At the end of last month’s post on the value of words, I left myself with a challenge, which was to explore the idea of writing for free. If the labourer was worthy of their hire [and the author of their crust] when and why and who, in particular, would be so crazy as to give away words?
I guess I started out thinking that fat cat authors, earning a good living out of his/her books, would be more likely candidates for giving stuff away than bone-rattlingly thin authors who couldn’t live unless their every word was made to pay. The more I thought about it, however, the less that seemed the case and the reason for this, I decided, was that the commodity in question was writing and, when it comes to writing, money’s never been the only point.
The fat cat authors don’t need to give away because they're already achieving one of their main objectives, which is to be heard. However, stick-thin authors, as witnessed by their rattling bones, aren't selling [in other words being heard] and are therefore more susceptible to giving away.
The trouble is, if you're a stick-thin author who wants to stand by your principles and not go down the free giveaway road – where else can you go? For my own part, when I want to be heard, no matter whether my words are paid for or not, I go online. I'm doing it now, writing my once-a-month ABBA post. On Authors Electric too, I write about my adventures in the world off e-publishing. Then I blog on my website about the writer’s life.
And then, of course, there’s My Tonight From Shrewsbury.
My Tonight From Shrewsbury started this January. It’s a slice of life in my home town. What I aimed to do when I set out was get behind the doors of ordinary town life, tell people’s stories, share little-known nuggets of town history and write up a few local events that marked the passing of the year. ‘Want to get to the heart of an English country town,’ was my byline. ‘Here’s your chance.’ Nothing prepared me for the fact that in the first seven weeks alone, I'd have getting on for eight and a half thousand hits from across the world.
The words people are reading are for free, but they definitely fall into the category of getting oneself heard. Nobody’s paying me to say the coffee shop on Castle Gates serves the best Americano in town, or to get behind the closed doors of the High Street’s Unitarian Church or to create Open Studios online for some of the town artists. When I write about the tightrope walker who fell from St Mary’s Church spire to his death in the Great Frost of 1739, I do so for no reason other than that it’s interesting - and it’s interesting that there are still people climbing the town’s domes and spires today. I’ve written about them too, and shown their photographs.
If I’d been a paid journalist, there are people I’ve intertviewed who’d never have talked to me. And this adds a value to my writing that completely bypasses the concept of monetary gain. I’m taking my free words out onto the streets and writing about everything I find, from homeless schoolboys to market stall holders, doctors to dentists, babies to brides. Sometimes the stories are there to raise a smile. Sometimes they’re informative. Sometimes they’re saying things that couldn’t be said any other way.
‘Words are cheap,’ says writer Mark Frankland. ‘In fact, once you have shelled out for a laptop and a copy of Microsoft Word, words are free of charge. As many as you like, free at the point of delivery. Thank Christ. Maybe at this very moment George Osborne is scheming away in 11 Downing St – if only he could tax words at 5p a pop then the deficit problem would go away very quickly!’
Indeed it would. After all, Mark Frankland and I aren’t the only ones writing for free. The blogosphere’s teeming with new, fresh, free words every day. All of my fellow contributor here on ABBA are giving their words freely, and it’s not because we writers are obsessed with publicity. More than anything else, it’s because we feel we have something to communicate, and we’re obsessed with words as a means of doing it.
Years ago I read an article by the American children’s author Katherine Paterson on the subject of heart-to-heart communication. Because what she says is fundamental to my understanding of what writing does I’m forever quoting it, and now here I go again:
‘What happens is a reciprocal gift between writer and reader: one heart in hiding reaching out to another. We are trying to communicate that which lies in our deepest heart, which has no words, whch can only be hinted at through the means of story. And somehow, miraculously, a story that comes from deep in my heart calls from a reader that which is deepest in his or her heart, and together from our secret hidden selves we create a story that neither of us could have told alone.’
I know that Paterson is talking primarily about fiction here, and the relationship between writers and young readers, but what she says applies, I feel, to the written word in a wider context too. After all, every time we put down words we’re creating some kind of ‘story’. And to be able to do so is some kind of gift.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts recently. In his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde talks about the compulsion the artist feels to make work and offer it to an audience, and the dangers to be beset if the artist withholds that gift. It must stay in motion to survive, he writes. So long as it’s not withheld, the creative spirit will remain what he calls a stranger to the economics of scarcity. ‘The gift is not used up in use,’ he writes. ‘To have painted a painting does not empty the vessel of which the painting comes. On the contrary, it is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies.’
In there somewhere is a manifesto for words for free. Not eked out by market forces but given creatively in a spirit of generosity if not even love. Poet Pablo Neruda reckoned that his art began with human interaction. It wasn’t from the spirits of the past that his gift sprang, but from brotherhood - from the people - and he quite consciously offered his poetry in recognition of that debt: ‘I have attempted to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood,’ he wrote. To find an unknown person somewhere who had read his poems was its own reward.
Well, there you [sort of] have it - my thinking so far. It’s taken me two long months to work this out, and I'm sure I haven't finished yet. But so far as I've got, yes, readers should buy books at prices that reflect their value and the value of their authors - just as they should pay for any art. ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire’ and all that jazz. But yes too, choosing to make his/her words available for free is the writer’s prerogative [indeed sometimes even duty, if the alternative is to not be heard]. And making that choice, with clear objectives and for all the right reasons, is a world away from what I was talking about last month - the sort of free, market-led giveaways that are thrust upon authors as if no alternative exists. That should be resisted at all costs.