Today I “gave away” a story of mine to a website. It’s not even one that showcases creative writing. It was just a “Share Your Story” set-up. Most of the stories there were simply things like “I have been depressed for 20 years” and “I have tried X (medication) and it doesn’t work for me.” Mine is an essay I wrote for a contest. I was one of seven finalists (I’ve been telling myself that surely there were more than seven entrants!). But I realized as I submitted the story that my writing is not about being published traditionally but about getting my stories out there in the hopes that what I’ve written can help someone else. Not only that, but just because most of the other stories are more like notes, doesn’t mean that they aren’t real writing. The writers may not consider what they wrote to be “creative writing.” But anything that we create is art, and what is art but self-expression?
I would gladly write for free–at least for awhile. I haven’t developed the commercial mindset. As long as my writing is published, I’m happy. The money is just a form of validation and the way that this society measures success. By that standard I am only remotely successful. I have made exactly $1400 in all the years that I’ve been writing. But one of my proudest accomplishments was the publishing of “Grief Garden” (see archives, 12/19/05) in an anthology called From Eulogy To Joy. I’m proud not only of the piece, but because of the venue in which it was published. I felt honored to be included in an anthology about how people have dealt with the loss of a loved one. I have no idea how many people have read my essay, or what they thought of it, but I know it’s there, available to anyone who picks up the book.
What does it really matter if we’re paid for our art? Oh, sure, we’d love to be able to make a living doing what we love. For one thing, then we’d have more time to do it. But I’m going to write anyway. And a lot of what happens to me at my “day job” informs what I write. I’d miss out on that input if I didn’t do anything else but produce my art.
Of course, being paid is just one way to be recognized. I doubt that any of us would complain if we were mentioned in a public venue as one of this century’s greatest writers, albeit an unpaid one. Maybe it would be better if no one was ever paid for his or her art. Then we could be sure that what was created was done for love of the art itself. I know I can tell a difference in my writing when I’m trying to write for publication and writing “for myself.” I usually don’t care for the former. I don’t always care for the latter either, but at least I’m free from anxiety when I’m writing. Anxiety makes it difficult for me to be creative. I do better in an atmosphere of complete self-acceptance. When I feel that I have a God-given right to write.
Of course, with that right comes responsibility. (That’s what “they” always say.) I have the responsibility to write as well as I can, to not put out any junk, at least not in my final versions. If God gave me the talent–and I believe that He did–then He intends for me to share it with the world, whether I get paid for it or not. He didn’t say, “Don’t feed the poor unless you get paid to do so.” He said, simply, “Feed the poor. Give away the shirt on your back–don’t sell it to the poor man who needs one. Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
What if art were never shared freely? Sometimes I think that’s a danger in this society when admissions to art exhibits, concerts, and plays are more than the average family spends in a week for groceries. (Or longer.) But when I open my eyes, I see that art is all around us, free for the experiencing. It’s in the clothes we wear, the way we decorate our homes, the gardens we share with the neighborhood, even in the meals we cook. It most certainly is in nature. But I also see it in architecture and other man-made things. The only difference between these kinds of art and the kind the artist produces is that the artist is trying to reproduce in some way and interpret the meaning of the art in ordinary things.
I’m not saying that it isn’t a worthy goal to be paid for our art. I just know that worrying about that stands in the way of my free self-expression. Art is to be shared or it is only the creator’s possession. It may cost money to produce, and even to share, but being paid should never be the main motivation. That robs the artist of his joy.