Art and Money – Why We Write

I don’t see the link between art and commerce…People were talking about writing for money. I said, Look, you can bartend, or you can teach classes, or you can write shit you don’t want to write for publications you don’t want to write for. You can be a secretary, or a hooker, or a lawyer. That’s all Column A. In Column B there’s making art. There’s painting, dancing, writing poetry. In Column B there are things you don’t do for money. You don’t know why you do them at all. That can include starting a website, or sending out a daily email. Later, when you’re finished, you try to get as much money as you can. How much you sell it for is not the point. The point is, Why did you do it. – Stephen Elliot

At this moment in time, I make my living doing (mostly) writing-related things.  I edit books, I teach creative writing workshops, I proofread reports for a nonprofit organization, and I occasionally even sell an article.  But while I LOVE this work and feel so honored to do it, this is not my real work.3470650293

Blogging is also not my real work. Neither are Facebook updates or Twitter posts.  These are things I do to practice the craft of writing and to promote my paid work and my real work – but they are not my real work.

My real work is what I do when I work deep and long on a project that I choose because I NEED for any reason to do it. It’s the essay I wrote about shaving my mother’s head and the piece I crafted about silence and solitude. It’s the vignette I wrote about how important Peter Jennings was to me during the days after the 9/11 attacks and the book project I’m currently trying to find an agent for.  These things are my “real” work.  These are my art.

My other work – the things people pay me to do and the things I do to get paid and be able to earn a living – these things are important, and I do them well.  They feed me in a very literal sense some days.  But it’s the creative work that I choose, the work where I can disappear for hours and come out groggy but changed, the work that reshapes me in the most fundamental ways – that’s the REAL work for me.

The work I do for pay is valuable – it serves an important purpose in my life and, I hope, in the lives of people I work with. And I pray the same is true for this blog and for the social media work that I do.  But this is not the work that made me want to be a writer.

That work is quiet, and it is work I would do – and have done for my entire adult life – whether I am paid for it or not.  In fact, it’s a bonus when people pay me – I feel happy, relieved that one bill will be paid more easily. But I don’t need the pay to do this work – I do it for love – and I say that in all sincerity.

There are many people who think writing is only valuable if we are paid for it, and that’s fine and valid – those people are business people, not artists.  They are looking to make a living BEFORE they create art – and truly, that’s a fine way to be. But to say that one CANNOT write if one doesn’t make money, that’s bullshit. Anyone can find a piece of coal and scribble on tree bark. Everyone can take 15 minutes to write . . . not everyone choose this – and that’s totally good.  But to claim that one has to “put off one’s art” because of time or money – that’s an excuse every time.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money from art; in fact, when those rare moments come and artists are paid for their work, I rejoice because usually our society says that we do is selfish and useless because it is not pragmatic or practical. To be paid for this work is rare, and so then, it is special.

But for me, I would write even if no one paid me a cent for it. I would carve words from the cliffs of life with my bloody fingernails even if people pitied me for not “capitalizing on my talent or my time,” even if others judge me because I choose to give my time to words instead of to paying off debt, even if sometimes I tell myself I’m ridiculous for not just finding a way to make a lot of money off my talent.  I choose to give my time to my art, and sometimes that means I don’t give my time to making cash. I’m okay with that.

For I have learned that art pours honey onto my tongue and scrapes scars away from unhealed wounds beneath. Art levitates me into the air and it forces me to smell the rot of our existence. Art consoles me, and it forces me to see what is inconsolable.

Money can never do that.

What about you? Why do you write? For the money or for the art? 

  • Rachel

    Wouldn’t it be nice if it were for both? Art seems to be so highly valued, at least people claim it is, but no one seems to want to pay for it. I struggle with this, because I understand finally having a book published, etc. is very special, and every schmoe shouldn’t be able to publish a book. But even writing for pay is undervalued, I think. Positions that are writing based in the business world are paid much less than other positions even if they require more creativity, thought, and effort. An editor at a reference publisher has as much or more responsibility as a project manager in an IT department, and they get paid about half as much! I’ve found a position that values my ability to communicate and my technical savvy. So, I write on a regular basis at work(not “creative” writing, necessarily, but writing that, in the end serves a purpose). But that doesn’t mean I don’t find time for my art. I do, but it sure would be nice if my avocation and my vocation were one and the same.

    • Andi

      I would love to have both, of course. To have the community affirmation of cash is not something to be disregarded at all. And I’m fortunate that all my work serves my art. . . that’s not possible for everyone all the time. . . but yes, we still fight to get the financial recognition that others get for equal work. Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel.

  • Angie Bigler

    This is very timely for me to read as I am writing my first book. I have always written because I loved it and I write because I love it and because I have to. I am called to it. Of course I hope to sell my book and make big bags of money but believing in myself, putting in the hard sweat of doing the work and following through on my dream is the real payoff. Anything beyond that will be extra sprinkles on my success.

    Thank you for sharing this. Your writing has such depth and is quite beautiful!

    • Andi

      Angie, I hope your book hits every bestseller list, and at the same time, I hope that you never write for that purpose. I hope you always write for the love and just appreciate those sprinkles. :)

      • Angie Bigler


        • Andi

          <3 back at you, Angie.

  • LarryTheDeuce

    I haven’t ever made any money writing. I started writing because I had more to say than I had opportunity to get out. So I started writing.

    • Andi

      Good for you, Larry . . . to write for ourselves is so important. . . and thank you for sharing what you write with the rest of us, too.

  • Steve Thomas

    If you’re writing for the art of it, why bother to waste your time publishing it?

    I confess that I’m a groupie for Samuel Johnson, who was quoted by Boswell as saying “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” And why should he? The bible advises us not to bind the mouth of the kine that tread the grain. Is not the workman worthy of his hire?

    A professional was originally a person who professed expertise, who dispensed advice to his clientele. In the UK, a surgeon is not considered a professional; he is a craftsman who works with his hands. And yet we have no problem with diagnosticians, or attorneys, or accountants receiving compensation for their work,

    People who say that writing for pay is beneath them, I suspect, are often afraid that nobody will pay for their writing. Pay helps form the writing. You’re writing for an audience. If you are not expecting pay, you’re writing for yourself. Like masturbation, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not something you want to do in public, either.

    Cheryl Strayed doesn’t get paid by The Rumpus for writing her Dear Sugar column, but then, auto mechanics aren’t paid by the mile to test-drive cars, nor are athletes paid to work out at the gym. Sometimes, we write to develop and strengthen our writing skills, and sometimes we write in order to build consumers for our product, just as an ice cream shop gives tastes of their flavors or drug pushers give samples of their offerings. Those aren’t violations of the basic idea that you’re writing for pay.

    Many people say they’re free-lancing to disguise the fact that they’re unemployed and unable to find the job they want. Ask them to show you their published works, or their rejection slips. (I made my first sale after two rejection slips and stopped collecting them after that. Although I stopped getting many of those after I learned to stop sending out unsolicited manuscripts. Talk to the editor, either by mail or by phone, and find out what he wants, and there are few rejections.)

    People are willing to pay for what they want to read. If I wasn’t getting paid, I’d have to ask myself whether I was a writer or a poseur,

    • Andi

      I’m glad you’re clear on why you write, Steve. It’s great that you write only for money. That’s wonderful. But the fact that some of us don’t write only for money does not make us poseurs, as you imply. Most humans do lots of things because we love them and never get paid. If payment is what gives something value, then we live in a sad, sad world.

      And to answer your other question – I write for people to read what I write – sometimes that’s in a blog, sometimes in a note to a man I love, sometimes in a manuscript that I will share with only a few people, sometimes in a book that I hope to publish. Publication is only one way of sharing writing.

      In publishing now, many of us do freelance for real – including me – not as cover up as you imply but as real work. We don’t get all our work accepted because the publishing market doesn’t work that way. Most editors don’t take calls or chat over manuscripts. Most of us – until we hit a certain level of name recognition – will have to send our best work in and hope it gets picked up. . Those of us who write for the love of good story and more than a paycheck learn to be tough in the face of rejection . . . and some of us – Cheryl Strayed included – make a living at it, even if we do sometimes write columns that are so vital and important as works themselves, even if the writer is never paid.

      • Shannon M. Howell

        “If payment is what gives something value, then we live in a sad, sad world.”

        Agreed. Payment is one expression of the value of something. But it is not what GIVES something value. If the dollar crashed tomorrow and we were all left bartering, that wouldn’t devalue the surgeon’s work, nor the artist’s, carpenter’s, etc. The value is the same, but the means of trade is different. Economics isn’t just about VALUE, but about the value in a specific situation. (If I’m really really thirsty, I’ll pay for the ridiculously expensive bottle of water. If I’m not thirsty, it won’t be worth the $1.25 – it wouldn’t even be worth 10 cents to me – but it’s the same bottle of water).

        I dislike putting everything in economic terms, because economics is fundamentally about trading (if no goods or services are traded, there isn’t exactly much economics to study!). Not everything falls into that. Do I make my bed because I’m paid to? Do I play with my kids for economic reasons? Did I adopt a cat and a dog because it was financially a good idea? No. Those things have value, at least to me, aside from any financial gain I may get (and in many cases, it’s a loss).

        I sometimes write because the words simply need to come out (usually poetry). Other times, I write because I can’t find anything that I want to read, so gosh darn it, I’ll go make it myself! That doesn’t make it less valuable – although it might have value to different people than, say, would find value in my writing a user manual for a coffee pot (which would be paid writing).

        • Andi

          Well said, Shannon. I have no complaint at all when people pay me for anything I write because in our society, money is the tool we use exchange needed goods. But truthfully, I’d rather just barter. :) That said, you spoke my heart exactly – it’s not the money that gives something value; money is just one way of expressing value. . . thanks for that.

          • Shannon M. Howell

            You’re welcome :)

  • Katie Axelson

    Yes! I write for a living and I write for the art of it. They are two different processes, two different uses of creative energy, and two different outcomes. Even if I never got paid for a piece, I’d still write for the art of it. That’s more fun anyway.

    • Andi

      Agreed, Katie. Wholeheartedly agreed.