Reflections on acknowledgement and gratitude

I feel I should mention that this is less an argumentative essay – this is why you need to do what I’m doing – and more a reflection on why I feel the way I feel.

I believe in crediting as many of the creatives as possible who are involved in allowing me to create the things I do.

It’s all the more important when those creatives have put their work (images, textures, fonts) into the world for free.

Now, I think I give back in the sense of paying forwards: a great deal of my work goes out into the world for free, too. If I were getting paid for every word I wrote, I’d be putting down the well-deserved licensing fees for the images and fonts I use. As it stands, however, I wouldn’t be earning much money from my words even if I insisted on payment (the artistic world doesn’t work that way), so in order to create I am obliged to the generosity of other creatives (who live and work in the same boat when it comes to revenue and the creative life). Creation, in fact, doesn’t happen in isolation. Sure, I can create words myself. I’m fortunate enough to be able to edit them myself (to an extent, anyway) and design books myself, but I sure as fuck can’t design a good font, print my book or pop my book in an online store without the unsung assistance from other creative people. This post would not exist without the designers and web techs who developed WordPress and the layout I use. I can make lovely documents in InDesign, but I do that on the back of the many, many designers and technicians who created the program; I do that on the back of the foundries who created the fonts I love. There’s a reason why Adobe Creative Suite costs so much money, and it’s not (just) because Adobe CS operates in the same kind of industry-standard monopoly as Microsoft Office. Consider how much a good font package alone can run for!

In actual fact, the amount of free programs, services and creative media available to to anyone with a computer and internet service is beyond staggering. One can carve out a piece of the net without paying anything extra for it. One can find enough tutorials online that anyone can publish their book in digital format without paying anyone to do anything or owning any special programs; one can style their document in OpenOffice or even Google Docs* and create a cover in GIMP. (There are ebooks whose covers I’m reasonably certain came from MS Paint.) Upload to Smashwords, Amazon or Scribd and voila, published!

(* Seriously, don’t do this. Just because a thing can be theoretically done doesn’t mean it should. The difference between a good and bad text layout in just about anything – web, digital media, print media – is an understanding of paragraph styles, and having the ability to properly set them is the difference between a document Meatgrinder nibbles on and a document it spits out in semi-digested chunks. If my description doesn’t sound pretty, neither will your ebook, and while I once created PDF-form ebooks using Google Docs (before I enrolled in my course), I can assure you that they looked exactly like PDFs made in Google Docs: plain, clunky, riddled with widows and orphans. Three years on I’m cringing so hard it can be felt in the Northern Hemisphere.)

There’s an argument in my above aside that a bit of education (which requires time and money) or a bit of money (paying someone else to do what we can’t) will create a far superior product, and that’s absolutely true. This blog, for example, just doesn’t look as good as if I paid for hosting and set up my own website (probably using WordPress because my CSS is minimal) where I could custom design a lot more. Possibly next year, if I make more money from my words, I’ll do just that. However, I do have a blog for very little outlay, and all of that optional, that’s very easy to use and doesn’t look terrible, and it’s absolutely possible to create a functioning web presence without using any HTML, image manipulation or design knowledge – thanks to the work of others.

(I know about alternate revenue-raising streams; I know the companies that offer up free services make money from doing it. Does that really mean, though, I shouldn’t acknowledge that work?)

The more design work I do, the more I find myself attentive to things like royalty and licensing – and the more grateful I am to those people who put their hard work out into the world for people like me to use free-of-charge. Sometimes this work isn’t something I use and build on to be creative myself; sometimes it is education or entertainment, or the strange grey space between (entertaining education, to my mind, is by far the most effective). Sometimes I come away just having learnt something about myself or the world, thanks to the efforts of those who give their time, which certainly improves and shapes my own creative efforts.

If you can, pay your creatives. It’s a vital form of acknowledgement.

Acknowledgement matters more, though, than just keeping a roof above someone’s head.

As a writer, my name is mostly attached to the things I’ve written. I’ve written some advertisement copy that doesn’t have my name attached to it, but anything of realness and importance generally has some accreditation, be it me as my real-life entity or as an internet handle. The words I write aren’t devoid of an authorial presence, and the thought of writing something with meaning that doesn’t have my name attached is absurd – nobody really wants to pay me to write, but at the least I get acknowledgement, which doesn’t keep the lights on but is something. My words, under my real name or a handle, are gloriously, defiantly (terrifyingly) mine.

(Plagiarism is bad enough when it’s just the matter of stealing someone’s creative output. If you think, though, that many creatives aren’t earning anything but the recognition of their name in the creation of their works, plagiarism takes away everything we could have gained, as precious little as it already was.)

As a designer, I’m putting work out into the world where I’m an invisible presence in its creation. It could not exist without me, but I’m not credited any more than the foundries for the fonts I use are credited. (This is why I’ve started mentioning what fonts I use on my blogs and in my books.) On publications like VULJ, Up Close and Personal and my own self-published works, I get a layout or design credit, but flyers, booklets, postcards? We read newspapers without ever thinking about who laid them out, even though the art of layout makes a substantial difference as to whether or not someone’s words are read in the first place. I know that, for twenty eight years, I never thought about the impact of book design. Now I read imprint pages wanting to know the font used, how large they say the leading is, who typeset the book. I ponder layout decisions and why I think they’re fabulous or ridiculous. I actively not read things in full awareness of the fact that I have better things to do than strain to read a thousand-word blog post written entirely in bold type. I drive my family up the wall by talking about why the idiotic use of indents and drop caps in the Geelong Advertiser’s lifestyle magazine does in fact subconsciously deter readers.

(The hilarious thing is that my sister is a graphic designer who does some editing, while I’m an author/editor who does some text design, but somehow my sister’s conversations about art and graphic layout garner rather less ‘nobody ever cares about that sort of thing’ comments even though our career paths turned out to have overlapped by a ridiculous degree. That’s kind of my family’s absurdity in a nutshell.)

I’m doing a editing/design job at the moment. I volunteered to do it, and I’m doing it gladly, because it’s for a lovely person and a very important cause. The reality is, though, that I’m spending hours on the editing and layout of a document, hours making the author’s words accessible, readable and attractive to the best of my ability, and nobody who picks this document up is ever going to know the difference I made. I know this person is grateful, I know she doesn’t take advantage, and I know she’ll acknowledge and value me and my work. I know that this cause is important enough that credit doesn’t, in fact, have any emotional relevancy. It’s still, nevertheless, a strange thing to spend as much time on the editing and layout of a document as I do on, say, the creation of a blog post, and not have my name attached to something I feel just as passionate about doing, other than as a hyperlink on my resume.

This is the reality of the world, though. Think of all the things with which we engage, designed by someone – food packaging, gift wrap, material – who is an invisible presence in the interaction between the item and those who consume it. Not acknowledging their work, if they’re paid a living wage for it, isn’t a bad thing per se; we do it all the time. Taking shit for granted is in fact a natural, very human response, especially if we’re not part of that industry. I can tell you that I didn’t stop to think about the involvement of designers and editors in the items I buy. I can tell you that I’ve worked with authors who have no idea what the layout process of a publication involves (or why student graphic designers struggle to preserve stanza breaks). As someone who has been paid to write, edit and design/layout text, I’m actually in a uniquely privileged position to understand the production process from multiple angles, and yet I still rather expect my printer to snap his fingers and print something amazing, just like that, once I’ve selected the paper.

I do think, as someone who sits on both sides of the coin – as someone who is a ghost in the creation of a work and someone who relies upon the ghost-like work of others to create my own – it would be a nice thing to create a world where, as much as possible, the people who help us create works of our own get their acknowledgement, especially when that work is provided in a generous, gracious volunteer spirit. Acknowledgement doesn’t keep the roof above one’s head, no. I think it does keep people working in a creative life where keeping said roof above one’s head is a challenge. I think it nurtures the spirit and gives us reason to keep going. I think it is that tiny bit of valuation in a world where art is so undervalued, and I think it is, in fact, not very much to ask – especially because volunteer creatives don’t ask anything more than to have their names attached to their work.

(Why, yes, I have an absolute bias in this declaration, but, thankfully, this isn’t exactly a debating space.)

Is it so idealistic to want a world that runs on gratitude? Is it idealistic given that the creative world runs on a shocking expectation of creative output for no or little financial return?

This has been in my head the last few months in part because of Platform. Many authors and readers gave kind, supportive, encouraging acknowledgements of our volunteer editorial efforts (and were understanding of our mistakes and failures), but there were those who were in a position to do so and did not. Human nature, of course. I’m not hurt or upset by it. I did, after all, have my name printed as managing editor of the last issue! It is, however, a lesson and a revelation: I don’t want to be the kind of author that sends my piece off to a publication for it to be edited, designed and printed, and say nothing to the people who sent my work out into the world. I don’t want to take that effort for granted, especially when it involves the labour and passions of someone doing that work for experience and love. I don’t ever want to be so successful I lose sight of the importance acknowledgement and gratitude makes in the lives of creatives, especially those who volunteer their time and ability.

(Do I think acknowledgement and gratitude matter when I am being paid? Absolutely: the employers who offer me that are the employers for whom I’ll make last-minute changes at 2 AM while I reassure them that it’s not a problem. They are the employers to whom I will keep coming back because they understand what it means to value a person’s work. It’s just a little more understandable, albeit not the behaviour of the  kind of person I wish to be, when there’s a financial exchange involved.)

So: to the creators of WordPress; to the designer of the Zoren theme; to the foundries who created the fonts used in said theme; to the foundries who created the fonts used in my added images; to the developers of Photoshop and InDesign; to the PWE teachers and staff at Victoria University who taught me how to use said programs and nudged me towards professional opportunities; to the authors who have trusted their work to my publications; to the design students I have worked with on Platform; to the printers at VU and Minuteman Press who make my work exist; to the employers who have helped a little towards keeping the lights on, while giving me opportunities to develop my skills in new ways; to the artistic and creative friends who encourage and support me in my writing so that anxious me has the bravery, inspiration and ability to write these words; to my psychologists, both of whom go so far beyond their job it is humbling; to so many people who have contributed towards my journey for me to sit here, today, and write this post – thank you. Thank you to all the people whose creative endeavours allow me to go forth and be creative, to an audience no less, in my own way – because everyone mentioned above is such a limited, tiny fraction of the efforts who have allowed me to do what I do!

I know that I wouldn’t be alive if not for the support and kindness of so very many people. I know I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do if not for the encouragement and support of many others. I wouldn’t be able to self-publish my works without the freely-given offerings of countless creatives I enjoy, use and appreciate. I am, in fact, in just about everything I do, reliant on the kindness, goodwill and creative efforts of others.

Creatives don’t create in a vacuum.

I don’t think it lessens me as a human being or a creative to hold this truth in my heart. I don’t want to lose the ability to marvel at the efforts of those around me; I don’t want to lose the wish to pay it back someday – to help someone else keep the lights on – as soon as I’m in a position where I’m able to do so. I don’t want to take the things I have access to for granted, not when I am unbelievably lucky to have the skills, education, equipment and access I do possess. I don’t want to lose my gratitude. I don’t want to believe that a financial exchange or a creative’s willingness to donate their work and time absolves me of the need to be grateful and acknowledge, as best I can, those who help me along my road in creativity.

For a person with my trust issues, for a person that spent most of their life hiding in their bedroom nursing a crippling loathing of humanity, that in itself is an accomplishment.

That realisation is not something I could have ever found on my own, and for that, too, I am grateful.

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