The following is an excerpt from a series of interviews I conducted with people who give everything they have to their creative passions. In spite of attaining various levels of success, they aren’t household names, don’t regularly walk red carpets, nor do they consider themselves rich and famous. Yet they continue to pursue excellence with everything they have. And most importantly…they’re happy with who they are and content with exactly where they are in life. I published all of these interviews in a book called “How To Succeed In Show Business (Without Making It Big).”
Johnny Shaw was born and raised on the Calexico/Mexicali border, the setting for his novels “Dove Season,” “Big Maria” and the upcoming” Plaster City.” He is an award winning writer whose shorter works have appeared in “Plots With Guns,” “Thuglit,” “Shotgun Honey,” “Crime Factory” and numerous anthologies. Johnny also acts as the editor-in-chief and is a frequent contributor for the online fiction quarterly “Blood & Tacos.” Over the course of his writing career he has seen his screenplays optioned, sold and produced. As a playwright, his work has been performed throughout Los Angeles. For the last dozen years, Johnny has taught screenwriting. He has lectured at both Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara. He is the owner of “Johnny’s Used Books,” formerly a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Los Angeles, now entirely online.
Have you discovered the meaning of life?
(Laughs) Laughter is the meaning of life. The only dark times in my life were when I lost my sense of humor.
Do you feel like you’ve “made it” or are you still chasing the dream?
The concept of “making it” is so dumb, I don’t even know where to start. I knew it was bullshit when I was in college, mostly because I couldn’t see in my head what it looked like.
So what’s the trick then?
If you are an artist, you have ambition for your work. Ambition implies that as soon as you accomplish what you set out to do with one thing, you’ll look for another challenge. “Making it” is about reaching some acme where you sit on top of the mountain. That mountain doesn’t exist. Creative life is more hilly with peaks and valleys. And money-wise or business-wise, who gives a shit? It’s my job and I’ve made good money writing, but if that were my goal, I would have written away from my voice and used my craft to write more obviously commercial stuff.
Money as a goal is the equivalent of wanting a lot of Likes on Facebook. In other words, it’s mostly meaningless.
So I assume you’re happy exactly where you are in life? No mountains left to conquer?
While there have been times where the state of my “career” has affected my happiness to be sure, I like to think that my happiness isn’t nearly that fragile anymore. I have been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. You can’t even fathom the amount of rejection that I’ve received. Thousands of rejections, for small things. For big, important things. It can make for a suck day, but if you don’t accept early that it’s just part of the job, it’s going to be torture. A rejection letter is the writer’s equivalent of the printer jamming. That said, my creative life has a huge impact on my happiness. I spend four or five hours a day writing. That’s four or five hours a day by myself, living inside my head. You can ask my wife. If circumstances happen where I don’t get that time, I can get moody. Keep in mind, it doesn’t matter if the work I do on any given day is “good” or “bad.” I can write some terrible crap that I know I’m just going to delete and still have a great day. You have to be willing to write garbage. You have to write without fear. The worst thing I could do is care if what I write is “good.” And yes, I am very aware I didn’t come close to answering the question.
So what the hell is success then?
I’m going to answer this one by not answering it at first. My idea of success doesn’t matter. It definitely shouldn’t matter to anyone else, and it barely has any importance in my life. We all have to define success for ourselves. The word is empty. The more people focus on some kind of idea of success, the more it means they’re also focused on the idea of failure. If you’re not careful, you create a black and white model that is an either/or. “I have either succeeded or failed.” That’s not only unhelpful, it’s untrue. Most of life lives in the gray. Success is abandoning the entire concept of success and failure. Personally, I don’t have milestones. There’s not an award I want to win. An amount of money I want to have. Even creatively, it would be stagnant to have a set goal. I want to remain curious and open to the whims of my imagination. So, I guess success for me is my ability to curate my day and my week and my year. To make the decisions and choose the paths that allow me to follow those whims and see where they take me in my creative life and my real life. I’ve made films, written books, had plays produced, but every year I still consider going to culinary school. It’s an art and craft I’m curious about. I haven’t pulled the trigger on that one, but that’s only because the call to something else was stronger.
So what do you want out of life? What’s the big goal?
A couple of years ago, I may have had a more definitive answer to that question, but in my current situation, it’s definitely more foggy. I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in six months. Even if I was someone that had specific goals, it would be hard to call them realistic. If I have a goal, something I want to do, I don’t usually sit on it that long. From the time I got the idea to open a bookstore, 15 years ago, to the opening day of business was about four months. I don’t fuck around if I have a passion for an idea. Once I lock in, it usually gets done.
So what’s next?
Looking at my to-do list, my current goals are the current novel I’m writing, a nonfiction book about rewriting fiction and expanding the number of languages that my other books are published in. Not “ultimate goals” to be sure. I’ll accomplish these by the end of the year. But “ultimate” implies last and that’s not a good order to accomplish things. I’m focused on the next thing, not the last one. If I had a goal, it would be to create an environment where I’m constantly challenged, experiencing the new, and constantly learning. To see the world through a child’s eyes. To creating lasting friendships. Adventure, not vacation. I can get into a beach chair and a Mai Tai, but not for very long. There’s a big, interesting world out there to explore.