The Best Things

If you are at all a sci-fi fan, you may have come across this interview/rant by author Harlan Ellison:

Some of you might even, like me, find a delicious frisson of…well, not irony, but that thing that everybody mistakenly calls irony when you are using (for free) a clip by writer whose books you read (mostly for free, from the library) and who inspired you to write 1st-person rants like this blog (for free) and the clip is all about how writers should always – always – get paid.

For anything they do. If you can’t watch the clip, he’s speaking specifically about an interview he did about some writing for Babylon 5, and his indignation when a production company wanted to use the interview (which he keeps calling his “essay”, though I’m pretty sure they are two different things) on a DVD without paying him. “I don’t take a piss without getting paid!” he shouts, amidst a great deal of arm waving, exasperated side-glances, and curmudgeonly righteousness.

I’d kinda like to see how long that would last. I mean, really, does he have that much bladder control? How much does he get paid per liter? It’s quite an impressive gig, and I’d never heard of writers getting it, only certain specialized sex workers…but I digress.

Charging for the Tide

At the same time, he blames not so much the studio as the rising tide of writers and other creatives – “amateurs”, he lumps them all together – who are willing to work for free. They are to blame for the lack of paying gigs for “pros” like himself, because they are willing to work for “exposure.” He’s right, in a way: the production company rep who told him he would have great “exposure” was just being silly; there’s no need for a writer of his stature to be more “exposed.” He won’t get one thin dime.

However, that’s not true for everyone. It’s not true for most aspiring creatives, in fact. For them, the problem is exposure, not how much they’re paid. In fact, studies show that “apathy, not piracy” is the true bane of creatives in, for example, the music industry. 75% of the people who download music through peer-to-peer networks later buy the music, as opposed to 0% of the people who never heard of the music in the first place. Neil Gaiman, a writer with about as much cred as Harlan Ellison, has noted that with more exposure, sales go up. “It’s people lending books. You can’t look at that as a lost sale. No one that wouldn’t have bought your book is not buying it… what you are doing is advertising.”

Others such as Corey Doctorow and Seth Godin have also written extensively on how the game is changing, and yes, that means some people who used to get paid a lot to do a job will not be paid as much. That is what happens when the means of production – i.e., word processors, the internet, etc. – lowers the barriers to entry. On a certain level, Harlan looks like King Canute, furiously sweeping at the rising tide of “amateur” fiction, muttering “Get off my beach! You gotta pay to be on my sand!”

A History of Free

In the comments section of the video, there is, as you might expect, a lot of “Yeah! Right on! Attaboy!” commenting. What I found amusing was the number of people who would say things like “Would you work at a fast food joint for free? Ever try and get a lawyer to work for free? How would you feel if your Doctor was having to compete with some ‘witch’ for healing?”

I found it amusing because…well, all of those things happen. People volunteer to work at soup kitchens or community dinners for free all the time. Lawyers work for free so often they have their own special word for it: pro bono. And yes, there are many spiritual and holistic healers who compete with medical Doctors for patients. That’s because a lot of the time they work, better than the “certified” M.D. For that matter, medical professionals also volunteer their services for free with organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Or I can use myself as an example: I went through training to become an Emergency Medical Technician and served as a volunteer for two years, no pay. I did get a spiffy uniform, and got to push the button that made the “WHOOP WHOOP” noise, plus occasionally using the little squiggly-line machine that went ping that was in the back.

I didn’t do it for the money. In fact, I didn’t do it for the cool gizmos, either. I did it because my father did it, actually – he was a volunteer EMT when I was eight, and it made quite an impression. I did it for the real reason that anybody does anything, in fact: because it feels good doing it.

It’s Not About the Money

Some of you are saying “Yeah, but that’s service stuff. Harlan’s talking about Creating. Intellectual Property. Copyright!” To which I still say: if you think that creatives – the really good creatives – are doing it for the money, you’re missing the point.

Let’s use some examples of some of the greatest creatives that ever lived:

  • Vincent Van Gogh: Only sold one painting in his life. Yet for some reason, painted 900 more.
  • Emily Dickinson: Published fewer than a dozen poems, yet wrote more than 1800.
  • Prince: has hundreds, perhaps thousands of songs that have never been published, or have been released but not registered with ASCAP (the company that makes sure musicians get paid when their songs are played).

I’m sure the list could go on. The fact is, the muse is a terrible taskmistress; ask anyone who has been taken by a story idea, a snippet of melody, a dance or a play or a picture: if you have the idea inside of you, it will come out, whether you get paid or not.

Kind of like piss, come to think of it. Sorry, Harlan. Someone, I can’t remember who (I thought Heinlein, but my Google-Fu is not strong today) said it something like this: “If you want to know if you’re a writer, just stop writing. If you can, you’re not.

That’s the real reason that there’s so much “free” out there – it’s because people are discovering that the days of the Royal typewriter and the sad little garret over the Moulin Rouge are no longer necessary; you can just fire up WriteOrDie and then post it to WordPress and boom your idea is out there, for the world to judge. It’s really easy to get that idea – whether it’s good or bad – out there.

Pros, I’ve got some good and bad news: The “amateurs” are doing it for free because they didn’t get the benefit of publicists and agents and the like. Instead, they are leveraging “free” and “internet” for exposure. The good news is, you have just as much access, if not more, to those tools! It’s not fair, since they don’t have equal access to yours, but that’s still good news for you.

The bad news is, if they are your competition, and you’re feeling threatened…then it’s very possible you weren’t quite as elite as you thought you were. Or rather, you were elite because you had access to difficult mechanisms of delivery, not because of your innate talent.

Might be time to up your game.

Money Makes the World Go Around

Let me be abundantly clear: I do the job. And then I get paid.
– Joss Whedon, via Capt. Malcolm Reynolds

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about getting paid money for what I do. This blog is completely the first phase of an effort to monetize the teaching and traveling and coaching and such that I have been doing, mostly for free, for the last decade. I’m just not going to sit there and pretend that I’m only doing it if I get paid money. The fact is, every time I write, I’m paying myself. It’s a free writer’s course, a self-esteem course (another blog posted!), free advertising (TJ, you’re a goddess of ReTweets!) and even a bit of a dating coach (Hey, pretty lady, did you know big words are sexy? I said “vituperative” a few posts ago…).

So yeah, I think that’s getting paid. I did the job, I reaped the benefits. They just aren’t always money. It’s nice when they are…but I’m not going to let a little thing like poverty hide my brilliance.

Perhaps that makes me a fool. If you think so, then you’re welcome to prove it by taking action: there’s a shiny donation button right up there on the right. You’ve read, at this point, over 1400 words which means you must have found something in them valuable. So if you agree with Mr. Ellison, obviously you’d want to pay me for this entry, right?*

But if not, that’s ok. I am confident that the rewards I get for writing it have already been acquired, and the future rewards are, truly, incalculable. I write this, not because I’m gonna get paid…but because I already have been.

*Even if you don’t agree with Harlan, it’s ok to pay me. Really.

1 thought on “The Best Things”

  1. “I’m not going to let a little thing like poverty hide my brilliance.”

    I love it 🙂

    I make my living (such as it is) as a performing musician. If I don’t get paid for those bread-and-butter gigs, I would soon stop doing them because it would cost me an unsustainable amount of time and money to continue, and I like having a roof over my head. Furthermore, I think it is reasonable to earn fair compensation in exchange for providing a valuable service as a skilled professional.

    On the other hand, I also play music for free sometimes – occasionally as advertisement, but much more often because it is what I am irresistibly moved to do in the moment, because it is rewarding to express something effable only via that medium, because it is a way to spread something I find wonderful, because it feels like service and a way to pass on the gifts that others have so generously given me, and because sometimes I simply like to make music with and for my people. In those moments, I am proud to truly be an amateur musician in the original sense of the word’s Latin root, which means “lover, admirer, devoted friend”.

    And, most of the time, I am happy to feel that way when I am performing professionally, too. While I do expect to be paid the agreed-upon amount for my professional engagements, I am certainly not performing FOR the money, not when I am at my best as a musician.

    Your post reminded me of the humorous and unintentionally Taoist/wu wei remark by Mozart, with which I happily identify:
    “I produce music in the same way a sow piddles.” Although, sometimes Mozart got paid. Most sows don’t.

    And also brought this to mind:
    “Music is far too important to be left only to the professionals.”

    To me, so also is writing, and dance, and poetry, painting, comics, video games, and every other form of artistic expression I know. Yes, compensation flows in many forms, art is often it’s own best reward, and financial poverty is not the worst kind.

    That said, it’s really nice to be able to pay the bills too, and I am glad to endeavor for a society where those who work to make the world more thoughtful, beautiful, and enjoyable for others can also have a fair shot at a happy and healthy life for themselves too.

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