Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Creative Hours

I belong to a few different online groups for writers. They are filled with helpful, supportive people and are good places to ask questions, bounce around ideas, and occasionally simply vent or share success stories.

A few months ago, a writer in one of the groups was musing about how there was a book she really wanted to buy by a writer she really liked, but the price was five dollars, rather than the usual one dollar she'd become accustomed to through online promotions. She regretted that she couldn't get past the price tag and I think was looking to commiserate.

Honestly, this shocked me, along with many other writers in the group. Not because we don't know people are generally cheap and don't want to pay more for things than they have to, but because she was a fellow writer. She knows how much time and effort it takes to publish a book.

Five dollars? Five dollars is nothing compared to the hours upon hours spent creating characters and story lines and editing and editing again and suffering as your test readers have your manuscript and you have to wait an eternity wondering if your work is garbage or not. There is the struggle for the right cover design and chasing typos and formatting issues. And then there are the elusive bursts of inspiration that you have to harness while you can in order to turn them into a story worth reading. The core of what you do is dependent on something you can't even predict or rely on. It's hard. Writing is hard. (Super fun when it's going well, but still...) A fellow writer should more than understand why a book might be five dollars.

I'm not saying I don't like to check things out of the library, or scoop up a good bargain at a used bookstore. But more often than not, when it's a living artist whose work needs support, I pay for the hardcover. I buy the CD. I don't haggle with someone over a painting or a photograph if I want it on my wall. Because creativity is work, and consumes more hours to create than I think the average person understands.

Part of the problem is a sense of entitlement, and I believe that has both a positive and a negative connotations. On the negative side, music and writing and design and nearly all forms of entertainment feel ubiquitous. They are just there, and enough of it is available at no cost that people don't see a need to pay for anything. On the positive side, people come to claim certain songs, stories and images as their own because they are important to them.

There are many pieces of music that I feel ownership of in a way that they almost seem woven into my body. I spent an entire summer at a high school music camp working on Beethoven's Op. 18 No. 4 as part of a string quartet experience so joyful and instructive that that piece belongs to me. Every Little Thing She Does is Magic by the Police is mine. There is an amusing little clip of postal workers in Ghana improvising a tune as they get through their work day that I've had in my head since I first heard it in a World Music class back in college. That's part of me, too.

There are books with characters in them I feel closer to than I do to many real people. There is a Caillebotte painting in Paris that in my heart I feel should be hanging on my wall instead of in the Musee d'Orsay. There are movies and TV shows and works on stage that have occupied my thoughts in ways they live in me forever. That's what art does.

But the time it takes to create such things versus how quickly it can be consumed is incredibly unbalanced. I am still shocked when someone tells me they read one of my novels in a day or two. I'm pleased, because that means they didn't want to stop reading, but when I think how long it takes to write a chapter versus how long it takes to actually read it? That's almost unreal.

It takes time to compose a piece of music, and then more time for another person to acquire enough skill to perform it. Listening to that music comparatively takes no time at all. When people used to hire my string quartet to play an event and they expressed surprise at the price tag, I would remind them they were paying not for the hour, but for the decades of experience that prepared us for that hour.

Someone can spend years on a painting or sculpture that can be taken in at a glance, or passed by altogether. I think of that guiltily every time I have to rush through a museum because it's impossible to take much of it in in the time allowed. 

Our lives are so empty without these things. It took people with training and talent and perseverance to provide you with shows to watch on Netflix and music to listen to on Spotify and books to read to your kids at night, the video games you play, and the design of the clothes you wear and the furniture you use....

I want people who can't afford to pay to have access to all that creativity. This is why we should all support museums and libraries and PBS. But for those of us who can pay? Don't begrudge the artists their due. Don't get lulled into feeling you deserve to have it all be free simply because you want it. Artists need to eat and pay bills, too. The better they can make a living at it, the better off we all are.


  1. I really appreciate your sentence: "The core of what you do is dependent on something you can't even predict or rely on."

  2. Also consider the software world, where programs/apps are developed at great cost and an investment of time and energy, and are expected to be free or incredibly cheap. I was asked recently by my boss if I was aware that with my open source license that a software project that I have been working on for years can be legally stolen and rebranded for commercial purposes by anyone, anywhere. There is a difference in these two cases, however -- more than to inspire others, open source software is intended for a community to take, build on, and give back to the community.