When did “money” become a bad word?

photoActually, it’s not even about money. We all like money. We can all appreciate money. Hell, we all want money. No, the issue recently isn’t about money itself, it’s about getting paid. It’s about how we get the money that’s coming into question. I first thought of this when I saw Sean Penn‘s adaptation of Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild. In the film (and book, but I hadn’t read the book then), there’s a scene where Chris McCandless decides to burn all the money he has because it’s not “honest” money. He didn’t earn it himself, it was given to him and so he didn’t feel entitled to it. Now, he understood the need for money, he gets various jobs along the way, but that was honest money, necessary money, so it was okay.

This got me thinking about the words themselves. “An honest day’s pay” would never be used when referring to a doctor or a lawyer doing what they do. No, an “honest day’s pay” is money for hard, manual labor, for doing something with your hands. At first I thought this had something to do with the Intelligence Shaming happening in our culture but maybe not. Maybe it’s a bigger thing. Maybe it has to do with understanding the intrinsic value of how we spend our time and make that money and maybe McCandless simply felt like a fraud for taking money from his folks.

In the last few days, a guy named Jim Wright, who publishes a blog called Stonekettle Station, has been running into this problem head on. Seems a blog he wrote (and which I tend to agree with) gained some traction and a lot of people started talking about it. Then people started sharing it. Then people started using it as content on their radio programs, in its entirety, without offering to pay Mr. Wright anything for the privilege. He was understandably upset by this and responded the only way he could, with his words. The response he received, even from people claiming to be his fans, was that he had posted these words on The Internet and so they were free for anyone to do with as they pleased and how dare he get upset for wanting something as base as money when he’s been given the opportunity to get his message out to so many more people. He was being given exposure. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Now, as a writer, I’ve heard this before. It’s a common trope amongst new magazines (and even older ones) to have you write “for the experience.” I responded to an ad once, for a new magazine looking for writers, and was told that the first article was for free. When I asked why, I was told it was so that they could see if my style fit with theirs, if I could write, blah blah blah. Okay. That’s fair. I understand that. That’s called writing on spec. I can respect them for not committing to paying me without seeing the quality of my work (never mind my published clips, my extensive resume, my books). Where the problem came in was that if they liked that first piece, they were going to publish it, still without paying me. Can you see the problem here? If you like my work enough to publish it, then obviously I pass your criteria test so why should you get my work, my sweat and toil, for nothing? “We’re giving you an opportunity to be published.”

At this point, my track record was more impressive than theirs was, and more reliable. But they were helping me out. Even established magazines pay little to nothing (one magazine I’ve written for only pays writers for cover stories, but inside pieces are for free, which I didn’t find out until after I’d written an inside piece (the only thing I’d done previously were covers) and didn’t get paid. And yet… the magazine was being sold to subscribers and on newsstands. The printers were getting paid (Good old honest labor) and the publisher was living just fine… all on the work of people getting exposure.

Why is that okay?

In Hollywood… okay in Hollywood the stories are too numerous but when I left Hollywood and was back in Vegas I was approached by a director and a producer about writing a script for them. That’s okay, I like doing that. So we had a meeting at a coffee shop. they’d flown in from LA or someplace for something and had a free afternoon so we had a coffee and the director told me his vision. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what it was about but it was a grand piece, filled with big ideas about creating peace in the world. I sat there are took it all in. Sure, I could do it. Sure, I could do it on their time frame. Sure I could give them a usable product.

Then I said, because I was embarrassed it hadn’t been brought up, “now we have to talk about the ‘bad stuff'” Yes, I said it about that way, because after years of being in Hollywood, where I had been taken advantage of, I was ashamed of asking for money. I bought in to this whole thing I’m talking about. So I said we need to talk about the “bad stuff” because somehow, talking about money sullied the grand idea of peace the director was trying to achieve. In fact, it so sullied the concept the director had no idea what I was talking about. It was the producer, sitting next to him, who said: “Money.”

Yes, money.

There was no money for the writer. I would be there to share the glory. I would get accolades and exposure, sure, but no money. I was being told I’d get no money from someone who had flown in from somewhere. Obviously, they had money. But none for me. Now, again, I understand budgets can be tight. I understand everyone working together to create a piece of art. I grew up in community theatre, I certainly understand shoestrings and holding things together with spit and prayers. That’s all fine. What I don’t understand is not making allowances for the possibility of payment. You want me to work for free, fine. Give me points. Give me assurances if the film makes money I’ll make money. Let me know my rent will be paid while i’m working on your project. That’s not what I got from these people. As soon as I mentioned money, the conversation was over. If I wasn’t going to work for free, then they didn’t want me to work at all. That was fine by me.

Now, I’m not saying money is the cure all. I’ve worked plenty of times for free. I’ve worked even more for barter. I’m a big fan of trading my skills and energy for your skills and energy. And I often work well below my pay grade because I enjoy the work and I know my work is appreciated. But still, those are all my choice.

I had a discussion a few days ago with a friend about the idea of “heroes.” Their position was that we should stop lauding people for doing heroic things when those heroic things are part of their job description. For example, a fireman rushes into a burning building to save someone, they’re not a hero, they’re just doing their job. If a civilian runs in, they ARE a hero because they’re not paid for it. For this friend, it all came down to the concept of money. If you are being paid, then your actions cannot be considered anything but mercenary. You’re running in to a burning building because you’re getting paid. You’re standing in the line of gunfire because you’re getting paid. My point of view is that you chose that line of work because you wanted to help people and getting paid is how you make a living and it is still a heroic act. I’d like to think if there was a burning building with someone trapped inside, I would rush in to save them, but I know I wouldn’t volunteer to do that day in and day out. But when the counter-argument is they wouldn’t do it either, if they weren’t getting paid, I find that a bit disingenuous. I think they would. At least a high percentage of them. You can make more money picking up garbage than you can as an entry level police officer and yet people still sign up for the academy. Their motives shouldn’t be questioned merely because they want to get paid for what they do.

Just today, a friend on Facebook posted a link to Who Pays Artists, a website devoted to discussing how and why artists get paid. I’ve had these conversations before, but coming at them from a purely aesthetic view. Now, though, now it’s time to get practical.

So I ask again… when did “money” become a bad word? When did we start to decry as lazy the people who simply want to make a living wage? When did we bemoan an artist “selling out” because their art started to reach more people? Why do get embarrassed to ask for what’s our right, to get paid for our “honest” work, even if that work entails doing something we’ve spent years learning how to do, but we can work in a coffee shop when we do it?


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