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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

How to Value Creative Work

Recently I asked my friend Elizabeth what she thought about unpaid writing gigs that hold the potential for greater exposure. She looked at me in that wonderfully incredulous, no-nonsense way of hers.

“You do NOT write for free.”

“No exceptions,” she said. Of course, I was free to do as I liked, but if I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional artist, I would need to say “thanks but no thanks” unless there were some sort of trade involved. I could write an essay in exchange for a massage, say, or a three-month supply of Fair Trade vegan chocolate. But to write for nothing, no exchange of energy, would be to disrespect my own talents, skills, and (ahem, expensive) education.

But what about start-up websites that may not have any advertising revenue yet with which to pay me? “You can leave those opportunities to people who just write for fun,” Elizabeth replied. Part of me was resisting this advice, but I knew she was right.

Around the time we were having this conversation, my friend Kirsty (whom I met at Hawthornden last year, and will soon see at the Edinburgh launch of her debut story collection—for which I’ll be doing another Q&A-contest, by the way!) reposted the following screenshot of two Craigslist ads, the second a response to the first:



Absolutely silly. “You wouldn’t go up to a chiropractor at a cocktail party and say, ‘can you just make this quick adjustment for me?'” Elizabeth went on. “And if you did, the chiropractor would say, ‘I can take care of that. Just call my office and make an appointment. I charge $150 an hour.'”

Why is it, then, that artists are so often expected to work for free? Is there a pervasive cultural perception that because “anyone” can “make art,” that only a very few should make a living at it while the rest of us remain happy to “dabble”?

I have been sitting with Elizabeth’s advice for the past week or two. I have thought over the times when I have made school appearances, asking and receiving less than I was worth in return for my time, energy, and knowledge, because at the time I felt that speaking for free was simply a gesture of goodwill from a writer who had “made it” with a Random House book deal. I offered a free writing workshop (eight two-hour sessions) a couple of years ago because I wanted teaching experience and figured it would be a great way to make my own opportunity. I don’t regret any of those decisions, but I do feel that the time has come when I can no longer say, “sure, I’ll come speak to your students for free.” I have been very, very nice—so nice and so generous that I have not actually behaved like a professional. I’d committed to two (albeit quick) unpaid writing projects before I had that conversation with Elizabeth, but in future, if there isn’t at least a modest honorarium involved (hey, I know school budgets are tight), I simply cannot do it. (I’m excepting the Skillshare because a free exchange of knowledge is the raison d’être—at least in our version of a skillshare. And in that case, I received even more than I gave.)

Whatever the reason artists are so often expected to labor for nothing beyond a quick thanks a lot, the fact is, we writers and musicians and artists need to put a price on the work we’re doing. St. Martin’s didn’t pay me for Bones & All with a pat on the head, now, that’s for sure! In any given exchange in the professional arena, one of us has to value my time and talent—and if it isn’t me then it certainly won’t be you.

What do you think? Am I empowering or limiting myself by writing solely for pay?


5 Comments to How to Value Creative Work

  1. April 7, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    This is a post that should inspire critical thought about how we present ourselves as artists. While I hear the logic, I can also hear the uncertainty in your voice, as well.

    What does your agent think about this? Would they lump this up as part of author self-promotion? Is the issue more the time spent at a free appearance/event or the giving away of free work?

  2. April 7, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Brava! I think you put it very well when you said (paraphrasing) if you don’t show that you value your work, than no one will. I think you are sensitive enough to trust your instincts case by case.

    It’s interesting because I would always pay my accounting friend for tax help, but she would never think pay me to teach her yoga…

  3. April 8, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I think one of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve ever received was just this: “Don’t work for free.”

    It can seem like such a good idea – “Well, I’ll get this out of it,” or “It’s for a friend or a good cause or the right thing” – but you know what? No one has the responsibility to value your gifts but you. Should people value the work of your art? Of course. But the reality is they don’t, so you have to help them. And every person you educate about this or impact in this way, the closer you get to changing the mindset that allows them to think it’s okay.

    (This is the same for knowledge work, by the way. I have had to explain more than once in the past year that I do not work for free.)

    A plumber wouldn’t ever come up against the dilemma of charging for his or her work. Neither would a lawyer or a flight attendant or a barista. This is your job. This is your livelihood. This is what allows you to have the life you have, doing the things you do, going where you go, in freedom. That’s priceless to you, right? It also comes with a price tag. You don’t have to apologize for that.

  4. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    April 8, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    This is not just something that is happening with artists. I know plenty of people (including myself) in a range of careers who have worked for free because there are so many people in the job market that there is the pressure (maybe need) to “prove yourself” and “do your time.” I think it is a frustrating phenomenon that is hurting more than just artists.

  5. Jen's Gravatar Jen
    April 9, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Kate – though I think the problem is more acute in creative fields, this happens to people in non-artistic careers too and it is hard to draw the line. People used to ask me to fix their pcs for free all the time. Once, at a wedding, I was asked to edit a 500-photo slideshow, on the spot, with only a touchpad mouse to use to crop all 500 of those photos, because I “knew about computers”. In my case, there generally wasn’t even a veneer of “this will be good for you too in some way”, it was mostly just people taking advantage of my relationship with them.

    It is tough to start saying no, especially to people with whom you have a valued relationship (business or personal), but it is vital to do it. I think sometimes people don’t realize how disrespectful these requests can be and part of saying no is respect education for those folks.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.