Creative, Not Famous: Building Creative Communities with Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday’s superpower is bringing people together to create amazing artistic happenings. Her book Creative, Not Famous, featuring words and art by almost 40 collaborators about the glories, perils, and responsibilities of being a non-rich, non-famous creative person, fits that bill nicely. It came back from the printer last month, a beautiful, illustrated, square brick of a book that is extremely cool and inspiring if we say so as small potatoes ourselves.

We chatted with Ayun for this week’s People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, and we also interviewed her separately for the post below! All of her stories about us are true, even if only the leading edge of the much weirder truth.

What inspired you to write your book?

Creating and producing Off-Off-Broadway theater with Theater of the Apes. It can be a losing proposition in so many ways. There are those sad trombone moments when you think, “Why the hell am I beating my head against the wall for something so few people seem to care about? Is it really worth all the misery it’s causing me?” 

Of course, there are also those wonderfully triumphant moments when all the labor and time and the ridiculous financials of the thing seem, in retrospect, absolutely worthwhile.

As a theatermaker, I found myself flooded with gratitude to every single fellow small potato who took the trouble to support our efforts. (If you’ve ever wondered if an actor can see you from the stage of a tiny black box theater, the answer is yes.)

I am grateful to every person who subscribes to, resubscribes to, or buys an issue of my zine, or turns a friend on to it. 

Community is something we small potatoes shouldn’t take for granted. 

I have this theory that 99.9% of all artists, musicians, writers, and performers throughout history never “achieved” what society tends to consider success – wealth and/or renown. (Also, a lot of folks who were very big bananas back in the day wind up forgotten within a generation or two.)

And yet, we small potatoes persist! Why? How? What can we learn from each other? How can we hold ourselves accountable, show up for each other, and strive to be worthy of the comparative few who dig what we do?

Early on, I realized that it would be a mistake if mine was the only perspective informing this monster, and reached out to a broad range of creative people who seemed to have some familiarity with working at this level of renown and circus peanuts, who’ve been doing it for a long time, and who hopefully wouldn’t take offense at being pegged as a “small potato.” Their experience, observations, and oft-contradictory advice permeate the book.

What was it like to publish with Microcosm?

This is my second book for Microcosm. My first, the Zinester’s Guide to NYC, also had a lot of moving parts, including illustrations and handwritten elements. 

A decade later, I harbored fond memories of sitting knee to knee with Joe in a flying-ant infested trailer in Portland, Oregon, a composting toilet a couple feet from my back, collaborating on the final manuscript for pretty intensive week. No, really!!!

Ten years was also about how long it took to recover from the communications hell of juggling dozens of contributors and being responsible for organizing their work…) I was ready for another go round.
Not every publisher I’ve worked with “gets” me the way Microcosm does. I chafe at having my edges and idiosyncrasies sanded down, and I really loathe seeing myself packaged as “wacky” or “zany”. That’s never been an issue with Microcosm. 

Everyone I worked with on the Microcosm end of this book was patient, enthusiastic, and courteous, even when the placement of the illustrations felt like a giant, insoluble puzzle … my fault for treating illustrations like punchlines to specific sentences, while dwelling in ignorance of the realities of how books get laid out. 

Finally, I know from experience that Microcosm keeps very tidy records and pays promptly. 

What was the submission/query process like for you?

Wait, what now? There’s a submissions pro…WHY WAS I  NOT INFORMED!? I’ll have to try that next time around… 

As usual, I just sort of tumbled through the cellar door. Elly, Joe, and Ruby the late, great service dog were in New York City on business. They invited me to be a guest on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast [here’s that episode!]. We taped it in a noodle restaurant I’m quite fond of, and at some point, I started nattering about the need for a “small potato manifesto.” Then we went next door to a matinee at a small Brooklyn theater where I’ve worked in the past, and there was this regrettable, unforgettable moment of audience participation wherein I was called onstage and an Italian clown hoisted my shirt up to my clavicles without consent…but that’s an anecdote for a different interview. I can, however, offer video evidence of Joe, Elly, and Ruby on Metropolitan Avenue 4 minutes and 35 seconds into my 1-second-a-day video for 2018… September 23, check em out!

What else have you written?

Four self-mocking autobiographies, a YA graphic novel, a kid’s picture book, the Zinester’s Guide to NYC, more anthologies than you can shake a stick at without dangling a participle, a bunch of freelance work (including a decade of twice weekly posts for the great Open Culture ) and of course, my long-running zine, The East Village Inky. I’m currently working on a guided journal / creative exercise book to serve as an interactive companion to Creative, Not Famous.

What’s the best book you read in the last year?

The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell. The pandemic did not slake my appetite for dystopian yarns, apparently. This book delivers a biting, non-human-focused comedy of post-apocalyptic manners in which a number of species, domesticated and wild, engage in a highly political debate to decide the fate of mankind. I was particularly enamored of a demented, oppositional, lonely mutant lizard who’s convinced he’s a bat. Funny, topical, inventive…all the things I crave in end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it lit.
Where can people find you online?