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…