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.