PERSONAL ESSAY

Don't fear the gatekeeper — or become one yourself

Some aspiring artists complain bitterly about gatekeepers. Let's talk about opening doors for others instead

By D. Watkins

Published March 19, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Large iron gates secured with padlock (Getty Images/Inti St Clair)
Large iron gates secured with padlock (Getty Images/Inti St Clair)

The art world can be as dirty as a gas station bathroom. Like any business, it has its cutthroat sides, and at times it can seem impossible to break into. Don't let this uninspiring reality keep you from trying, though. You can make it through. Here's one part of my story.

About ten years ago, back when I was an inexperienced writer, I paid attention to what writers with slightly more experience had to say about publishing and the business. One day, one writer who I won't name says about another, more successful writer (who I also won't name) that the more successful writer never shows love, never shows up, never looks out. "Never, ever puts on!" 

"For real?" I said. "Never? Not even a little?" 

"Nope, never." 

Putting on is as important to Black culture as satin bonnets, knotless braids, raisin-free potato salad and wave caps. It's Malcolm X, Oprah, JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., don't play in church because God don't like that and take a bath because you smell like outside important. And this isn't new; Harriet Tubman was free as hand sanitizer in a clinic and still risked enslavement multiple times because she couldn't live without other captured people experiencing liberation as well. The same goes for Fredrick Douglass, a man who could have just ridden the wave of his writing success like many so-called activists turned authors do now; he dove into the fire as an abolitionist instead. They both fought for us. That spirit of sharing, of delivering, has been passed down from generation to generation.

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At the time I was listening to that writer rant, I was the least successful writer ever to exist. I had no articles, no MFA classes, no agent, no speaking gigs, no books. Not even a book proposal. Not even a query letter. I had a laptop that was busted on the side and holding on for dear life, that eventually only worked when it was plugged into the wall. That laptop that could have died any minute held hundreds of incomplete ideas, thoughts and outlines that would eventually become my body of work. I didn't really know what my future held at the time, but I always found comfort in the company of other aspiring writers — especially ones who were super broke like me. 

"If I had it like them," the more experienced than me but less successful than the other writer said, while munching on pita chips, "I would proudly put everybody on, with book deals, college visits, and all of that!" 

"That's love." I said. "You gonna make it, too."  

"Of course!"  

We applauded each other while toasting with red plastic cups, or clanking the wine and vodka bottles some of us drank straight out of. But does it really work like that? I wondered. Is the industry that simple? Can other writers anoint people? 

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The crowd of fledgling writers and artists around when one of those tirades broke out would always agree, shaking their heads in unison at the pulpit, affirming everything the other writer was saying. If they said they were doling out work, we listened — even when the work never came. And when those artists who were concerned about who didn't put them on didn't get certain opportunities, it had to be due to someone or some organization hating on them. We always agreed. Every conversation about any type of rejection or lack of success always went back to the agenda of some gatekeeper not wanting them to succeed. I imagine this gatekeeper had to be at least seven feet tall with a chin as wide as Texas. His shoulders, even wider. Three undone buttons on his silk shirt paired with frumpy denims and a box fade. The big-jawed gatekeeper's thigh-sized arms would be forever folded in front of his chest, and he would respond to any query with, "I'm going to play devil's advocate ..." 

I didn't want to let this excessive gatekeeper talk deter me, but I also had no intentions of sitting around and waiting for another writer to put me on. Don't get me wrong — in any business, connections do matter. But they don't just fall in your lap. And opportunity doesn't always come from who you think it is supposed to come from. So I stayed active. I kept meeting people, kept submitting essays to different publications. I grabbed drinks with other artists, with writing professors, and even with people some called gatekeepers. I hit up every writers event I could. And most importantly, I kept cranking out work on my busted computer.

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Eventually I was invited to give some readings and share some of that work, and to contribute to some journals. I was even asked to judge a few small, local writing competitions. In a year or so, I went from the least successful writer ever to a writer who was able to earn a couple dollars — literally — and make some small waves in my own gate-less, keeper-less writing community. 

Even when the writer who complained about the gatekeepers grew into a mildly successful author themselves, they could still be heard around town, in the bars or at mixers or in other artist's homes, saying things like the Poetry Foundation is hating on me, the New York Times doesn't want to see me win, f**k Kirkus Reviews, these publishing companies wouldn't know a seven-figure proposal if it slapped them across the face.

"Nobody wants to see me win," they claimed. 

And because this moderately successful writer was published, had an agent, was invited places to lecture, and had even been profiled by a publication or two, we listened. They hated from 8 a.m. to midnight and we took it all in, trying to figure out who then was hating on us and how we could overcome it. I didn't respond much, but not because I had any big insights; I just finally started to gain some mild success of my own. I still didn't know the art world or how publishing worked. I didn't have a mentor. I didn't grow up around professional artists, with examples of what a thriving art community looks like. What I did know is that looking out for your friends is natural to me. It's all I've ever done.  

As an elementary school student I gave away half my lunch everyday — except when we had nuggets — to friends who didn't always have food at home. I gave sneakers I didn't want to teammates with holey shoes and bags of clothes to friends who couldn't afford to get fresh. I gave my mom cash along with headaches when she hit hard times after I moved out. Gave to the hungry and homeless with the legendary Bea Gaddy on Thanksgiving, gave to anyone in need when I had extra money from hustling, and continued to do so until I became a broke writer. Then I gave other writers, like that now-moderately successful author, what I could — edits, feedback, even ideas I didn't get credit for. And when that author's success peaked and people were checking for them, one person they forgot to thank, to give back to, to pull up, was me.

* * *

You ever watch the NBA draft on TNT, hear the name of some lanky Black kid in an awkward suit get called, see him in that awkward suit make his way through the crowd and onto the stage to shake the commissioner's hand? And before he reaches his destination, he pauses to give the crowd a wave, which gives the cameraman enough time to cut to the section where his whole neighborhood is screaming, cheering and crying, because they know he is going to dribble them farther away from poverty than anyone could imagine?

The commentator may even say something like, "Their lives will never be the same." 

You watch the same NBA draft and see an equally lanky white kid take the same walk in the same kind of terrible suit, with the cameraman cutting to his proud mom and dad­­, without having the same expectations. Even though I'm sure plenty of white NBA players created generational wealth for their extended families, from the outside, it doesn't seem like a requirement. I couldn't imagine a person saying, "That white boy ain't s**t if he doesn't come back and save the whole entire trailer park." If you are Black and you like going back to where you come from — which may be a Black thing, too — you better be bringing some opportunity with you. 

Five years after that gatekeeper talk, I was a successful writer with two bestsellers and a new book on the way, with some small awards, speaking gigs, and positions as a professor and an editor at large here at Salon too. The other author had fallen off of my radar. Not intentionally. They just stopped reaching out to me after I published my first New York Times story.  

"The Times will publish anyone nowadays," I heard they said. 

At the time, I hadn't been praised by the literary world. I hadn't sat on Oprah's couch or been invited on any of the big daytime or late-night talk shows. But I did not attribute any of this to hate. Don't get me wrong, I did want these things; those appearances are necessary for selling books. However, I just chalked it up to it not being my time. It would have been easy for me to dream up some false reality that involved Oprah having lunch every week with Ellen, Gayle, the big gatekeeper, the staff of "The View" and every major producer on TV, just to come up with brand new ideas for how to permanently keep D Watkins off their shows. A blown-up image of my mugshot would hang in front of their round table. "He's so good, we need him!" Whoopi Goldberg would yell, spreading her arms toward the image. "But if we allowed him on, he may take all our jobs!" Ellen would counter. Oprah would slam a diamond encrusted gavel, adjourning the meeting. And I would remain forever locked out. How arrogant do you have to be to think that everyone is collectively hating on you, a person they've probably never even heard of? 

At the end of the day, I was just happy to have a job and a body of work that my peers respected. And I'm not talking about other authors and my contemporaries — I'm talking about people from my neighborhood, the thousands of incarcerated folks in the jails I had visited, the tens of thousands of students I'd met, given free books to, taught workshops to, and had fun debates with since my career had taken off. I had also started to have opportunities to change the narrative a little by throwing the names of other up-and-comers around, helping a few other writers get published, negotiate their deals, and find other opportunities. I was putting on; I wasn't being a hater. I had grown into everything that other author seemed like they had wanted to be: the anti-gatekeeper.  

Using your reputation to help others is rewarding, but it's not always a smooth experience. 

About a year later, I picked up the phone one day to hear an amped-up promoter screeching in my ear. 

"D, where's your guy? Everyone is waiting!"  

I had gotten a young writer I was trying to put on, in the great tradition of putting on, a speaking gig at a school that paid $500. He was kind of new and told me he really needed the money. It was a perfect fit. But now the event planner was calling me because the person I had put on didn't show.

I dialed his number.

"Yo, what's up," I said, hearing slight cries — or were they giggles? — in the background. "Yo!"  

The phone disconnected. I called again. 

"Yo, my bad bro," the young writer apologized. He said the pressure he felt over the amount of energy it takes to make it in this industry had made him depressed. "I put my clothes on to go, and just the weight of dealing with so many people was heavy on my spine."

He said it felt so heavy he couldn't move.

"And if I can't move myself, Watkins, how can I move the people?"

"Man, shut the f**k up," I told him. "Making money, large or small, is how you make it in the industry. The people are waiting. How far are you away from the venue?" 

"I'm going to do the next event you have, bro, I promise," he said. "Just book me something else. I'm going to be able to get into the space, emotionally, how I need to be to move the people." 

"Yo, where are you!" 

This guy was in Texas. He was supposed to be in Baltimore.

That wasn't the only disappointment. I plugged one writer into a freelance writing gig and she never submitted. Around the same time I hooked an old friend up with a TV producer and he snaked me by belittling my show idea to promote his own, as if we both couldn't succeed. I gave sample book proposals to other writers only for them to say I didn't really help them — because I didn't take the time to craft the proposals for them? "Nobody ever helped me!" I once heard one super ambitious guy claim, even though I introduced him to his agent and wrote half his proposal. Go figure. Is putting on really worth it?

The simple answer is yes. It is our responsibility help our fellow artists. It can even be considered part of our body of work. Artists who achieve success and don't create opportunities for others are terrible people. It doesn't matter if the reason stems from insecurity, the fear that there can only be one, or aloofness. Those excuses are equally terrible. There are too many talented and creative people in the world who simply don't have the connections to the industries they are capable of excelling in. And then there's always the golden rule: treat others the way you would like to be treated. If you would like your name to be mentioned in a room full of opportunities, then mention someone else's name in a room full of opportunities.

With that being said, when a person stumbles, or doesn't benefit from a connection, or fumbles the bag, or — as in the case of the young writer who felt too heavy to move the people — ghosts an entire event, it doesn't exempt us from helping others, or even that person, again. It also doesn't make you or that person a failure. It just means it wasn't meant to be. It wasn't their time. That's why I swallowed my pride and helped the kid who missed the speaking event again and again. Because even though the author who was more successful than me ten years ago didn't keep his promise to put on, a host of other writers did.

Wes Moore gave me great career advice when I started out and blurbed my books. Dr. Koko Zauditu Selassie taught me how to navigate academia. Sarah Hepola published my first Salon essay, launching my career. David Daley, also here at Salon, gave me my first column. Latoya Smith gave me my first book deal, and David Talbot gave me my second. Baynard Woods helped me publish in the New York Times. Chuck Todd welcomed me on "Meet the Press" right after Melissa Harris Perry bought me on her show. Sonja Sohn and Tamron Hall put my story and commentary on television. Linda Duggins makes sure I sell books. Wil Hylton helped me further my career in media and television. David Simon, George Pelecanos and Nina Noble made my dream of screenwriting a reality. The list goes on and on and on. I clearly did not do it alone. Nobody can. We have to show love, because our community would not exist without it. 

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D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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