – not all – of your previous audience will come along. But first you had to stand out there and call for attention on street corners in order to get anyone to notice you existed in the first place.
That’s the brutal part of being creative and putting yourself out there. I’m not entirely sure, I haven’t asked everyone on the planet, but I’m willing to bet good money that no one likes pouring their heart and soul into something and getting a grand total of three people looking at it.
Yeah, that’s the point of that comic, and that’s what I love about it. Because when you wind up there, you have to adjust your shirt, crack your knuckles, and tell yourself that those three people are going to see something great. It’s not about whether or not only three people saw it, it’s how much those three people enjoyed it.
I’m a roleplayer, and roleplaying by its very nature means that you’re making a very limited form of art that’s going to stick in the minds of a very small number of people. That’s why I hate having huge groups of people involved in roleplaying. I would much rather have a small group who can be intimately involved in the whole process. Sure, you wind up with a fraction of the people seeing what you’re doing, but to those people this is something they’ll have for their whole lives. Sharing roleplaying stories is something that persists because we love trying to show others how much this moment meant to us.
With Massively, I perform on a small stage. Here, I’m on a small stage. I’m constantly putting it out there, trying to get a bigger one, but that takes time. And you know, I’m all right with that. I’m willing to be patient. Because the comments I get from people who read things that I write and can’t gush about it enough, who are so happy that I wrote something that resonated with them and made them feel like someone else plucked emotions and put them into words?
It’s why I do what I do.
Not too long ago on Twitter I mentioned that the patron-sponsored pieces toward the end of each month are my favorite things to write, because those are pieces that someone is passionate about. Someone really wants a piece to exist unpacking why Roger Ebert hated the idea of games being art, or talking about obscure buggy RPGs that are never getting a deserved sequel, or finding something new to say about a well-known game.
I want those pieces to be good, but not because I want everyone to love them. Because I want the people who sponsored them to look at them and say “this is exactly what I wanted.” I don’t care if they only amuse one person if that one person is over the moon about them.
Kurt Vonnegut said that you should write to please one person, and I think that’s probably the most basic piece of advice you can have when you’re starting to do something creative. But you also have to be all right with the idea that sometimes, especially when you’re just starting out, you’re only going to get that one person. More people might arrive over time, and if you’re proud of what you’ve made you’ll want a way to point them toward what you did back in the day, but you should be all right with making something that’s only going to matter to one other person on the face of the planet.
Because if you aren’t willing to put on the best performance you can for one person, what makes you think you’ll care any more when it’s one million people?
Popularity is great, and it changes you, and that doesn’t mean “don’t worry about money” or “don’t worry about inclusion” or any of that shit. It means that you should make what you’re making with the intent of making someone completely happy, and you should be happy with the audience you have. Sure, maybe you want a bigger one, but you get on stage and you play your heart out, and you hope that the next time another person shows up, and you play your heart out then, too. Not everyone who comes one night will come another night, but you make yourself a promise that there’s never going to come a night when you put on a show that leaves everyone wondering why they came at all.
You need to be all right with just one person in the audience. Because if you make one person’s life better because of what you’re making, that’s good enough.
This is kind of why I love the opening acts more than the main attraction at most concerts. The headline band has already sort of paid their dues and are completely capable of just phoning it in. The band playing as an opener are almost always the ones who play their assets off…and usually to a meager crowd.
And they still churn out great tunes. Energetically, almost all of the time.