If there is a current cri de coeur of the creative crowd, this is it.
Much as we might fervently wish for it, there’s no separate gas pump with a 35% discount just for painters or a 25% off aisle at the grocery store reserved for musicians or a 50% off sticker affixed to our phone, electricity or insurance bills.
Our costs are the same as everyone else’s.
So this piece in The New York Times, although hardly a new thought, hit a nerve:
NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.
People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.
They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.
I like to see how many comments Times pieces elicit; as I write this, so far, 493 people have weighed in. That might be a record.
This hit a chord with me, again, when yesterday a local attorney — who drives a lovely Mercedes — asked me to have lunch with her daughter so her daughter could ask my career advice.
I met the attorney because I interviewed her, (a paid gig, of course). We have no social or other relationship, but it’s a very normal expectation I want to share my 30 years’ expertise and insight without payment because….?
I don’t want lunch.
I want to be paid.
I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck, pension or paid vacations. Our earnings relied on our talent, skills and ability to negotiate a payment that made sense to us. It did, providing us with nice clothes, decent used cars, international travel, a home with a mortgage, i.e. a middle-class to upper-middle-class life.
This fantasy that creative people are eager to slurp ramen into our 60s or beyond is just weird.
Like that Times op-ed writer, Tim Kreider, I’ve also turned down many “offers” to go and speak unpaid — from the Retail Council of Canada (!), with no offer to pay my travel costs from New York to Toronto — to a local alumni group of a prestigious university who recently “invited” me to spend four hours of my time on that event, so I could sell copies of my latest book —at a discount.
None of which earns me a dime.
People wouldn’t ask their physician, dentist, accountant or attorney to come hang out, without compensation, for the afternoon.
Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.
I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.
We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.
I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.
I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:
How much longer will I devote to this project?
What I never achieve my goal?
Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?
If not, why not?
What am I willing to give up?
How much will I regret those losses?
I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!
Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something. It seems so easy: Put in the Time, Collect the Dime. I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences. Driving a car is a great example. While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility. After time, we become very natural at it. It almost becomes a reflexive action. (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)
What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin. The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound. However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?
It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.
At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.
I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.
Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.
Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!
That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.
So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)
No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.
Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?
What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?
An art installation that would have placed a fake gun-vending machine near children’s schools has London up in arms. Artist Ben Turnbull, 35, defended his project on BBC World News today as “edgy. It’s alerting people to the dangers,” he said. The BBC interviewer, (they’re typically rarely shy to interject their own opinions), asked if it was not irresponsible. Turnbull defended his work, entitled “Kids Have Everything These Days” as “theatrical” and “artistic.”
Police threatened to arrest him if he went ahead as planned, placing three of the machines near newsagents’ stalls and close to schools. He wanted to register children’s reactions to the idea of formally ready access to handguns, but a public outcry stopped him. Turnbull now plans to show his “bubble-gun machine” outside a London art gallery instead.
Turnbull says he’s horrified by gun crime and wanted to focus attention on how fascinated kids are by guns; his project filled a case with fake plastic Berettas he bought elsewhere in the city for about $50 and would have photographed the kids’ reactions to it.
Gun crime is a touchy and timely topic in the city, in a nation where gun laws are much stricter than those in the U.S. South London has seen three shootings in the past three months; on June 1, a 15-year-old girl was shot and injured and 17 arrests were made. On August 3, a 24-year-old driving his car down a quiet street was shot and killed and that same week a 19-year-old man was also killed.
Turnbull told the BBC people need to confront this new reality. “A guy was shot at the end of my road,” he said. What do you think of his idea? Nuts? Worth trying, if only to provoke dialogue on gun violence?