John Scalzi takes a vituperative and somewhat sweary pop at that scourge of the professional writer — being asked to do things for free — here and returns to this subject here. These days I cease to get irate with people who think a writer’s time is both worthless and theirs to grab for their own purposes. But Scalzi’s reasons why this is not so are sound, even if I’d tend to phrase them a little differently.
Not that either approach will dissuade anyone from trying the ‘work for free’ stunt.
The more unexplored question in all of this, though, is a more subtle one. Why do people who would never dream of asking a plumber or a lawyer or pretty much anyone else to donate their skills and time for nothing think it’s OK with those of us who work in so-called cultural areas?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because in their eyes this isn’t ‘real work’ at all. In my case I do nothing but string words together. Well, actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the ‘work for free’ lobby doesn’t think all those years of research, learning, experimentation and — yes — failure count for anything at all. Same with musicians. They may have studied in penury for decades. But they can play now, right? So why not come round and serenade us all for nothing?
I can only speak for writing. Here are some reasons why they’re all wrong, and this is work, real work, no fooling.
- If you do this for a living — part or full-time in my case — it pays the bills. Maybe not all of them but if you’re good and lucky and work sufficiently hard then enough to notice. Work does that.
- This takes practice. No one writes a novel out of nowhere. You get your ideas from reading other books, thinking about them, trying your hand yourself. You probably wrote a stack of things before you even found a fraction of your voice. Writing is hard. Work’s like that.
- It’s unforgiving. Go down the wrong turning, spend six months, a year, longer walking further down a blind alley that looked promising to begin with, ignore your inner voice and the opinions of those you should listen to… and one day you will wake up in a scary place all alone. There’s a work word for that: unemployed.
- Being an author takes time and dedication. When I turned to writing full-time I thought I was made. Imagine all the holidays. The leisurely breaks between books. Ha! Where once we were supposed to write one book a year now we’re expected to work on multiple projects, go out and sell them more than ever, and be available for interviews at the drop of a hat. This is the second decade of the twenty first century. Whatever your line of business there’s scarcely a soul out there who doesn’t have to run harder just to stay still. That’s what work’s like today.
I’ve no complaints. But then I’ve been very lucky. Nor do I think that, in the great swing of things, the work we do is of overwhelming social importance. No one in an emergency is going to cry, ‘Is anyone here an author?’ It’s the doctors and nurses and teachers and people who keep us safe we need when times go bad.
But it is work. And I won’t do it for ‘free’.