In an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”, Tim Kreider explains his frustration with being asked to do artwork for free:
So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.
I also like this point:
The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.
I don’t write to make a profit (though I also don’t write to help others make a profit, excepting whatever WordPress might make from the wonderfully few ads on this blog). I write because I want and need to write. I write journals each morning to clear from my mind the recent memories and ideas and reactions that accumulate there, and I write at this blog out of a need to tell, to share, to teach, to entertain. I struggled for a few years with feeling that I ought to be sharing the ideas that I came up with in my journal writing, and then I realized that the journals need to be kept secret. I’ve gotta have a private place where I can write without the fear of what a reader might think of me.
But I also want to share some writing, and so, two years ago, I started this blog and have since been figuring out what of my writings I want to share with others. That’s an ongoing question–I don’t want to repeat myself, and I want to test conceptual boundaries.
But I don’t always make my blog posts easy to read, and while I appreciate readers who appreciate (some of) what I’m trying to do, I don’t necessarily need readers. My writings might at times be described as “self-indulgent,” but this hardly feels like a criticism, since, yeah, it is exactly my self that I am indulging by doing all of my writing. As a younger writer, I wondered what parts of my writing I had that would interest other people; now I’m more interested in writing whatever interests me, and if that interests others, cool, but if not, eh.
In the transition phase between these two positions, I recall reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and thinking that King was lucky in that, somehow, what he wanted to write was also something that would sell. Maybe my perception isn’t what King would say; maybe he intended to write commercial works, and at any rate, his memoir clearly points out that his life was not without stress even once he began publishing.
But for me, the best things in my life — my relationships, my jobs, my abilities, and even my ideas — have come to me without me trying to force them. When I’ve tried to force things in my life, things haven’t gone so well. So now, too, I’m letting my writing come out and see what arrives.
And lately I’m understanding my writings as the written, shared interpretations of my experience, of my mind’s voice chatting. The texts I write can be seen as entities separate from my mind, but I’m looking at the connection between the two. I’m taking the perspective that my writings are how I react to and explain the experiences I have subjectively, and which can’t be shared directly with others. (I feel like there may be more to post on this at a later time.)
I know that some people do want to get paid for what they write, and I know that that’s a different purpose for writing than the one I’ve just described. It took me years to learn about myself that I would not be satisfied with writing only or mainly for commercial reasons. I make my money as a teacher, which itself is a satisfying, rewarding profession (and also gives me things to write about), and which allows me the freedom to write whatever I want. This freedom is more important to me than making money from my writing is.
So, perhaps Kreider is correct when he writes that “content” is devalued at this historical moment. (By the way, no one is a “slave,” to use Kreider’s term, if one has the choice not to do work.) But to see one’s art merely as for sale also seems a limited way to think of what art does for us.
UPDATE/SUMMARY (now that I’ve written all this, my point becomes clear to me): Writing for other people, like doing any work for them, means that one gives other what the others want. I want to write what I want, what I’m interested in, and for that freedom, I don’t need to be paid. Perhaps some writers do only what they themselves want to do, and some readers respond to that, but as a writer, I’m gonna do what I want to do whether others care or not — I see Emily Dickenson’s life of not-publishing as a legitimate life for a writer.