The Myth of “Breaking In”

I was talking to a musician recently, and he mentioned that one question he always gets from young musicians is something along the lines of “How can I break into the music industry?”

My friend’s response was pithy and insightful: “You wouldn’t ask how to break into my house, would you?”

His point was basically that the music industry isn’t something that aspiring musicians need to break into. More to the point, thinking about the music industry — or any industry, for that matter — in terms of “breaking in” is actually counterproductive.

Sure, the phrase “breaking in” is just an expression, but it says a lot about how we think of creative endeavors and the industries that surround them. With respect to the music industry, “breaking in” suggests that it’s a closed system, armed to the teeth against intruders. This mindset places the artist and the industry in direct opposition to each other and creates the impression that the only way “in” is through forced entry, deceit, or some other form of chicanery.

It’s much more constructive, my friend said, to think of the industry as a community — complete with its own rules, language, expectations, and rituals. Rather than worrying about breaking in, the aspiring musician should be making an effort to learn the rules of the community, an endeavor that involves meeting other musicians, talking to them about the craft, and taking every opportunity to participate in that community that avails itself.

Given my own interests, I couldn’t help drawing a comparison between music and writing, and concluding that the same ideas hold true. Whenever I speak at a conference or talk to my students about writing, the idea of “breaking in” inevitably pops up. In fact, I’ve seen panels with names like “Breaking into YA” or “Breaking into Creative Nonfiction” listed on a lot of conference programs. And like my musician friend, my experience suggests that thinking about writing — and even publishing — in terms of “breaking in” can be highly counterproductive. Instead, I’d like to propose that we think of writing in terms of good citizenship.

A good citizen is someone who makes the conscious decision to be a part of a community — to engage with a body of individuals who share common values and goals. Along these lines, a good citizen doesn’t participate in a community solely for the sake of self-interest. Rather, a good citizen recognizes value in giving to the community. In terms of writing, the first thing a good citizen should ask isn’t “What can you do for me?” but, in the spirit of John F. Kennedy’s appropriation of Kahlil Gibran, “What can I do for you? What can I bring to the table? How can we learn from each other?”

For me, being part of a community has meant many things. Blogging, of course, is high on the list. Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve met many writers whose work I admire and from whom I’ve learned quite a bit. Along similar lines, reviewing books has exposed me to a wide range of authors and writing styles I would not have otherwise enjoyed.

On a more personal level, joining writers’ groups and getting involved with writing conferences has given me many opportunities to discuss both the craft and business of writing with other writers at all stages of their careers. In short, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if not for the fact that I actively sought out opportunities to participate in the larger community of writers.

Granted, any success I’ve had in terms of writing and publishing has been modest. If you’re shooting for a New York Times bestseller, you’ll probably have to take a more aggressive approach to your writing career. At the same time, though, I’d venture to guess that many (if not most) successful writers got to where they are today not by imagining themselves as outsiders trying to break in, but by actively engaging with the writing community in any way that they could.

11 thoughts on “The Myth of “Breaking In”

  1. This is such great advice; every aspiring or starting out writer should read this as it would save him/her much worry, stress, and much precious time trying to “break in” or finding the magic key to open this door. I wish I had this advice when I started writing – it truly makes so much sense and to tell you the truth, it takes off a lot of the self-imposed pressure, the kind hovering in the back of the novice’s mind. Thanks for writing this 🙂

    • You’re so right about how much time beginning writers spend trying to find that magic key. And, as you suggest, the bigger issue is the pressure. I see so many new writers psych themselves out at writing conferences because they’re trying to memorize their elevator pitches or get an appointment with an agent. If they’d just relax and see the opportunity for what it is — a great chance to learn from other writers — they’d have a lot more fun and get a lot more out of the experience!

  2. Bravo–and certainly a much cooler way of looking at things! I’ve even used the phrase, though not with the applied meaning involved. I just do not look at it as adversarial, but more a case of our individual beliefs, to which the above obviously applies. I won’t get all “woo-hoo” on y’all, but I do love the clever turnaround of a turn of phrase! Great post, Marc!

    Now, I got this cool alarm system to sell ya….

    • Thank you! I’m sure I’ve used the phrase or similar phrases from time to time, too. The conversation I had with my musician friend is what really made me think about it.

      As for that alarm system…

  3. Really positive and relevant view. So many times we are feel we are outside things because we do not take a moment to stop, understand and see how can might actually fit after all. A good friend of mine says the four walls we draw around ourselves become the box we are buried in. I guess its a matter of how long we spend in the box while we are breathing, as to our view is of what is outside it. Love your post.

  4. Marc, terrific insight. Words have power. As wordsmiths, we should use better terminology. Thanks for pointing out how applicable this is to both the music industry and the publishing industry. 🙂

    • I hadn’t really thought about it like that — or in quite those terms — either until the conversation with my musician friend.

  5. I’m afraid I find myself in the same mind-set of “breaking in”. I’m afraid to even whisper out loud that I dream of writing and publishing a book. In my head, that kind of thing happens to other people, that could never be me. Thanks for this post, it’s given me a new perspective.

    • For me, the important thing is finding people you’re comfortable sharing your dream with. With a strong support network, you’ll get comfortable with the idea of writing and publishing, and it will seem less out of reach.

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