Friday, November 20, 2009

What Do You C? 3, I hope

A violinist I know who's part of The New Millennium Orchestra told me they're working on a business plan these days. Up to now, if they had money they paid the musicians; if they didn't, everyone played for free. The musicians are all young, energetic, and very hard working. They travel long distances to teach to make enough money to continue with their art. Or their profession.

They grapple with making old music fresh. When an orchestra looks bored, they lose connection with their audience, even if they're still playing well--anyone looked at the CSO strings lately while they're playing Brahms?

I was listening to my violinist acquaintance the day after reading Libby's recent Dispatches from the Road. On the one hand, there are far too many gifted writers who are scrambling, like Declan Burke, to make any kind of income from the many hours of toil they put into their work. And on the other hand there are some writers going through the motions: maybe a series has run out of steam and either out of laziness, or market position, or because the publisher won't take anything else, we keep sawing away like a tired violinist playing Brahms' 4th for the 4004th time.

Musicians get typecast just like writers, I learned. If you play with a dynamic young group like 8th Blackbird, now in residence at the University of Chicago, you can't get playing gigs for doing 18th or 19th century music: you are strictly a "new music" group.

How do you keep a sense of freshness to your writing when you're writing what your publisher wants, not what you want? How do you keep your writing from being mechanical if you measure your work in words per day? How do you keep going at all if you can't get into print, or can't sell enough copies when you're in print (the issue Declan was confronting.)

An orchestra can establish itself as a 501-C-3 and apply for grants or other tax-deductible support. Maybe the Outfit needs to establish a charitable arm that supports road trips for writers. We travel great distances at great expense to bring our art to tiny audiences. If we had a charity that gave grants to members on the road, at least we'd cover our costs. What do you think?

18 comments:

Dana King said...

Having tried my hand as both musician and writer, I see the parallels. What a lot of people--including musicians and writers--don't get, is one of the hardest jobs in the world is trying to make a living doing something you'd do for free.

Take something you do for the pure joy of it, and accept money for it. Now whoever pays you tells you how to do it, when to do it, what to wear while you're doing it, what you get to play or write, and whatever else they can think of. (What door to use, may you attend the reception after the concert, etc.)

What you loved about it originally is lost in meeting the demands of making a living from it. It's a soul-draining experience. Unfortunately, that's life. The two choices are to suck it up, or quit. There's rarely a middle road.

Libby Hellmann said...

The other side of the coin is the writer who says, "I can't believe they're paying me for this..." Unfortunately, it's rarely enough from which to scratch out a living.

I don't know the answers. I just know we're in a period of upheaval(yeh, when weren't we....)But given the recession, the advent of ebooks, the sad decision of Harlequin to put a quasi-seal of approval on self-publishing, the dearth of legitimate review sources, I can't feel secure about anything having to do with writing and publishing.

But turkey and stuffing -- that's another story. I'm looking forward to the holiday. I hope everyone has a good one, too.

Mike Dennis said...

This topic hits me where I live.

I was a musician for thirty years, during which time I never held another job. I started off at the bottom and clawed my way up to the middle.

Seriously, though, I barely made enough to get by when I first started, and my belt was very tight, but after looking around me back then, I saw other musicians who were still having a tough time after decades in the business.

So I decided then that each gig I took would have to be somehow better than the one I left, eg, paid more, more musically challenging, more prestigious, etc. No lateral moves. And I stuck to it. This even meant that I had to pick up and move to another city on several occasions. I didn't like it, but my eye would not leave the ball.

I grimly stuck to it, caught a break or two, and eventually made decent money. I was able to invest some of it, and those investments paid off. I retired from playing music full time in 2003, content that I'd done what I set out to do with my career.

Now, one of my novels has been picked up by a small traditional publisher, and I'm very pleased. I won't be making nearly enough to support myself as a writer, but I fully intend to get there.

I will get there the same way I got there playing music. That is, by doing it for free (as in the thousands of hours I spent practicing) until I'm good enough to make real money at it. I look at the writing time I'm putting in now as practicing, getting better at what I do.

We all feel the tug. That's why we're doing this. We have to go for it.

Sara Paretsky said...

Interesting perspective from Dana and Mike Dennis--thanks. I'm also wondering about how writers can use the tax-exempt world that's available to artists in other fields.
Oh, Libby, turkey and stuffing, these mandatory feasts, I can hardly bear them any more. But I will eat my way through them like a good American

Christine Forest, M.D. said...

I do not think that being creative is a choice. Yes, it is often a struggle, but the intesity of the need to express one's artistic persona often overwhelms reason or income. I believe it is the creative resilience that keeps truly talented people going. Or, perhaps, they have no other choice than to be who they really are: amazingly creative beings whithout whom the world would be a boring, cold, ugly place.

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