“Because you’re worth it”

My mind always wants to find every angle on things. Sometimes I think I’m creating a Picasso-esque quantum multi-dimension for something perfectly simple.

I’ve seen published authors complain at the number of wannabe writers who are willing to write for nothing, for pleasure, for the kick of sharing their thoughts with other souls out there. Some authors complain that their own work is devalued: “If you write, get paid.”

So I’ve been wondering how I justify “giving away” poems and stories here and on FaceBook. In the first instance, as I have decided to do that, any justification is likely to have an element of cognitive dissonance* – ie I have decided thus so all my thought processes will encourage me that I have made the right decision.

The difference between free and paid is an age-old difference between amateur and professional. Many people paint or play piano or sing or do DIY. But a professional artist’s painting will have Wow! factor, as well as being technically competent in every respect, while a professional plumber won’t accidentally put a valve in back to front or change pipe size on a whim (our house was plumbed by an amateur; we now know more about plumbing than he did – which is not saying much – thanks to all the problems he created).

And how much is “paid”? Most of my published friends make more (far more, which isn’t saying much) from workshops, teaching and readings than book sales – especially poets. Some authors hit the right note, the Richard and Judy slot, the Booker long list, the film royalties and can give up the day job. But not many. Midlist novelists (and pretty much all poets) live on a knife edge.

Don Patterson dislikes “amateur” poets:
“I believe we’ve become trapped in a vicious circle; the expectation readers invest in us becomes lower and lower by the year…  Poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level; but amateur artists and musicians don’t think they should exhibit at the Tate, or play at the Wigmore. (Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.) The result of the inadvertent democratisation of the art has been many people feeling that armed with a beer-mat, a pencil, and a recent mildly traumatic experience they are entitled to send 100pp of handwritten drivel into Faber or Cape.”

Where, then, are poets to come from? Are they to be academic, trained, poets? Surely we all start as amateurs, as beginners? How does Patterson define a poet “apprentice”? (He’s also rather damning about creative writing workshops and tutorials, by the way; I am not quite sure what does meet his exclusive standards – Oxbridge, perhaps?) We’re in danger of having the – also age-old – argument about what makes “high art” so very special – is it special or the emperor’s new clothes? Where does originality slip into utter bollox? We’ll all have a different threshold – how should that be challenged? What makes art great, rather than just expensive? Who decides value?

I’m not Oxbridge polished. I don’t have a degree in literature. I am not one of the in crowd, the approved literati. What I do have is a discovered desire to communicate, to create, to enthral or bemuse or amuse my readers. Will I ever “make a living” writing? I don’t know. But writing is part of my life: I cannot imagine living without it.

I can’t afford a work by, say, Barbara Hepworth – but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire her brilliance. I just hope that someone else – or a community – will support artists so their creativity can awe me. Perhaps we should contemplate our civilization in terms of what we achieve as a society? Medical care? Care for those disadvantaged? Amazing – yet functional! –architecture? Art, creativity, wonders of the next age? This is where sponsorship comes in – whether from individuals, foundations or government. Art illuminates life, makes sense – or nonsense – of how we perceive our world. It should enrich society way beyond the ken of price tags.

Writers will write. It’s what we do. It’s like breathing. We like to share – it’s the simplest form of telepathy (as Stephen King says). Sharing is never “for nothing”: at the least, the reader participates in the script, gives their time, their concentration, their attention. Perhaps, in the long run, that is everything.

* A classic example of cognitive dissonance is Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes where the fox cannot reach a juicy bunch of grapes so wanders off grumbing, “They’d be sour, anyway: I didn’t really want any.” Another example would be Bush and Blair’s justifications for the Iraq war. It’s a favourite psychological state of denialists, religious bigots and politicians – and brilliant material for a writer. But I digress…

Barbara Hepworth bronze overlooking the sea in St Ives, Cornwall


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8 Responses to “Because you’re worth it”

  1. Hi, Myfanwy. I love this post. I don’t necessarily agree with you in all respects, particularly about ‘professional’ plumbers., but I love your style.

    :) scar

  2. Effie says:

    I love it too.

    We can’t all be ‘literary’ – I most certainly am not – but I love to write. Some of my stories have earned me money, most haven’t. I like to think I am honing a craft. I doubt I’ll ever make a proper living from it. (£373 plus flowers plus a dinner token don’t make one rich …) I also like to entertain people. Some won’t like my work, some of which is very dark and serious. I like to think I push boundaries other won’t in their fiction when it comes to subject matter but ultimately, I write because I love to do it.
    I’ve taken some writing courses because I wanted to learn. I never aspired to be one of the literati because I never felt I would fit in with them.
    Keep writing – for all the right reasons.

    ps I wrote a story called ‘The Cheryl Cole Moment’ a few months ago – because I’m worth it ; ) – and so are you. : )

    • Myfanwy Fox says:

      Thanks, Effie.
      “That Cheryl Cole Moment”? Brilliant title, hah.
      Part of what I’m arguing, I think, is that we should question these boxes – literary, genre etc – and, as a society, we should be looking for the *best* writing … but how that’s defined, of course, depends on where the reader is coming from.
      So far all I’ve made from writing is the occasional free lunch (“free lunch”? OMG no such thing – must’ve sold my soul) so you are – infinitely! -ahead of me there.

  3. Ron says:

    This piece is brilliant, and eloquent, the only two things that matter in writing. I agree. “Real writers” be damned, without those of us who do it for the pure joy of writing, the market for those egotists that demand we worship their superiority would dry up. We keep our kind interested in reading, the poor commoners who might think Hemingway overrated while Aunt Millie, quite a little story teller. It’s fascinating that for something considered by most practitioners of the craft to be art, how many of our “peerage” think it’s not subjective at all but hierarchical, that only warthogs would enjoy my poetry whilst the world still has Longfellow on its shelves. Life’s too short, I’ve dealt with enough BS, Patterson can wear his thorny crown of manure if he likes. I will read you right alongside Tennyson, because the only real difference is in the transportation, not the soul.

    I happen to have a poem or two on the topic lol (wouldn’t you know) I’ll post em when I see em. Nicely said lass.

  4. Myfanwy Fox says:

    Ron, you are so kind, thank you.

    To some extent I actually agree with Patterson in that I think there is a terrible amount of what Stephen Fry described as “arse dribble” out there (mind you, he’s ranting about free verse – I’d suggest bad rhyme/meter is far more painful to experience). However, I think his basis – as expressed there – is wrong. His comments seem to suggest he’s an elitist snob, rather than elitist in the sense of seeking – and encouraging – the “best” poetry, wherever it arises. He’s closing doors, not flinging them wide. There’s such snobbery and cliquiness. Somewhere we need to find “good” writing *as we see it* and maybe that means lots of overlapping concensuses (consensi?).

  5. Mal Dewhirst says:

    Hello Myfanwy,

    I agree with your dilema, as a poet I do feel that we are undervalued and am often dissapointed that people won’t get beyond the X Factor efforts that a lot of amateur poets post on the web – then dismiss poetry because of some of the dismal examples. I have chosen not to put my poetry on the web, this is my personal decision and feel it right for me. My blog Pollysworda is my way of promoting the projects I am working on and the readings where people can engage with me and my poetry. Someone said to me but isn’t your blog writing that you are giving for free – it is, but it forces me to write a 1000 word essay per week and through crafting this prose helps me step out of poetry for a while, only to return with a refreshed set of ideas – that is the reward for me. Excellent blog – I will keep reading and will put a link from my blog to yours to encourage others to read it too. Regards Mal

    • Myfanwy Fox says:

      Hi Mal,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. When I have time and a brain cell in working order I’ll try to link to your blog, too. Still finding my way around on WP.

      I think how much we publish is an entirely personal decision. There are some poems I won’t even be sharing with my lovely circle here: too personal. And there are some poems and prose I think are worthwhile sending so publishers or zines first (you may notice that all of the work on here so far has already been published in one way or another). If I have something that has any (tenuous) merit I would like to make the most of it. I suppose one purpose of blogging for many writers is to engage readers – and, hopefully, that can include potential publishers/buyers/events organizers. Selling ourselves but not too whorishly …

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