Saturday, September 01, 2007

Writing creatively--a job?

This posting will probably annoy a few authors. That's OK. I've never been known for my tact. And don't forget that I'm an author, too.

There have been a few discussions I've seen lately in different venues, both in print and online, that have me scratching my head. While writing of fiction may be an author's livelihood, it is not in any way comparable to a "job."

We (authors) all like to think of writing as a creative endeavor, as artistic as singing or painting or acting... yet when it comes right down to it, we often seem to wish to deny the most universal rule of artistic endeavors: the pay is usually slim, irregular and slow to arrive.

I hear authors who say, "My work is not for free! I don't write anything for anyone unless I get paid. The money must flow TO the writer, not away."


I've never met a musician who was paid for every gig they performed, especially when they were in the early stages of their careers. They play for free, for food, for the beer... in other words, just to get their music out in front of people.

Actors almost invariably start out doing unpaid amateur theatrical work--little theater, community playhouses, etc. Painters usually have to beg for a place to hang their work in the beginning so they have a chance to get noticed and possibly get commissioned to do a work, or sell a piece of their work. The same goes for sculptors, weavers, and other artists. If they're good enough, and lucky enough, and in the right places at the right times--they eventually achieve some measure of success. What is it about writers that makes us think we have a RIGHT to be paid for everything we manage to publish, or to think we have a RIGHT to a regular income?

Sure, we do have to turn a business-like eye on things and count the cost of promotion, of doing business. It only makes sense. The publisher and bookseller must do the same thing, unfortunately, and that is often where the conflict comes into play. But to think that we as writers of stories deserve a regular paycheck of some sort, or have a right to be paid for our work, is ludicrous. Gauguin didn't have a right to be paid for his paintings, nor did Van Gogh. No artist has a right to be paid for his or her work unless it is work done for hire. Michelangelo was paid for his work in the Sistine Chapel because it was done on commission for Pope Julius II, and even then they argued about it.

It is impossible to draw an equivalency comparison between what an author does and what a textile worker does, or a plumber, printer or even a bookstore clerk. These people are working at the behest of and for the convenience of others, producing a product or providing a service for which there is a demand. As writers, we create something which WE feel a need to create. We pour ourselves into it and then try to find someone else who will value it at least as much as we do. Sometimes that doesn't happen. So, we give up or we rewrite it or we start a new story... but the process is repetitive: we still have to find someone else who wants out story and will (we hope!) pay us for it and publish it.

Brutal honesty time here: If you want a regular paycheck for your work, get out of writing unless you want to do work for hire. If you feel you must be a writer, then be a technical writer, copywriter or journalist, and write what someone else tells you to write so you can be paid a regular wage.

But if you want to be an author of creative works, free to write what you wish when you wish, then stop griping about how much money you make and about how much it costs you to make the money you DO make. You chose to be a writer. You chose to abandon sensible ways of making a living such as being a carpenter, firefighter or test pilot.

Understand: I'm not saying that we shouldn't be paid what we are TOLD we will be paid. I'm not saying that a publisher has the right to withhold royalties from an author or ignore contractual obligations. All I'm saying is, when we are in a creative career field, our possibility of income is a very nebulous thing, depending much upon the vagaries of public opinion. A writer is a lot like an inventor, week after week creating new devices he or she thinks will be the Next Big Thing. But if consumers aren't interested, or the inventor can't find a manufacturer, no matter how wonderful an idea may be it won't make any money. Being a writer, like being an inventor, is no way to have a regular paycheck.