Paycheck or Passion: What Makes a Creative Effort Worthwhile?

It’s November; ’tis the season of month-long marathon creative endeavors, such as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) For NaNoWriMo, participants aim to complete an original novel-length manuscript within a month.

NaNoWriMo has existed for over a decade now and has grown into a subculture of sorts, spilling into offline participation and local chapters that meet at coffeeshops and restaurants to write and cheer each other on. For some, I suspect the in-person community of NaNoWriMo means as much, if not more, than the creative process of writing.

Salon writer Laura Miller took aim at NaNoWriMo a couple of days ago, an anti-NaNoWriMo screed which derides the process as a breeding ground of sub-standard literature, filling amateur novelists with false hope of publication and a potential audience.

Miller may indeed be correct in her assumption, but here’s what bugged me ab0ut her rant:

… NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it’s largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. “Write Your Novel Here” was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing. (italics my own)

While I am sure far too many NaNoWriMo participants use the exercise as a (possibly) misguided springboard into pro writing. But it’s troubling to me that Miller can’t fathom the idea that not all participants in NaNo (or writing in general) participate with commerce as an endgame.

It troubles me, but it doesn’t surprise me. Creative expression in general -writing, visual art, photography, music – seems to be regarded as culturally useless unless attached to some kind of commercial goal. The process of creating  art or media just because is not applauded, only evaluated for its commercial potential. Miller’s thesis is rooted in the mass-media mindset of “professional creatives create, consumers consume and never the twain shall meet.”

Consumption of  “professional” creative work is valued and rewarded more than creative play. That is just a fact.

But why is a writer (or artist or musician)  not perceived as “real” or “legitimate” unless they are being paid to perform or share their work?  Why are they derided if they don’t care about being paid? Why is the emotional currency of creating and sharing creative work  – not valued unless it is professionalized?

For a number of NaNoWriMo participants, the process, not the result, is the true currency. The opportunity to stretch a creative muscle, meet new friends, freely write smut for their own amusement (oh wait, i guess that was why I did NaNo last year.) It’s about passion, not commerce.

Miller misses the mark on another point: creatives do consume. I don’t know any writer, amateur or professional, who is not an avid reader as well. Most musicians are music geeks, most filmmakers are film buffs. It’s more than condescending to tell individuals to “sit back and let the professionals do their job” rather than engage in a pastime they take pleasure in.

So write on, NaNoWriMo’s! Creative expression should belong to everyone, not just for those who wish to earn a living from it.

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8 thoughts on “Paycheck or Passion: What Makes a Creative Effort Worthwhile?

  1. I understand what you’re saying but I think her point was aimed at quality. While it isn’t necessary to be published, thus “proven” as an author, there is an air of credibility that accompanies publication. Clearly the mere premise that a paycheck equals quality though can be disproven by the hoard of truly awful romance, fantasy and revisionist history books on the shelves.

  2. For those who don’t seek publication, and just participate for the process, should their effort be discounted?That’s like saying someone who enjoys journaling shouldn’t even bother because their words aren’t legitimate until some literary gatekeeper deems them to be,

  3. oh, I meant to put this in the last comment, but my biggest problem with this idea that the process of creative play for adults being completely discounted. all endeavors, even hobbies, are pushed into professionalization on some level. An writer isn’t a real writer until an editor deems them to be. A artist isn’t legit until their work is shown someone.. Why is product valued so highly over process?

  4. Well, I work as a creative professional and the path to get here is a painful and difficult one. I am not discounting creative play nor the process. But assuming the mantle of “artist” should entail some form of product that can withstand criticism.

    The mere possession of a point and shoot camera doesn’t make me a photographer, no more than owning a paint brush makes me an artist. Perhaps I am more sensitive to the issue since I work in the digital creative field and constantly battle the impression that someone pasting images into iWeb is a “web designer”.

    In your case, it wouldn’t matter if you’ve never been paid, because clearly, you ARE a writer. You produce work and publish via the web. I think the original author’s criticism comes with the sensitivity of struggling to become an artistic professional and having their particular art form compromised under the banner of some – as they interpret it – “promotional gimmick”. I hear similar complaints from photographers all the time about Flickr.

    Trust me. I greatly value the process and commercial gain never defines the artist. Were that the case, then Van Gogh would have been a “hobbyist” at best. True that an editor is not needed to define the writer, but I don’t know too many GREAT writers that didn’t also have a great editor.

    (And sorry for the abbreviated, first comment; written from my Droid on a train two stops from my final destination.) 😉

  5. I think Miller’s (and others’) focus on the commerce end of things speaks very strongly to the consumerist mentality that Americans are taught from a very young age. To be successful in the U.S., you need to produce something of monetary value. Our bank account is a distinct and measurable end goal which we’re all graded against. It’s capitalism promoted at a decidedly individual level.

    At a broader level, it speaks to a generally Western mindset where there IS an end goal that needs to be attained. The process of getting there is largely considered irrelevant. This is very reflective in our school system which teaches rote memorization of facts and figures, but does not focus at all on actual learning or understanding. I haven’t yet figured out how this Western philosophy evolved so differently than the classically Eastern idea of the journey being more important than the destination.

    All of which suggests that anyone who can’t even fathom the idea of creating for creation’s sake isn’t all that surprising, or even unusual, here in the U.S. Not that end goals don’t have their place, of course, but that’s the only idea our country has been beating into our collective heads for generations. No one here has ever been taught there’s anything different and, since the vast majority of people can’t think for themselves, they come from the standpoint that anything outside the bounds of capitalism is all but impossible to comprehend and, even then, is just plain wrong.

  6. I do understand, when I was a professional writer, I was one of those people that railed against the idea of writers doing free work “for the experience” I still do actually. Creative work should be compensated by the companies/organizations that need such services. I get sensitive about the art vs. commerce situation as a hobbyist musician (I made beer money, and was happy for it!) I play music because I love it and love to share the experience of creating and playing with friends or alone, I see friends who are creative but not pursuing their passion creatively and they have critics tell them that they are wasting their time, even as the process of dabbling and creative playing gives them an opportunity to get better at their craft.

    I don’t think non-professional creatives and professional creatives should be evaluated on the same plane, For me it’s more about valuing the creation of creative media as well as the consumption of it. If someone would prefer to write a poem one evening after work rather than go to B & N to purchase a novel, why should that be derided?

    P.S. I waited to come back to my laptop to write this post rather than try to bang it out on my poor overtaxed Nexus One 🙂

  7. Well put, Sean. What bothers me the most is the idea that one cannot have a “legitimate” pastime unless one pays for it, that creating something – anything – is the sign of a person who has “too much time on their hands.”

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