How Much is Creativity Worth?
In early April, Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy penned a terrific piece in the Guardian about the myth of the suffering artist, inserting a sharp pin into a metaphorical hot-air-filled balloon: the belief that one must live a miserable existence in order to create great art.
That idea has infuriated me ever since the day that a guy I was dating said to me (with a straight face) that he didn’t want to address his emotional and psychological problems because if he were to somehow resolve them (unlikely, if you ask me), he would no longer be a good writer. (What this says about me for having dated him is something I’d rather not think about. In my defense, we didn’t date for long.) At the time, I was too stunned to come up with a coherent response, but what I wish I’d said was that the only thing he was accomplishing by reveling in his suffering was ensuring that he’d remain completely insufferable to everyone around him.
The more I think about this twisted idea, the more irritated I get. It is one of the key assumptions that underpins the equally ridiculous corollary that writers (or really anyone who does creative work) should be expected to alternately massage the feet of, and be abused by, those who are willing to pay us a pittance for our labor.
Why do publications think that, in 2012, it should be considered anything other than a travesty to pay someone $.50 per word (or less) to research, write, and report an article (which, when you calculate the time you actually spend on most pieces, is lower than the minimum wage)? For this, my parents helped me pay Ivy League tuition? (Aren’t you happy, Mom and Dad?) That very same publication would NEVER think of offering its printer, web-server company, or landlord a fraction of what their services are worth. I’m not saying that businesses don’t have a right to negotiate fees, but we’re not talking here about being paid a tiny bit more or less—it’s about the expectation that our work should earn us next to nothing, and that we should be grateful for our indentured servitude to boot.
Let’s be blunt: Without our creative output—be it a story, play, dance, or song—there would be NOTHING for these folks to sell. Last time I checked, a bound stack of blank pages was considered stationery, not writing.
And why is it that this idea is so widespread? In large part, because way too many people believe that if you are the kind of person who makes your living doing something creative, you should be expected to suffer in return for that privilege. So goes the thinking: “Why should you have all the fun when I have to go sit in a cubicle all day long?” (As if my days were spent frolicking in fields of daisies, playing with puppies and toddlers, instead of indoors, affixed to my computer…)
Why should I get to do this, you ask? Um, I don’t know. Maybe because I’m good at what I do. Maybe because I’ve busted my butt for YEARS to improve my skills, do the grunt work, and pay my dues. Frankly, maybe it’s because I’ve taken the risk of pursuing a career that is difficult, competitive, and demoralizing, with no guarantee of success, when I could have done something easier. Maybe it’s because I work really hard—not just Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, but weeknights, weekends, and holidays. And MAYBE, just maybe, it’s because others are going to make money off of what I produce.
Until we do a better job in this country of valuing creativity and the arts, we are going to be left with nothing more to talk about than Kim Kardashian’s latest 140-character brain fart, or the question of who smacked who on The Real Housewives of Oh-My-God-Who-Gives-A-Holy-Crap. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism—life is hard, and we all deserve some silliness from time to time—but if that kind of drivel is the enduring legacy of our age, then we have surely become Rome before the fall.