A year and a half ago, I attempted to launch a fair trade publishing house, BlissQuest Publishing, and was met with a strange combination of vitriolic push, and an underdog’s cheering squad. The funding attempts failed repeatedly, and I spent the bulk of summer 2015 meeting and chatting with venture capital investors who all said the same thing, “You have a great idea. The math holds up. It’s a business model that will work. It’s an idea that’s overdue. BUT you’re a nobody.”
I only had a skeleton crew board; a great business plan; a handful of artists who were ready to be published in a fair trade model, but they weren’t big names, simply artists in support of an equality concept; a gaggle of supportive friends and family; and a metric ton of enthusiasm, passion, and years of research and hard-won experience. Earned.
But I am a nobody, and I couldn’t argue, they had a point there. Touché.
I had a model that wasn’t profitable to the house. In fact, the house was built to be un-profitable, as the model provides half of all net to the authors, and half rolls back into sustaining, maintenance, expansion, growth, community outreach, education and cultural development. The idea would have provided marketing and promotion for all artists, 50/50 splits on royalties, offered in-house hours for living stipends and the eventual plans for healthcare and retirement planning, and continued education reimbursement for the artists. It would mean the first business model to support diversity, artists of all media, all gender types, all religions, all races, sexual orientations and genres – It would have been the first business model for the ethical treatment and support of artists as though they are contributing, valid, valued members of society, worthy of the same benefits as a “real jobber”.
But I am a nobody.
Sensing a little bitterness about the “nobody” thing?
Yeah, me too.
In fact, I was so bitter about the consistent reminder that I hadn’t hit a chart with my books, or scored even a decent living wage in order to continue writing from the years of struggle in the field – I closed up the model, tucked it in a drawer and took a “real job” in a small town on the edge of the Pacific ocean, where I really was a nobody and wouldn’t feel bad about it.
I stopped writing. Stopped helping other writers. Stopped being a socialite of the artist venues and events.
Basically, I tucked my tail and quit. Only leaving my house to work, or attend the last of the events I’d already promised to participate in. Then I put my head down and hid from the echoing reminders of failure.
Failure. Failure and me, we go way back. We’ve been like peas in a pod since I can remember. In fact, my first eight years of blogging were just captures of my bumbling, painful attempts to human, failing most of the time. Efforting toward dreams, struggling through the day-to-day, losing relationships, and jobs, and even my hair. Failing at this and that, until, almost by happenstance, I would stumble into a brief success, almost effortlessly.
But I am a nobody.
Anyone who has ever met with any true level of success knows, there was nothing effortless about it. It was only achievable through those grueling workouts, consistent falls, determined rises, disciplined scheduling, monitored resources, and all of the precious, blood-stained, sweat-logged learnings from each heartbreaking fail.
The only true fail, is the one time we don’t get back up, right?
I’ve loved living on the coast, tucked in a small town where no one knows my origin story, my draft chapters aren’t common knowledge, and the mere mention of my name isn’t a cringe-worthy topic in the gatekeeper circles.
So being a nobody – has been really nice, like a mini-vacation, where the pressure to achieve those weighty dreams against the odds was lifted. I haven’t had to defend the idea of equality or representation, or fair trade as though I’m promoting snake oil to the blinded masses… and in the time I didn’t have to fight to stand upright in the sea of negative voices, all the while hearing the refrain, “you’re a nobody” – – -I caught my breath.
I breathed in sea air, hiked the forests, watched the clouds, took the back roads into the mountains, and sat by the rivers. I journaled. I cried. I wished over and over I’d been stronger and spoke better, and illuminated the idea and needs with more grace. I had to accept that I failed to reach the eyes and ears of the artists and audiences I wanted to help. My intention was good, but I was a nobody, and I can’t help anyone when I’m a nobody. I accepted the failure, and then took a nap in the woods by the Pacific as the fireweed died off, and the tide rolled out.
Autumn slipped into the valley. The trees ambered, and the rivers gorged with rain. The pastures swam with salmon as the deltas flooded, and in time I heard my own voice again. It seems like it’s been years since I heard her over all the yelling in the city of naysayers, the torrents of people all needing to be correct – correct over the top of my voice.
I realized, once I heard myself again….
It’s easy to dismiss an idealist as a nobody, to see them as inexperienced, unaware, or an ignorant dilettante, a fairy dreamer … then you bear no personal responsibility in the correcting of the circumstance which you yourself secretly abhor. Even the label “idealist” doesn’t actually mean, unknowledgeable, or impractical – it means I strive for a better status quo than what you have already settled for. Correcting over someone who has an idea for change, real lasting and supporting change to the community – is the same thing as walking past the trash that just missed the canister. Ignoring it, is the same as participating in its degeneration.
Because once you hear my voice, once I am a nobody no longer, and the truth has substance – you can no longer delete my validity with your much louder denials. Once you hear me, the weight of your own privilege will pull you off your horse, and you’ll have to earn your way just like all the other disenfranchised who struggle beside you, or under you, but they do it honestly – and with hopes for a better outcome. By acknowledging the truth of the need for fair trade and equal representation in diversified entertainment, you may risk losing the privileges you feel entitled to, even if that privilege is the first world marginalized “struggling artist archetype” you pride yourself on. The starving artist identity by which you define your value, by the effort of the struggle, will no longer be enough. By acknowledging and working toward change, you will be required to acknowledge your part in the unhealthiness of the entertainment and market-driven white-washing and sexual oppression of the industry – even if your only contribution is that you sold your work for less than it was worth, less than you needed to survive, in order to have your name in print, or your face on a billboard for a blink of an eye. Yes, that too contributes to the state we’re all currently in as artists.
When I realized that’s why people, even artists fought against me so hard, I understood I was attempting to create a positive change by trying to hack through the entertainment world undergrowth, years of privilege-enhanced market conditioning, racism, sexism, discrimination, and royalty theft, with a martini pick. As I pushed against the status quo, it pushed back. I got hate mail and threats of violence. Grown men screamed at me in public, red-faced and veins bulging. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
And the rage, and fury caught me so off guard I replied with the only honest answer that popped to mind. “I’m Athena. I’m just a nobody, but I have this idea…”
Then I went to my car, trembling, to hide.
I took the approach a nobody would have taken. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t know of any other way than to stand there, handing out pamphlets, doing fundraisers and speeches and networking… and it wasn’t working.
So then, how to become a somebody and try again?
This winter one of my first mentors passed away. She was an amazing teacher, and a great source of inspiration to many students and people of my community in small town Alaska. She was the first person to really encourage my writing with gusto, the first teacher to nudge me to the front of the stage in drama club, and offered the only scholarship I took with me to college.
When I got the notice she’d passed away I was floored. I don’t believe I ever told her she was one of the three women, the three writing teachers I had – who inspired the much loved character in my books, Auntie Celeste is an amalgamate of my three writing coaches.
I’d never told her. I should have, and I should have thanked her more, and called more often. Even twenty years later, I knew her number and I should have made better use of it.
I’m a writer today, because she made me believe that storytellers were worthy, and I had a right to a voice.
I left a message on her facebook wall for her family and for all of her students who were online.
When her husband called to say thank you, and catch up. He asked if my next books were done. So I told him they were on my desk, waiting for publication funds. He lamented that I hadn’t been able to make the funding for the publishing house, that they had both been looking forward to it.
And I slipped out how the catch was, I could have had the funding from one large capital investor in California, but that the common refusal was that I was a nobody. So I was playing around with the idea of relaunching my brand, to hang out a sign and try to be a somebody so I could aim for funding again, or use my books to generate dialog.
H paused and said, “There’s just one thing I want to tell you. You’ve never been a nobody. You may not be well known, yet, but you’ve never been a nobody here. You are always a somebody to us.”
Just like that, the viewpoint tilted.
Just like that, I wept, and knew how silly I’d been.
Just like that, the idea I’d been working on for re-launching the brand took deep root. I diversified the shape of how to reach new audiences, plotted new ways to spread the word, and began mapping a trajectory to get back out there, launch those manuscripts and push the idea of fair trade and story-diversity again.
This time better networked, better supported, and with a safe, structured haven to retreat from the worst of the fire. This time with a brick and mortar location and a team of willing advocates. This time with proof in the volume of financing coming in from supporters who believe in fair trade.
I release to you, Athena.20
Wisegoddess.com is a site domain I’ve owned for ages, so I’m using it as the hub to pull all my other works, labels and ventures under. It’s where I’ll connect artists of all kinds, thinkers, creators, and offer platform and visibility to ideas, conversations, and efforts to change the unhealthy dynamics of our entertainment and storytelling industry that bleed into the environment and culture as a whole. Market conditioning can be re-formed, with work and creativity, and the willingness to recognize the value of stories outside our everyday experience, perspective and beliefs. We are all on this journey together, let’s enjoy it together, right?
I don’t need to hack through the unhealthy underbrush of a conditioned biased market – I need only stand. So, I stand here, and invite you to join, because together we can make change.
Come be creative with me.