What Are Words Worth?

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Arts & Culture

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

By Nancy Flynn
photo by John Laurence

Words in papers, words in books
Words on tv, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease
Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but dont go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me.
What are words worth?
What are words worth? – words

—From “Wordy Rappinghood” by The Tom Tom Club

Tom Tom Club CD “Close to the Bone” July 1983

Long before the American economy went into its current version of freefall, I’d taken to wondering how you could realistically run a country on…shopping. That sounds nuts and like over-simplification at best but this has become the opinion of many smart, in-the-know, best-and-the-brightest as to what has gotten us into this mess: An (often credit-card-fueled) feeding frenzy at every mall and destination outlet, every chic boutique and neighborhood boîte in just about every corner of the US of A.

I, on the other hand, missed the entire party. Beginning in 2001, thanks to an unexpected combination of good fortune, shrewd and fortuitous planning, and a willingness to live below the radar of the dominant culture, I no longer had to sell my skills as a university administrator and publisher and began to devote myself to writing full-time. During this time, we lived cheap, renting a cabin in the Coast Range for below market value, purchasing no new vehicles, any exotic round-the-world travel jaunts postponed while I dove in, apprenticing myself to new writing teachers, trotting off to weeklong boot camp classes, and, in general, surrendering myself to the written word. One year I actually made money on a short story included in a young adult anthology; an Oregon Literary Fellowship in 2004 brought in cash so I could continue project research. When I began my creative journey, did I expect to write the next Oprah novel and get rich quick? Hell, no. Did I even think I’d earn enough to support my book, notebook, and office-supply purchasing habits? Doubtful. Did I know I’d actually be grateful to be “paid” in copies of my poetry chapbook instead of royalties?

Did I actually know how little it would turn out most of my words are really worth?

These days, devoting oneself to writing, as so many of us know, generally means no income at worst and a minimal one at best. Many writers I know cobble together a living as teachers or editors; others punch the 9 to 5 clock and do their scribbling in their copious spare time, after hours or before the crack of dawn. The one thing so many of us who choose to get possessed by and devote our lives to writing get used to pretty darn quick is not ever expecting to have writing be a cash cow, to not have what we write hit the bestseller lists and be optioned for the next Hollywood (or even Bollywood) smash.

What does this have to do with shopping and the current wreckage in the global financial markets? The recession that swallows up the guilty and the innocent alike? The hardships that are genuine and palpable for far too many people of late?

Well, I’d say we writers—maybe most artists?—are better prepared to pinch pennies because that is what many of us have had to do to survive and practice our art anyway. We likely already have different habits than so many of our fellow citizens, seduced by the latest e-gadget or plastic du jour from a pollution-spewing factory in the hinterlands of China. Many of us have already made shifts in our fundamental behaviors and attitudes simply because of what it is we have chosen to try and do.

In a recent issue of The Nation1, Benjamin R. Barber, a senior fellow at Demos2, wrote about the “revolution in spirit”3 needed if we are to re-think the many wrong-headed assumptions at the heart of our current version of market capitalism. He writes:

 “The crisis in global capitalism demands…a fundamental change in attitudes and behavior…Imagine all the things we could do without having to shop: play and pray, create and relate, read and walk, listen and procreate—make art, make friends, make homes, make love.”

Wow. I want to be part of that world.

Idealistic? Perhaps. Insane? Hardly. And, I would argue, it’s what many of us who’ve opted out in favor of a life devoted to the unpaid/poorly-paid written word may already have experienced, a richness and fulfillment found only in these “noncommercial” aspects of society.

Many scribblers already know there is much in life that money cannot buy. That there is much to be gained by having one’s time, autonomy, freedom, and space to reflect and ponder and think. Barber writes:

“There are epic moments in history, often catalyzed by catastrophe, that permit fundamental cultural change…Today we find ourselves in another such seminal moment. Will we use it to rethink the meaning of capitalism and the relationship between our material bodies and the spirited psyches they are meant to serve? Between the commodity fetishism and single-minded commercialism that we have allowed to dominate us, and the pluralism, heterogeneity and spiritedness that constitute our professed national character?”

In these economically unstable, crazy-making days, what, indeed, are words worth? As currency in a world that cares about ideas more than balance sheets, that values a balance between body and spirit over the bottom line, that celebrates the power of individual creativity and human imagination in spite of the vagaries of the marketplace—I’m beginning to believe it is more than we can ever truly know. Keep on writing in the free world.

Nancy Flynn
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  1. www.thenation.com []
  2. www.demos.org []
  3. www.thenation.com/doc/20090209/barber []