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Art, Death and Hope

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The Start and the End

Finally, it was over.

For the past four years, John fought the inner creative war…

Four years of writing, editing, cutting, scrapping and starting from scratch…

Four years of uncertainty, doubt and fear…

Four years of painful creative struggle – the kind only a fiction author can truly appreciate…

But in February, the war was over – John had finished his manuscript.  He had won.  He could relax and breathe a sigh of relief. 

All that remained was sending it to a publisher.

That’s the easy part, though, right?

The Struggle

John packed up the manuscript and sent it to a publisher – Simon and Shuster.

The manuscript eventually made its way to a senior editor – Robert Gottlieb.  This was a big deal.  Robert was responsible for discovering and editing then-unknown Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.  He obviously recognized talent and knew how to edit a book.

If John’s manuscript had even a hint of value, Robert would find it.

John’s manuscript didn’t make the cut.

At least not the first iteration.

Robert asked John to try again.

John tried again.

Again, his manuscript got returned.

Robert admitted John had talent – he was certainly a capable author…but his book didn’t have a pointAnd you can’t publish a book that doesn’t have a point.  Robert asked John to submit another rewrite.

Over the next two years, John struggled to rewrite a book he had poured his heart and soul into.

Yet no matter what he did, the book never made the cut.

The Fall

John threw the manuscript aside and tried working on a new novel, but his heart wasn’t in it.

At the encouragement of his mother, John attempted to submit his manuscript to a new publisher.  It had now been close to three years since he had finished the original manuscript.  With renewed optimism, John tried again.

His manuscript was rejected.

John had put everything into this novel.  The characters were pieces of himself.  When publishers rejected his manuscript, they were, in effect, rejecting John.

The personal rejection was devastating.

This final rejection set into motion a downward spiral of depression – a hopeless and miserable depression that lasted for two years before John couldn’t take it anymore.

In March 1969, John Kennedy Toole took his own life.

Dunces in Confederacy…

As some of you may know, this is the heartbreaking true story of author John Kennedy Toole and the ill-fated tail of his posthumously awarded, Pulitzer Prize winning book A Confederacy of Dunces.

During his lifetime, John’s manuscript wasn’t given the time of day.  Publishers didn’t like it.  It was a book that was seemingly about nothing.

A book like that can’t be published, can it?

It wasn’t until years later, after John’s mom went on a personal crusade to get the manuscript published, that it caught the attention of Walker Percy and, in 1980 – 15 year (!) after John had finished the original manuscript – the book was published.

Think about that.


It took 15 years before a big publisher recognized the value in this book.  15 years before John’s incredible story was brought to the masses.  15 years before the rest of us got to experience the brilliance that was Ignatius Reilly’s misadventures in New Orleans…

15 years…

11 too late to save John’s life.

Who Should Choose You?

This story isn’t meant to point out the failure of traditional publishers – we already know the model is broken.

No one can see value in what the creator produces quite like the producer himself (or his happy readers).  This is a given.

Nor is this story meant to vilify traditional publishing – we already know their job is to make money.

If a book doesn’t have a point, how do you market it?  If it can’t be marketed, how do you sell it?  If you can’t sell it…move onto a book you can sell.

This story is meant simply to consider one question: if an author like John Kennedy Toole was living today, what would stop him from choosing himself?

Time and time again John was rejected…

A thousand times a day, creators – artists, inventors, and authors just like John 50 years ago – are being rejected by gatekeepers: publishers, producers, angel investors, whatever.

This made sense 50 years ago…but today?

Today, every single one of us has the means to be the publisher, the producer, and even the manufacturer.

We are the gatekeepers now.  Not the film studio, not the publishing house, not the hedge fund – YOU.  The only one stopping you from saying ‘go’ is yourself.

So tell me – what’s stopping you? 

What’s keeping your manuscript from seeing the light of day?  What’s keeping your movie from being created and distributed?  What’s stopping your product from going into production?

Your Opportunity to Commit Today

I wish John was alive today – not only for his family and friends sake, but for the world’s sake.

He created great art.  He wrote words that mattered.  I have no doubt he had more to give…

Today, there are thousands of talented creators just like John all around the world.  People with talent, with value to add to others, with a story, product or idea that deserves to see the light of day.  They’ve probably been rejected a thousand times.  And they may be rejected a thousand more.

My plea to those authors, designers, writers, entrepreneurs, warriors and leaders:

1. Don’t give up.  No matter how hard it gets, there’s a reason you’re here.  There’s light at the end of every tunnel – if you can’t see it, it means you haven’t walked far enough.  KEEP GOING!

2. Pick yourself.  It feels good to get chosen by others.  Getting picked is like a drug – and like a drug, it’s superficial, ephemeral and addictive.  The high is fleeting, destructive and anything but real.  Be your own catalyst: pick yourself instead.

And if you need help with either of the above, I encourage you to check out Insurgent Publishing – a boutique, creative publishing platform that was designed and built to remedy the failure of traditional publishing.

In fact, if you’re a writer, artists, designer, editor or just an art and book enthusiast, I challenge you to get involved today.  In January, Insurgent Publishing is publishing our first ever creative entrepreneur’s journal – a literary journal that focuses on business and art in the 21st century.

Here is a real opportunity to commit to something that could change your life (and the lives of others) for the better.  Get involved today by following the link above.

If your idea doesn’t ‘fit’ with Insurgent Publishing, it’s my promise to you that I will personally help you publish yourself, so that, no matter what, your idea sees the light of day.  This would be commercial suicide for the traditional publisher.

Luckily, a traditional publisher I am not.

Final Thoughts

I know it sounds clichéd or rehashed at this point – don’t give up and pick yourself…

You’ve probably heard it a dozen times and read the same points a thousand times in a thousand different varieties…

But when life hangs in the balance – and, many times, it actually does – I’m not sure the point can ever be emphasized enough.

So here’s to John Kennedy Toole – a remarkable artist that was overlooked and who left us too soon.

And here’s to the unknown artist, in the trenches, day in and day out, creating work that matters – I look forward to reading your book, watching your movie, or using your product…

Sooner, rather than later.


photocredit: Courtney via FarAwayReasons.com

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  • Such a powerful message here! Thank you for this. As a creative entrepreneur, I battle the inner voices of fear, doubt and “maybe I’m not meant to do this.” Your message reminds me that now, more than ever, the power to choose ourselves and step forward is in our hands. There is no excuse keeping me from creating my work and bringing my brilliance forward. I am so thankful that technology and systems are evolving in a way that allows all of us to choose ourselves. It really is the best of times to do our greatest work!

    • Thanks so much Scott. Yes! Definitely check out the book…it’s hilarious and well worth the time investment.

      Enjoy Costa Rica for me 🙂

  • Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment Michael – so glad you liked it.

    It’s kind of humbling when you think about it – just HOW much power we have as creators.

    Naturally, this situation provides its own set of problems, but they are problems I’d happily take over the former (e.g. NEEDING to get the go ahead from a gatekeeper).

    Thanks for your thoughts Michael!

  • Great post Tom! A great reminder that in today’s age of technology, we as individuals, have the power to pick ourselves and get our thoughts, work, and message out to the world! Thank you for sharing your message! 🙂

  • This was one of my favorite posts of yours!!! I get so excited when you write about my favorite authors or books. I actually just bought my own copy a few weeks ago, because I had been wanting to re-read it for so long. Anyways, great message. John Kennedy Toole is one of my top 3 favorite authors. Have you read Neon Bible? He wrote it when he was 16. It’s not a comedy though. 😐

    • Mary – thanks so much. Who are your other two favorite authors? I’d love to write more stuff about them and their work 🙂

      I definitely want to check out Neon Bible…and wish I could see his started but unfinished manuscript for the Conquering Worm (I think that was the tentative title). Such a great writer.

  • There are so many people that need to hear this message and understand it. I plan to forward it to my friends and followers. Thanks also for introducing me to an author I was unaware of.

    Explore the Adventurous Life

    Adventure Insider

    • Thanks so much for leaving a comment! Glad it resonated – it is an important message and needs to be shared / spread. Thank you so much for taking the time to do just that.

  • This is such a powerful message. I love the reminder that we need to choose ourselves. It is very sad to hear that John took his life without seeing his dream fulfilled. Now his story lives on as a powerful reminder. Thank you!

    • Lisa – I completely agree…that’s the most heartbreaking part – that he wasn’t around to experience the joy he brought so many others.

      Thanks for leaving a comment!

  • Wasn’t “Seinfeld” the show about nothing? Weren’t its fans so loyal that they arranged their lives around this program? I haven’t read “Confederacy of Dunces” but maybe I should. I’m certainly interested in what you are up to. It is a shame for anyone to give up on himself over what someone else thinks. I am inclined to believe that this attitude has a great deal to do with a rise in what is perceived as bullying. I’m not so sure that people do as much “bullying” as they are accused of. I think the people who give up have not learned to value themselves, because they have for some reason been led to believe that the opinion of others is a real measure of themselves. If we believe all the hype about “bullying” we would need to believe that the publishers who kept telling Otoole that his book was about nothing were bullies. They weren’t. What is it that sucks the hope right out of a person who was born an indomitable baby?

    • Katherine, great question.

      What is it that sucks the hope out of people?

      How many failures until we break?

      How much bad stuff has to happen before a person throws in the towel?

      To be honest, I don’t know…I’m sure we all have different breaking points…different levels of pain we can take before it’s too much.

      A Confederacy of Dunces is like Seinfeld before Seinfeld. It’s incredible…and while it’s seemingly about nothing, it’s actually certainly about something – just many somethings. It’s a tough book to put into a category – that’s what scared publishers away.

      But clearly, it didn’t scare away readers.

      I think if there’s one lesson we can take away from it is this: we should pick ourselves.

      People can be mean. If you get good, if you create great work, it’s a certainty that people WILL be mean. It’s only the lukewarm and average that escape criticism.

      So I say: pick yourself – and help others do the same.

  • Love this! —–> No matter how hard it gets, there’s a reason you’re here. There’s light at the end of every tunnel – if you can’t see it, it means you haven’t walked far enough. KEEP GOING!”

    So much of getting somewhere seems to have to do with trying again and again and again and knowing you’ll get it EVENTUALLY. I see this teaching piano too, the students that come in with the attitude where if they don’t nail something the first time they get depressed..well they have a hard time! Most all of them come around. Rejection isn’t pretty but it really doesn’t harm us! Thanks for writing

  • Michael – thanks so much for pointing that out…that message is very near and dear to my heart.

    Great example of piano…and ANYTHING that requires time, effort and sometimes tears to become great at. The learning curve is a pain….and once we’ve gotten good enough to play, it’s onto the next learning curve: good enough to be sold / enjoyed / consumed by others.

    Life, in a lot of ways, is one never ending learning curve….we can fight it and lose, or embrace it and, yes, struggle…but also find joy, happiness and peace.

    “We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.” G.K. Chesterton

  • This was my first trip to your site but it will not be my last! WOW that post was just what I needed to hear. As a creative entrepreneur I am often hard on myself when I din’t see a tangible result. Sometimes I think of giving up (obviously, we all have those moments) but the thought of giving up always makes me feel a little sad and so I keep going and walk a little further hoping to find that illusive light at the end of the tunnel. Cheers for keeping us all headed forward.

    • Thanks so much Kate! Glad it resonated 🙂

      You’re spot on…sometimes the idea of giving up, and the emotions we’d feel if we did quit, are enough to keep us on track and going. And I think that’s a good thing.

      Keep moving Kate! Look forward to seeing what you create 🙂

      – Tom

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