Lorraine Devon Wilke: “I always believe in myself. It’s other people I’m not so sure of”

At this moment of a global pandemic, economic chaos, nationalistic bigotry, and racial upheaval, I can think of no better time to put our focus on how best to survive and even transcend our current state. Empathy is the antidote to everything, so making it a part of every education, at every step of life, […]

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At this moment of a global pandemic, economic chaos, nationalistic bigotry, and racial upheaval, I can think of no better time to put our focus on how best to survive and even transcend our current state. Empathy is the antidote to everything, so making it a part of every education, at every step of life, seems a wise movement to set in motion.

Asa part of my series about “Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lorraine Devon Wilke.

An accomplished performer, actress, and photographer, as well as a prolific writer in several genres of the medium, Lorraine has built a library of expertly crafted work with a signature style that exudes intelligence, depth, and humor.

In 2010 she launched her “arts & politics” blog, Rock+Paper+Music, and from 2011 to 2018 was a popular contributor at HuffPost and other news and media sites, typically focused on politics and social issues; she continues to publish at both her blog and a column at Medium.

After self-publishing her first two award-winning novels, After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love, her latest, The Alchemy of Noise, contemporary literary fiction that digs deep into issues of privilege, profiling, and prejudice, was published by She Writes Press in 2019, winning a slate of awards and positive reviews along the way.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events drew you to your specific career path:

There was an early spark point for me, drawn to the arts, as I was, by parents who loved music, theater, and books, a language I inherently understood and was thrilled by. But the first awareness of my own skills in the area happened back in the eighth grade, when I was singing in a choir and the girl in front of me turned around and said, “You’re a really good singer.” I remember being stunned… “Really?” This was the first inkling I had that there was something I did that stood out. My curiosity piqued, the journey began!

With growing awareness that I had certain talents for performance, I acted and sang regularly in high school, right into my college years — where I majored in theater, wrote plays, and sang in various bands. There was never a doubt I was headed for entrepreneurship in the arts, in particular, at least at the start, as a performer. This plan took a few controversial turns (at least as far as my parents were concerned!) when, on the road with a band for so long during my junior year in college, I ultimately took leave from my studies and followed that path right to Los Angeles, where I leapt all-in. From that point forward I built my education around rich, eclectic, and always interesting life experiences with never a regret.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

A maxim in the pursuit of any career is that you have to want it more than anything else in the world if you’re to endure and sustain in the face of required work and the inevitable challenges and set-backs. That is especially true in the world of the creative businesses, where metrics for success are often hard to define, seemingly based less on talent (though talent is ideally a requisite) and more on arbitrary, ephemeral things like “it factor,” physical appeal, connections, and “right place, right time.”

As a young artist in a big city filled with other artists (of every age) working tirelessly to carve out their own dreams, the quest was immediately daunting. Money was tight, always; the flexibility needed to be available for auditions and interviews demanded jobs like waitressing and catering, not always solid earners! And finding viable, paying opportunities to act, sing, or write required relentless diligence and activity, with auditions, interviews, bush-beating and pavement pounding of every kind. Away from my family, new in Los Angeles, without representation in those early days, yet filled with indefatigable optimism in my ultimate goal of a successful career in the arts, I was, nonetheless, occasionally discouraged by the dearth of jobs, lack of viable contacts, seemingly unsurmountable competition, and lots and LOTS of rejection. There were more than a few yogurt-only dinners back in those days!

But even as I got older, made tangible progress, and expanded my entrepreneurial palate to include play- and screenwriting, the ever-present challenges built into each of these creative avenues were nonstop. After a decade of writing, recording, and performing original material with my band during the 80s, with the good fortune of having producers, managers, and financiers deeply involved, and even with tremendous smaller successes along the way, there always seemed to be a tipping point when hope of the imminent “big success” (record deal, world tour, etc.) was thwarted by, say, inept representation, a band member who decided to quit, music execs who failed to follow through, or record labels who decided I was too old, or the band members were too old, or the songs were too literate, or any number of given reasons… and the gold ring would slip by.

During the 90s, when I co-wrote both the screenplay and several soundtrack songs for an indie film in which I co-starred, the subsequent reviews amplified my writing and performance, and agents and casting directors came calling. Yet, once again, opportunities and interest shifted, projects didn’t come to fruition, and the ring that seemed headed my way flew by.

By the 2000s I was back to music, working with an amazing band that garnered immediate interest and performance opportunities, enough that my songwriting partner and I ultimately wrote and recorded an album’s worth of original material, but before we could play out and parlay that success to another level, key people left and the project ultimately lost momentum (though I still do love that album!).

Then, by 2010, given the music business’s changing landscape and unchanging focus on youthful branding, I stepped back from that pursuit (though I still have a band today…the Muse lives on!), and jumped headfirst into another of my goals: writing novels. While creatively exhilarating and artistically satisfying, the business of publishing presented all the same, familiar challenges I’d found in acting, film, and music. The endless days, weeks, months, years I put into writing my books were matched by the time spent querying literary agents in hopes of getting those books published. When interest failed to garner the goal of representation and ultimate publishing, I decided to self-publish my first two books, with my third finally scoring the attention and support of a small publisher. I’m now writing my fourth.

So, yes, even ever-optimistic me stumbled through some hard times… maybe that’s why I so appreciate the blues!

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I think it always goes back to belief in self. Someone once made me a poster that read, “I always believe in myself. It’s other people I’m not so sure of,” which struck a chord for a whole host of reasons.

I learned early on that, while I can’t control the outcome of my interactions with other people, certainly in business, certainly in the creative businesses, I could control how events impacted me: how I dealt with rejection and disappointment, how I recovered from broken promises and sometimes unscrupulous behaviors; how I recalibrated or reinvented my strategy when previous ones failed or netted less than desired results.

Like anyone, I struggled with doubts, self-criticisms, concerns and fears about where I was headed and if and how I was going to get there, but at the core of my being I held on to my belief in self; I never lost faith in my abilities, my “voice,” my creativity. I never stopped believing I had something worthy to say, to impart to the world, through my art.

Those convictions were hard won, honed, I believe, while growing up in a large family (I’m one of 11 siblings) where I had to fend for myself, fight for my space, and learn certain life lessons my over-burdened parents didn’t have time to teach me. As soon as I became aware of my particular set of talents — and a tangential ability to parlay them into productivity — I had my plan. I didn’t necessarily know what all the steps would be, but, still, I set off, threw myself in with a certain reckless abandon. The self-reliance and self-belief I’d developed — both harmonics of “grit — kept me dedicated and focused. They still do.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

GRIT: firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck:

resolution, fortitude, courage.

Bouncing off my previous answer: If you’re able to maintain self-belief and self-reliance, you’re beautifully set up to push against, endure, and transcend whatever obstacles and challenges get in your way. Certainly that’s harder when you’re younger, inexperienced, and sometimes unrealistic about the playing field you’re on. I can’t tell you how many actors, singers, songwriters, and writers I met over the years who were absolutely convinced they’d be winning Oscars or selling out stadiums, yet had no clue how to maneuver the business they were in… or how, even, to manage their own frustrations and disappointments.

I’ve noticed more recently, particularly in our “influencer” culture, an impatience some have with the trajectory of their careers, often times giving way to giving up, or framing their goals in very limited terms. One young singer/songwriter, when I asked what his goals were, said, “Getting famous.” “That’s not a goal,” I responded. “That’s a potential consequence, a possible result. The creation of good art, the conveyance of your unique voice, the dissemination of your inspired imagination are goals.” But he was adamant, certain he’d be plucked off Instagram or Tik Tok to find instant fame, and when that didn’t happen, he ultimately crashed. Rejection has sent a lot of talented people packing — but, then again, I always say, “If you can actually imagine yourself doing something else, do that.”

As for me, what my personal dose of grit offered was thicker skin, a tougher, quicker bounce-back. I learned not to take things too personally, found a resilience that kept me going when it seemed there was no point in doing so; it shook up my imagination when I felt I’d run out of ideas.

“Grit” is really about tenacity and doggedness. Both are needed to endure and succeed, sometimes, even, to reinvent: I also learned that pivoting at the right time can lead to unexpected new roads that still end up taking you where you want to go. It’s all about sticking to it.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

1. “Listen to the voice that’s your own”: That’s a lyric from a song I wrote when I first started my band back in the 80s, a reminder to myself to always honor my own voice. At that young age, just starting out in the very competitive music scene of Los Angeles, I had so many people telling me how to be, what to wear, how to do my hair, how to perform on stage, what to say or not say in interviews, etc., that I began to feel overwhelmed with other people’s ideas of who I was… or should be. I would sometimes try to wear the mantles they designed for me, but ultimately always came back to my own skin, my own voice, willing to take the risks, but reap the emotional and creative rewards, of staying true to myself. That still holds true today.

That is not, of course, a suggestion to ignore solid advice, learned experience, and useful education that can be offered by good mentors, influential teachers, effective representatives, or helpful collaborators. But, at the end of the day, it’s your dream, your journey, your goals, so developing enough faith and belief in yourself to stand by them (grit, by any other name!) is always your best bet.

And, while on this topic, about reviews: Either don’t read them (if you’re in a business that engenders them), or read them with the thickest skin you’ve got, with a mandate to learn from anything you might, reject anything that rings false, and let go of all of it, either way, to proceed with the work. Nothing takes more grit than enduring a bad review and not letting it stop you.

More on that, if you’re interested: Oh, Our Heartbreaking Relationship With Reviews.

2. Be just the right amount of humble: That may sound like a contradiction of the above, but it’s actually part of the equation. The only way to grow enough, to have the confidence to believe and stand by your own voice, is to LEARN enough to have that skill. To be open to mentors, teachers, fellow artists, veterans in the field who can impart their knowledge to help you build your own sense of YOU.

Those whose arrogance, entitlement, and lack of humility keeps them from learning, adjusting, evolving, may achieve some level of success, but without a foundation, a willingness to pay attention and listen enough to ascertain if someone or something has value to offer, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. Real grit comes from a having and maintaining an abiding respect for continuing education.

3. Pick your team and stick with it: When I was coming up, a valued mentor said to me: “Take time to listen to lots of people (see #2), then choose five of them to be your team, the people you’ve determined to be the most trustworthy and knowledgeable, with the right expertise for your work and sensibilities, then let them, and only them, judge your work, give you notes, and steer your direction. Otherwise — because every person you encounter will have an opinion — asking everyone what their opinion is will only lead to confusion and contradiction, which tends to stop people in their tracks.”

I learned he was right. Needing feedback from everybody can wreak havoc: I collaborated with a writer once who could end a day of work feeling satisfied by what we’d written, but every night would hand those pages to assorted, sundry folks, then come back to me in the morning, panicked, because he’d gotten notes and responses that countered the work we’d done or the direction we were headed. This was maddening, as these were not people whose opinions mattered to me, and I could see how my mentor’s exact warning was playing out: my co-writer would end up deflated and discouraged, which made him very challenging to work with.

The grit you need to follow #1 & 2 comes from learning to trust yourself. Do what my mentor suggested. If you need more than five on your team, go for it, but keep it simple. I’ve discovered gold in that advise.

4. Talk less, do more: In these days of social media, with their pull to engage, interact, promote oneself, promote others, attempt virality, spark debate, troll, get trolled, lose friends, gain followers, drive yourself mad, or have a blast sharing vacation photos, it’s easy to spend copious amounts of time on various platforms without getting any actual work done.

There’s good in the medium, surely — I could not have promoted my work, or that of others, as successfully without social media — but there’s also a need to limit and curate the time.

I’ve noticed, particularly with some writers’ groups I was in on Facebook, that some people were busy every day talking about their work — what word count they’d achieved (or not), if this name or that worked for a character, if they should or should not kill off their protagonist, what to write if they couldn’t think of anything to write — and I couldn’t help wondering if they’d lost the script along the way, the one that says, “shut up and write!” I found myself less and less willing to participate in these long threads on matters that seemed more like distraction than actual research, interactions that may have felt productive, but were more likely time-suckers keeping people from buckling down.

And beyond wasted time, I also found “talking about the work” can potentially dissipate the energy and excitement you originally had about it. Analyzing, getting opinions, hearing feedback, sharing experiences can certainly be helpful in the right context, but I’ve learned that not talking about my work while in the process of creating it — kind of like not letting people into the dining room until every light is lit, every decoration set, and the table is perfectly arranged — kept my energy and momentum focused. I want the completed piece to have impact; I don’t want to share it midway and lose the effect.

Some people enjoy (or seek out) audience participation, virtual story suggestions, etc., while putting a piece together, but that’s not my way. I’ve always been proprietary about my artistic statement, my story, my song, my message, protective of delivering exactly what I choose to say and how. This is a personal choice, but it’s also one that requires belief in self, grit; a willingness to trust what you’re doing enough to move forward without the crutch of a cheering squad. There’s tremendous freedom in that.

5. If you can’t get permission to proceed, give it to yourself: Regardless of what career path you’re on, forward motion, especially in the nascent stages, typically relies on the help, support, contribution — the “permission,” if you will — of other people, whether it’s starting a business, garnering a record deal, putting up a play, getting a book published, making a film; whatever your goals are. And often times, particularly in the more competitive spaces, getting that “permission” can be very difficult to accomplish, which dead-ends many a good project. What I’ve learned?

When you hit that wall of “no’s,” or “not now’s,” or “you’re just not right,” or “we’re looking for something else,” instead of slumping to defeat, shake off the rejection and give permission to yourself to proceed. I’m not sure anything takes more grit than that!

Here’s how that’s played out in my own life: When I couldn’t get hired as a singer, I found great players and started a band that kept me working for decades. When record companies told me I was a “wondrous” vocalist but “we’ve already got someone like you,” I collaborated with top producers to make my own album. When I got frustrated trying to peddle my screenplays, I collaborated with a skilled team who ultimately got the film produced. When literary agents kept telling me my books were “outstanding” but still wouldn’t commit to a contract, I self-published the first two and ultimately found a brilliant indie publisher for my most recent.

The takeaway is that, whatever business you’re in, it’s your business to see that your goals are met. There is no more evidence of grit than a person who refuses to give up because others aren’t inviting them in the door, but, instead, opens it themselves, or maybe even gets up and builds the damn door!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

Like many people, I’ve had the great good fortune to have had tremendous creative, production, and business partners throughout my life and career, without whom I wouldn’t have achieved the successes I have. But the one person, at least for the last thirty+ years, who’s been most solidly, tangibly, and indefatigably in my corner is my husband, Pete Wilke.

We met on the film I mentioned earlier (he was the attorney for the film company), and from that moment on, our creative and personal lives have been intertwined. During the years I was pounding pavements as an actress and singer, he was there to keep a roof over our heads, act as my manager, and keep my spirits from being pummeled beyond my sanity quotient. When he wrote and produced a brilliant musical called Country, the Musical, he invited my input as a script consultant and vocal arranger, then cast me in a lead role. When I transitioned into the book world and began writing novels, he respected the solitude I needed, created space and time for me to get the work done, and has contributed everything possible to help me both afford and implement whatever was needed to support the business end of that endeavor.

Beyond that, he’s been my emotional rock, my best friend, and a brilliant father and husband. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel gratitude for that, and for him.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love that phrase: “Bring goodness to the world”! Maybe because I’ve always had a mission to create art, create work, that did, in fact, exude a positive message of some kind, a hopeful story, an inspirational idea. Whether it was the songs I wrote, the screenplays and plays, the articles and books, I’ve always wanted the content to be of some emotional value.

Not that there’s anything wrong with music that’s simply, “get up and dance,” or stories that are just good thrillers or fluffy romances — there’s a market for that, and many excellent writers, performers, etc., who can well deliver it. But having grown up in the era I did, with the story songs and heartfelt books I read, I wanted to an artist like those who inspired me, whose work made me feel I wasn’t alone, that my emotions were valid, my journey wasn’t so strange. Who taught me something, who raised my awareness.

Consequently, everything I’ve done has been with that goal in mind. My hope is that when someone reads one of my books or articles, or listens to one of my songs, they’re inspired to a new thought, they feel moved or exhilarated; they come away with something that sticks. My last novel, in particular, which takes on thorny issues of race and privilege, is very specifically intended to open eyes and minds toward greater understanding and compassion (see next question).

So, beyond making killer banana bread and being known to kickass a good blues song, I’d say all-the-above is my contribution to worldly goodness!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Given our current situation with COVID, a good number of my projects and endeavors have been grounded for the time-being — which is true for so many. So, as book events cancel, fundraisers with my band are put on hold, and theatrical projects with which I was working are back-burnered, I’ve been left to get creative with what projects I can actually move forward at this moment in time. One, in particular, has my attention:

Since my most recent novel, THE ALCHEMY OF NOISE, is still relatively new in the marketplace, and is a book I intended to spark and/or contribute to a movement toward greater understanding, compassion, and awareness in matters of race, I looked at how I could maximize its potential to speak to those issues at this explosive and evolutionary post-George Floyd moment.

I was particularly moved when I heard a comment by comedienne, Wanda Sykes, whose response to a question about race and prejudice was: “We can’t do it alone. If we’re out there marching and asking for change, we need white people to do it. We need white people to tell white people to stop being racist.”

That struck me — “We need white people to tell white people to stop being racist” — because that’s not only absolutely true, but something that’s compelled my own intentions with THE ALCHEMY OF NOISE. Its messages and themes are focused on prejudice, privilege, social injustice, and police brutality, and my voice, as a white author writing with the intent to inform and illuminate, particularly, a white reading audience (though, hopefully, all readers will be impacted), is certainly a response to Wanda’s call-to-action.

While I’ve done several podcasts and interviews focused on the book’s messages, my goal is to parlay its positive reception from readers and reviewers into a platform for discussion, debate, interaction, and illumination for those honestly looking for clarity and raised awareness on the topic of race. I believe too many white people lack enough tangible proximity, connection, and interaction with the Black population to grasp the day-to-day reality of Black life in America. This has proven out in conversations and interactions I’ve had, both in life and as related to my book.

I also feel that, given my experience having been a partner in a long-term interracial relationship earlier in my life, as well as my rigorous research and input from Black editors and consultants on the book, I have valuable insight and unique perspective to offer, specifically, as a white person telling white people to “stop being racist.”

Another interesting aspect to consider: While there are many excellent non-fiction books on the topic of race and bigotry (by both Black and white writers), there is less substantive fiction on the topic. Yet, as I detail in my piece, Truth Finds Its Story: The Illuminating Power of Fiction, and is well-covered in the New York Times article, Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?, fiction has a unique power to tell stories non-fiction can’t, with impact that hits the emotional centers of thought and memory in ways that the didacticism of more scholarly works cannot. It also engages the mind and triggers the imagination in ways that allow the themes, messages, and illuminations of well-told stories to “stick,” to be deeply felt and permanently remembered (as was true for me in reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Little Drummer Girl, The Color Purple).

And since, as author Mohsin Hamidstates in the NYT piece, “Politics is shaped by people. And people, sometimes, are shaped by the fiction they read,” I’m currently working with a Black writer and media consultant to get THE ALCHEMY OF NOISE included in seminars, discussions, classes, and round-tables focused on issue of race and prejudice, particularly, again, as it relates to “white people telling white people” in the effort to educate, expand, and evolve their thinking.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

I thought about skipping this question, as I’m neither an executive nor a founder, but as someone who’s been an employee enough to know, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice:

If one actually takes the time to seek, suss out, and hire people who really fit the mission and vision of a company or organization, with the talents and skill set to do the job well, allow them, then, to flourish without micromanagement, constrictive rules, and limited access and opportunities to advance or contribute. Encourage their “voice,” their ideas and innovations. Validate their successes and put their less successful moves into proper perspective. Respect their boundaries, allow for the vagaries of family life, and offer encouragement, incentives, and an upward trajectory of opportunities.

I have seen, and have been in, situations where true talent and excellent ideas were overlooked, dismissed, or minimized for the sake of seniority or favor, and when that was the situation for me, it left me feeling undervalued, underutilized, unseen, and irrelevant… none of which engender goodwill or the desire to stay in a job. Where I was encouraged to fly, I flew, and it benefited both me and the companies and organizations I worked for.

Do that.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given that we all have the pulpit of social media, blogs, and websites, I think we’re basically all people of great influence. In my case, the movement I would most like to inspire is one that implements the study and application of EMPATHY, whether in schools, businesses, politics, or one-on-one interactions.

My Twitter profile has always included the line, “Empathy is the antidote to everything,” an idea I believe and one which I extrapolated on in an article of the same name back back in 2014. It has always seemed to me that, if we start early to teach our children the age-old wisdom of, “walk a mile in another’s shoes,” helping them gain tangible, real-life understanding and compassion for the lives, experiences, and challenges of those outside ourselves, we’d ultimately be able to eradicate bigotry, prejudice, racism, sexism, discrimination, hate, and fear of other. Each of those is propagated by the lack of empathy, a state that keeps one from gaining the knowledge and awareness needed to open a mind, change a thought, revise a reaction, evolve a viewpoint.

At this moment of a global pandemic, economic chaos, nationalistic bigotry, and racial upheaval, I can think of no better time to put our focus on how best to survive and even transcend our current state. Empathy is the antidote to everything, so making it a part of every education, at every step of life, seems a wise movement to set in motion.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Well, the above answer lays out one of my most favorite quotes (“Empathy is the antidote to everything”), but here’s another:

“I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I love that quote, because it suggests that if we approach life with humor, with a heart, mind and soul that revels in joy, gratitude, and appreciation, we are better equipped to transcend the darkness, discouragement, and drama inherent in life. As I get older, I realize how my own journey has taught me to let go of petty concerns and worries, to focus, instead, on what I have, as opposed to what I don’t. What follows that revelation is a greater ability to laugh, and, as I’ve learned, there really is less cleaning up to do afterward!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Here are links to my main media:

Twitter: http://witter.com/LorraineDWilke

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lorrainedevonwilke

Facebook Writer’s page: https://www.facebook.com/lorrainedevonwilke.fans/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lorrainedevonwilke/

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00K2ZOLSA

Rock+Paper+Music blog: https://rockpapermusic.com

Medium Column: https://medium.com/@lorrainedwilke

SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/lorraine-devon-wilke

Official website @ www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Thank you for inviting me… it was a great conversation!

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