Compliments don’t pay the bills? Bullying don’t sell the art

I liked all this

There has been a recent rash of “Compliments don’t pay the bills” posts and rants on my Facebook feed. I know and work with a lot of artists, and a desire to maintain a cordial relationship with them, along with a slight sense of solidarity—I am a writer, after all—usually prevents me from responding to these individual posts with my honest opinion of the “compliments don’t pay the bills” sentiment.

So here it is, and no, it isn’t pretty and yes, I have mixed feelings about a rant that at face value at least, is less than sympathetic toward the plight of the contemporary artist, many of whom are my friends:

Of course compliments don’t pay your bills. There are a lot of really nice things that people do for each other that don’t pay the bills. Opening the door for someone when their arms are full doesn’t pay their bills, but it’s still a nice thing to do. Telling someone you like their shoes or their hair or their clothes doesn’t pay their bills. But I still appreciate the kind words. There are plenty of kind, sympathetic, friendly, or generous things we do for one another that aren’t financially advantageous.

What if every time someone did something nice for me, I responded by saying, “[Insert kind action or statement] doesn’t pay the bills.”

They’d probably scratch their head and think, “Does this person really think I’m stupid enough to believe that smiling at someone pays their bills? And why does she think it’s my responsibility to pay her bills anyway?” And then they would never do that kind thing for me again because I took something nice and used it to try to guilt them into giving me money.

Here’s the thing: I published a book last August and so far the sales generated by the book haven’t even covered the costs of having the book edited. That book took thousands of hours to write, edit, and publish and the cost is something like $3.99 on kindle and $9.76 for a paperback.But you know what you’ll never hear me say Compliments don’t pay the bills. Not because it isn’t true. But because I didn’t become an independent author to pay my bills. I became an independent author because I love writing and felt like I had something to say. And the fact that I do my writing at night and on weekends after coming home from my mentally and creatively draining full-time job does suck sometimes. But I still feel privileged as hell that I have the time and means to flex those creative muscles. Maybe some day it will turn into a full-time job.

But in the meantime, I love compliments. I live for feedback, positive and negative, because it helps me to develop as an artist. And I’m thrilled when someone blogs or posts about my book, even if they didn’t buy it, because maybe someone else will. Maybe that compliment will interest someone else in my work, and they’ll buy the book. But the one thing I always want to avoid doing is trapping my friends, family, and supporters into feeling obligated to buy something in order to show that they support my efforts as an artist.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled when someone has the necessary cash and interest to buy and read Scourge of the Righteous Haddock. When someone tells me they read my book, I’m so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, it’s frankly probably a little bit pathetic. But this gratitude doesn’t stem from the fact that they’re paying the bills for my iPhone. It’s because my intention was to reach someone with my message, with my words, and whenever someone reads the book then I have succeeded.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not making the argument that artists either don’t work hard or don’t deserve to live comfortably in exchange for their work. If I had my druthers, artists would be fairly compensated and wouldn’t be required to waste their time and energy on day jobs they hate to sustain their art. But I don’t get to be the person who decides what kind of work our society values. Sometimes it’s frustrating essentially working two full-time jobs and only getting paid for one, and poorly at that. But you know who I don’t hold responsible? The people who are supportive enough to compliment my work.

Maybe it’s because when someone buys my book I want it to be because they want to read it. I don’t want someone to buy my book because they’re afraid I’ll be mad at them if they don’t, or because they think I’ll call them out on Facebook for not supporting me financially. I want someone to buy my book for the same reason I buy artwork on the rare occasion that I can afford it.

And I don’t want to buy artwork to pay your bills, however much I like you as a person. In fact, I don’t want to be thinking about bills when I buy or appreciate artwork. I don’t want to weigh my appreciation for a painting against the costs of your iPhone or grocery bill. In fact, I don’t want to think about money at all when I’m looking at or reading art. I’d prefer a world in which art and money have nothing to do with one another. Maybe that’s naïve, but no more so than thinking that you can cajole or bully someone into buying your work.

Sometimes I wonder what I could accomplish if I had the luxury of devoting myself entirely to writing books. Okay, take away that “sometimes” and make it “every day.” Every day I think about working on the projects that mean the most to me, about spending my day creating new worlds and characters that matter to people. Sometimes it makes me feel sad. Sometimes it makes me feel bitter. But I know artists with day jobs, I know artists with day jobs and families, I know artists who are single parents. And I know a lot of them are struggling even harder than I am to carve time out of their day for their work. And the fact that they make it happen inspires the hell out of me. I can be the type of person who views that inspiration as valueless because it doesn’t pay my bills. Or I can be the type of artist who takes anything and everything—emotions, ideas, smiles, compliments, bad days—and turns it into the necessary inspiration to make my artwork whenever and however I can.



  1. taylorjewel says:

    Wonderful sentiment here 🙂 currently working on turning any and everything into inspiration myself!

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