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The Best Reason to Write (or Make Any Art) is For Free
I WANT to earn money from my novels, but in the end it doesn't matter if I do.
Okay. Hang on. I need to scramble to make a point here, delivering on that clickbait headline before the hammer falls and everyone realizes I just said that I wanted to write for free.
No. Fuck that. Back up. Let’s be clear that in no way do I want to write books for free. I don’t plan to, and I wouldn’t encourage any other creative person struggling to earn a living to do so. I just started publishing my book The Ephemera on this Substack, and after a preview period, it’s going to be for members only … i.e., not free. I put in a lot of work to write my books. If folks want to read them, it seems only fair that they pay a few bucks. We should support the people who make the things we enjoy. I know I do.
But I would write for free. I would also write if I had no readers. That’s the point. If the world was burning but I had a paper and pen, I’d still be writing. Because I’m a writer. Because that’s what writers do.
It’s easy to lose sight of that in the hurly burly of modern life — in all this confusion we’ve draped on top of creativity and creative commerce — but it’s true. Writers write. Artists make art. Musicians make music. We want to earn so we can do more of what we do, but earning isn’t why we do it. The more I really understand that, the freer I feel. There’s no trap here. There’s no problem, either.
I write because I want to, or possibly because I have to for my own selfish reasons. That means no matter what happens in our industry or amongst the general public, my next choice is clear: Keep writing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole thing lately: about the point of creation, and the point of commerce, and the fact that it’s nice when they get together but ultimately it doesn’t matter.
In my mind, that’s the only healthy way to think about it. The world is changing. It’s possible that eventually, AI will be able to write exactly like me, complete with my layers, twists, and turns. Even if that doesn’t happen, the reading public is shrinking. It’s hard for books, which are long, to compete with Instagram, which is short.
Think about it for a while and you’ll start having existential freak-outs. It starts to feel like there may soon be no market left for artists at all. The WGA’s new contract keeps humans in the Hollywood loop for a while, but will that last forever? Book sales are down, and even now quickie reads sell better than those with an abundance of soul.
And what about graphic artists — those who might take weeks to create something AI can create in seconds? What about musicians? Computers make music that’s “good enough” for a lot of purposes. It’s not quite legal, but they can even duplicate the voices of famous singers. I’m a working writer. My parents are both painters. My kids do visual art, and one will do it professionally. I live in a city of musicians. I hear what they say, and how their optimism is dwindling.
Hearing all of that — thinking all of that — I used to worry that art was dying.
But art’s not dying.
Quite the contrary. I’d argue it’s purer than ever.
Me. On the lawn. Drinking wine and eating a big-ass salad.
Saturday night, I was at an outdoor concert with my wife. Got a really excellent salad from a restaurant within walking distance and kicked back on the grass in front of the stage, eating that motherfucker out of a huge plastic bowl because I hate not having enough room to mix everything together in the little take-out container they give you. Had wine in my tumbler. Last of the sunlight dying, the temperature perfect as darkness arrived.
The act that night — last in the Saturday night series for a while — was a woman named Ruby Jane. I’d perused what she had online before we went to see the show and to be honest, I was so-so on her vibe: coffee shop music, from what I saw. That’s not entirely my thing, but hey … outdoor music on a nice night is still outdoor music on a nice night. The goal was just to point my chair in one direction for two hours and drink wine. It didn’t matter who was playing.
I’m glad that’s how I went into it, because “Ruby and the Reckless” kicked about a billion times more ass than I’d anticipated. Shame there’s none of their ass-kicking stuff out there, or I’d link to it for you. Think Heather Nova with electric guitar solos and some seriously wicked rock fiddle and you’ll get the idea.
I think the fact that I was so taken by surprise is the reason an epiphany hit me. I thought: Oh, it doesn’t matter that any of us are here watching this show. They’re up there playing. That’s all that matters.
Yes, they were getting money. Even though the concert was free, ACL Radio paid the band. And yeah, that meant it was a gig. Being a musician is a blue-collar job. You have to drive all over the place, lug your own equipment, do something that turns out thankless more often than not, and in the end part of the reason you’re doing it is because it pays some bills and puts some food on the table. The band had a guitarist, a drummer, and keys in addition to Ruby herself. Those folks weren’t there just for kicks.
But they weren't there just for the money, either.
I’ve managed to make a living from writing, but it’s never been easy just like the life of almost every performing musician isn’t easy. You can do it, but unless your name is Taylor Swift or Stephen King, chances are you’re doing it for nickels. There are far, FAR easier ways to earn a buck than through creative endeavors. If we’re in this for money, we’re pretty stupid. Thanks to Covid and the labor shortage, even the McDonalds near me pays more than most artists earn.
We want to earn money because it lets us keep doing our art without having to do something else. If we produce something that people enjoy, we also deserve to earn money. There’s this expectation out there now that everything should be free, but that’s some serious bullshit. You wouldn’t not pay your plumber, so you shouldn’t not pay your author, either.
But in the end, we as creators have chosen what we do because we want to do it. That’s a choice, not something we’re being forced to do.
It therefore follows that if we’re choosing art, we’re choosing ART. We might hope for money, but we’re not choosing money. Nor fame, nor to be chosen for Oprah’s book club. Nor praise, respect, esteem, or admiration by our peers. We’re not doing it to see our book in bookstores. To see our film in theaters, or because “I’m a writer/painter/singer” is a good conversation-starter at parties.
I see so many creative people falling into the maw of existential terror as the art market shrinks and as society, it seems, loses what we think of as culture. What if people stop reading? What if AI starts making all the music that’s good enough for the public? What if nobody hires writers anymore, or illustrators, or camera operators, or stuntmen, or storyboard artists, or anything else?
Well, if that happened, it would suck. That sounds to me like a society filled with abject douchebaggery, and after the apocalypse there will be nothing left but Musak and Michael Bay movies.
But in a world like that, I’d also argue that art would be more “art” than ever.
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It’s about self-expression, dumbass
That’s me talking to me. I’m not calling you a dumbass. But if you ever forget that self-expression is the reason we actually do anything creative, feel free to read the subhead above while looking in the mirror. Dumbass.
While I was watching Ruby Jane play — dancing with the guitarist during his solos, rocking the violin like the Devil’s fiddle during her own — all I could think was, I am witnessing this.
It was as simple as that: The band was playing, and the rest of us were present. They were onstage doing their thing … and by the way, an audience was there.
It didn’t matter if I liked the performance, though I think I’ve made clear that I did.
It wouldn’t matter if the lawn was empty.
It wouldn’t matter if the band had been playing in someone’s garage instead, boxed in and annoying the neighbors, behind on their mortgages and behind at work … but still, for some idiot reason, taking the time to get together with other idiots and play.
For the joy of it. For love of the doing and the process itself. Because once you strip away the rest, what is there?
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the truest value of art is to the artist. Meaning that if I write the novel that I want to write, that novel has done its job the minute it’s out of me. Even if it nobody reads it, it’s done its job.
Even I never publish it.
Even if I do publish it, but it tanks.
Even if the entire market changes, and absolutely everything is written with AI.
Even if I fall behind the times. If I can’t keep up. If I have to do other jobs. I don’t want any of that to happen, but does it really matter? I don’t think it does.
What’s more, if it did happen, why did I write the book? What was the reason? It wasn’t for fame, or fortune, or acclaim, or respect. If all of the above was true and I wrote the book anyway, what other possible reason for it could there be than a desire to create? What other reason than to express myself, putting my thoughts and feelings into tangible form solely because I wanted something new to exist?
What better definition of art could there possibly be?
We are all witnesses
That’s more than just the slogan Cleveland used when LeBron James joined the Cavaliers and apparently everyone within 100 miles existed to witness his ascension. It’s also the truth of creation. It’s a way I’ve never thought about art and its purpose before, but now can’t get out of my mind.
When a musician performs, if that musician loves their music and puts their heart and soul into it, there’s a vibe that comes off of them. You can feel it just sitting in the audience.
But the audience doesn’t matter, remember? One person, a thousand people, no people at all … a passionate musician plays because they want to play, not because people are waiting to hear them.
When audiences do show up, I don’t think they come to hear the music. That’s in there, yes. But when something feels transcendent — when art of any sort at all makes you feel something, whether it’s a painting or a dance or a choir solo or a poem — it’s not because you received sound waves in your ears or photons on your retinas.
When we experience art, what we truly feel is the soul of the artist.
That’s what I mean when I say we are witnesses. It’s not a transaction; it’s a witnessing. There’s an element of my authorship that involves a transaction (in which I sell and you buy), but I’d write even without buyers, remember.
In truth, I’m doing my thing in one isolation bubble and you’re doing your thing in an entirely different isolation bubble. You can choose to pick up what I’m laying down, but that’s far, far secondary to the reason I made it. My goal was to make the thing. I’m fortunate in that right now, people will often pay for that thing, and being able to pay for food using book income means I can write more books and do less of the things I’d rather not do. But that’s not primary. It’s an after-effect, not the purpose.
I love the idea of art being a performance that nobody is asking for — a performance of vulnerable and raw self-expression that’s happening regardless.
And I love the idea that if someone wants to witness it (not the product of the art, like the painting or the book, but instead the act itself of the artist opening their heart and creating), they can decide — and ideally pay their support — to do so.
I love the idea that the same things are taking place as in my old paradigm (someone makes something; someone else watches or hears or reads it), but that the framing is totally different.
It’s not: I make and you consume.
Instead, it’s: I AM … and if you want to witness and feel what it’s like when I revel fully in my thing — when I am BEING THAT — you can choose to witness it.
It’s not give and take.
Who cares what comes next?
I’ve already have people tell me that the way I write books may soon be obsolete, no different from the way typing on a typewriter is antiquated and obsolete, or manually setting type on a printing press is obsolete. The way developing photos in a darkroom is obsolete.
It’s a slippery slope, though. What else is obsolete? Is drawing obsolete, because AI can draw faster? Is the written word obsolete because TV delivers a story more quickly? Are practical movie effects and stuntmen obsolete in the age of CGI? What about actors? Already we can make full movies using only pro voices, and soon enough that won’t even be necessary … strictly speaking.
Why would anyone go to a play? Movies can show action closer up and from more angles, and any mistakes can be edited out.
Why would anyone listen to live music? A really good home stereo can deliver the music with better depth and fidelity.
Why, really, do we need to do anything creative at all? There are better ways to do every bit of it.
Because, asshole, efficiency was never the point.
We don’t live life in order to reach the end of it in a timely fashion.
We don’t go on vacation so that we can get home and check “vacation” off our list.
We do the things we do because the journey has value. Because doing has value. We make art not because the world needs art (though I’d argue it does — a point for another day), but because we, as artists, want to create it.
I try to remember all of this when I start to worry about the world. About its disinterest in the things I love and find value in. I try to remember that I do what I do, in the specific way I do it, not to get it done and sell it … but because I WANT to do what I do in the specific way I do it.
Seeing that difference negates all of the objections. All of the worries. Yes, if you rely on creative work to pay the bills, you have a problem. That means that a lot of us may have a problem, and it means that a lot of us will worry.
But does it change anything?
Will you write differently in order to get writing DONE if you prefer doing it another way?
Will you stop painting, if you love it, because AI can do it faster and cheaper?
Art is about the artist. Art is for the artist. When art is made, it’s the artist who benefits most. So personally, I vote no to the above. Because the act of creating — no matter how inefficient or commercially inviable it may be — has been the point of art all along.
The people out there who believe in our art, as we believe, become patrons (which by the way, is an excellent reason to support creators you like. Hint hint).
Others are witnesses.
And the rest? They don't matter. Not to the act of creation, they don’t.
I don’t want to do what I do for free, if only because getting paid for it allows me to do more of what I love to do.
But I would.
And nobody — and nothing — can take that away from me.