After Creation


Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

Writing, or any kind of creative action, can be hell sometimes, and it can even be worse after the creative act is completed and out into the world.

Sometimes people think of writers, actors, or other artists as living glamorous lives. They don’t think of it as hard work but as doing something you like and spending most of the time reaping the rewards of it, partying, and enjoying the fame and fortune.

If only.

Even those who are incredibly successful get there through a lot of hard work, and they are few and far between. The reality is that most artists in this country–which does not do very well at supporting its artists–are not rich and famous and they are also not the stereotypical starving artists either. Most are regular folks who have something to say and need to say it in a creative way, but who are only moderately successful at what they do. There are millions of writers in this country who have published books, stories, poems, and more, but only a handful of authors like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling who can live off of their royalties and movie deals. Most painters, musicians, and others work full-time jobs and create their art whenever and however they can with limited time and energy.

But the call is there. Artists have to create and doing so can sometimes be a long, arduous, and painful process. My second book, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story, was incredibly difficult to write. To do so I had to relive painful memories from childhood and throughout my life. I had to be vulnerable and put that vulnerability out there for all the world to see (or at least what small part of the world might buy and read the book). I had to honestly tell my story in such a way that after it was published I worried that people would dislike me or at the very least think less of me for some of the things I revealed that I had done. I didn’t have a choice, though. To be true to my story and to my art I had to write it the way I did, and that was scary and hard.

The creation of a work of art can take months, if not years, and can be physically and emotionally draining. Then, after it is done, comes the really frightening part. What will people think? Will anyone buy it or come to see it? Will critics tear it apart? Will they even bother to notice it? How do I get people interested enough to give it a chance? The thing is, most writers are writers but to be successful they either have to pay someone to help with marketing or do it themselves. Most are probably like me and can’t afford to have someone do it for them, but also find the concept of marketing and selling oneself and one’s work a foreign concept. So we do what we can and then we wait and worry.

I find myself often checking to see if any books have sold since the last time I checked which, especially early on, can be several times (or more) a day. You do whatever you can to get the word out and even then it may not matter. After Empty Playground was released I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time”. They probably have tens of thousands of listeners, but I didn’t see any appreciable bump in sales after that interview. I have two more radio interviews coming up, but have no way of knowing whether those will impact sales or not. I was interviewed for an article in the Isthmus, which should appear this week, but again do not know if anyone will seek out the book after reading the article. I understand with the subject of my book I can’t expect thousands of people to suddenly decide they need to read it, but still I hope.

Most authors who are not famous do not get radio interviews and articles. I’m lucky because I’ve made so many media connections over a more than thirty year span in the Madison theater scene that at least the local media will pay attention to some degree. If the media in this city didn’t already know me I might not get any coverage, and that would make promoting the book even more difficult than it already is.

I also have been pushing the book in places where I figured there might be a natural interest. I have posted a notice about it on a couple hundred Facebook pages and websites that are about child sex abuse, sex assault, pages geared toward survivors, and the like. Those pages have more than half a million likes and yet I have not sold half a million books (or anywhere close to it). A good number of those posts have garnered likes and shares. Still, the impact of my attempts at targeted marketing has seemed to be minimal.

This is the hard part. While the creation can be painful and difficult there is also a reward. There is joy in creating something. There is a sense of accomplishment. The hard part is wondering whether your work will be accepted and whether it will impact the world in the way you had hoped. I don’t need to sell a million copies (though I wouldn’t complain if I did), but I want to know that the work had meaning, that it maybe helped at least a few people or that someone truly thought it was worthwhile. Because most of us are insecure underneath it all we tend to focus on the fact that several days may have passed without a sale instead of on the person who thanked you for writing something that they identified with or the person who sent a note saying that your book was meaningful to them.

I need to do better on focusing on those good things–the stranger who rates the book a five on Amazon or Goodreads rather than the readers who rate it a three or don’t rate it at all; the woman who takes time out of her day to write an e-mail detailing how thankful she was that she read the book rather than the three hundred twenty million in this country who have never even heard of it; the person who shares it with someone else rather than the ones who hear about it and pass on it. I need to take pride in the fact that I wrote a book that was important for me to write and that there are people for whom it has made a difference. That should be enough–although I admit I’ll still keep checking regularly to see if I made any more sales.



About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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