My current employment contract ends in mid-August, and my wife and I are expecting a baby in early September, which means that it’s time for me to look hard for a next job. Perhaps because of this, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about money. I realize that in a crowd of Mormon writers, this can be a rather sensitive topic. This is not to say that we’re all impoverished–just that there’s a prevailing sense that if we understood money, we’d probably be in different fields.
Obviously, there is some money available to subsidize the creation of Mormon literature. Were it not so, it seems highly unlikely that much Mormon literature would exist. But where does this money come from and how does one obtain it? Today, I present a handful of plans for funding one’s own work:
PLAN ONE: BECOME YOUR OWN BEST PATRON
In this plan, one makes an honest living by day, thus providing housing and food for an alter-ego who produces literature by night. This system is employed, with varying degrees of success, by thousands of Mormon novelists, essayists, and bloggers, and by a handful of theatre company proprieters (assuming you have a hand big enough to hold Scott Bronson). The beauty of this plan is that the artist depends very little on outside institutions’ view of his/her work or on the ups and downs of the economy. One sweats one’s way into creative freedom at the expense of fourty or so hours a week.
This plan has major drawbacks, of course, for those who like to sleep at night, and for those who don’t multitask well and need more of their attention free for their creative works.
PLAN TWO: LIVE OFF THE AUDIENCE
Let’s suppose a writer wants to focus on his/her work full-time. Why not make a living selling it, just like, say, BP does with petrol? The writer, after all, has a clear advantage over BP: most sources of literary inspiration don’t burst and wreak havok on the Gulf of Mexico. The writer also has one clear disadvantage: people don’t make their cars go by burning books.
The “live off the audience” plan is further complicated by the relatively small audience, by the extremely limited number of large distributors, and by the need to produce marketable work before one is able to sell it (never knowing for sure in advance what will sell). The “live off the audience” plan proves extremely stressful for many: Richard Dutcher, for example, surprised everyone with his ability to do so on his first film without a major niche distributor, only to find himself stressing and agonizing over whether he could continue to do so through the next two films. At some point, the live-or-die-by-popularity dynamics of this plan seem to put most of its practitioners more than a little on edge. How can one keep from resenting an audience which holds the reins of one’s financial life? When Writer is in an economic relationship with Audience, sooner or later it’s almost always Complicated.
PLAN THREE: FIND A LONG-TERM PATRON (NOT YOURSELF)
In order to free oneself from the ups and downs of marketing and audience, it’s possible to search for a long-term patron. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the Middle Ages, when rich people routinely hired entourages of artsy folk to hang out with them, probably because rich people can now watch movies just like everybody else instead. The only institutions I can think of, in fact, which have survived from the golden age of hired entourages are the Catholic church and the university. Understandably, the Catholic Church is not a major funding option for the average Mormon writer, but in the University there is hope. Get hired, get tenured, and then, I am told, one can do whatever one wants!
The main beauty of this plan is that someone else is raising the money which will support you. The main disadvantage is that it’s a little embarrassing to get advanced degrees in Creative Writing and then revert to Plan One: Be Your Own Patron in the likely event that you don’t actually get an academic job. Also: if you do get hired at a University, that means you have to work in a University. And there’s more than one way in which they can still run a little Medieval.
PLAN FOUR: RAISE YOUR OWN D–N MONEY (Please note that I’ve omitted the “AR” in the heading so as not to offend prospective contributors)
I’m not entirely sure that anyone actually does this, but it’s theoretically possible to raise money from an idealistic public for one’s own literary or artistic plans. This is different from Plan Two: Live off the Audience in a significant way: in attempting to live off the audience, one’s point of negotiation is the value of the concrete product or experience being sold, whereas in this plan the vision itself is the investment point. No one can “buy” the vision per se, but they can make themselves a part of it through their investment.
This can work. It would have been hard to sell Larry H. Miller an unwritten series of books for millions of dollars, but he bought into the vision of the Joseph Smith Papers Project enough that his economic commitment to it has continued even after his death. Larry Miller gets to be a key player in a historic documentary editing project without any background in documentary editing, and the project gets to exists because Larry Miller believed in its value. The alliance works well for both parties.
On a much smaller scale, aimed at the average contributor, my friend Dave Mortensen is currently doing this online for a planned Salt Lake City production of Mel Larson’s Little Happy Secrets. He’s found a website called Kickstarter which collects pledges: if he raises the money for the show by August, my credit card will get charged my share of the vision; if he fails to raise the money, no one pays anything and the project doesn’t happen. He’s added donation perks (a complimentary script, a CD of the audio play with a bonus commentary track), but he’s not really selling them as products, in which we gauge the value of the good against the price of the perk. He’s selling us the vision of an important play reaching a Salt Lake audience instead.
I am not aware, however, of any case in which a Mormon writer raises money for him/herself through this system enough to produce extra art. It seems like successful fundraising attempts, online or otherwise, almost invariably succeed through the efforts of someone who sees fundraising as his/her primary responsibility. In many cases, this means that some charity or council raises money (m), which takes a certain amount of fundraising work (x), and then a number of individuals or artistic groups (y) has to do a significant amount of work (z) just to apply for a piece of that money awarded in a grant. This means that m isn’t very efficient, since x+yz amount of begging work goes into getting it to the actual artists–work that could be better spent writing. (Contests are much better in a way, since z is mostly creative rather than begging work, although it still sucks to do z amount of work again and again without ever knowing if you’ll get any m out of it.) Maybe someday I’ll learn to circumvent the m=x+yz system and do my own direct fundraising work while still finding time to pursue my own writing work. When that day comes, I think I will ride my flying pig to fundraising events.
PLAN FIVE: DISCOVER RICH ABANDONED SPANISH TREASURE MINE
In our generally rationalist age, it’s easy to scoff at people who see the inevitable economic barriers to producing important work of whatever kind and hope instead that God will lead them to abandoned Spanish mines or treasures hidden in some house in Massachussettes in order to fund their worthy dreams instead. I feel humbled enough by economic reality, however, to realize that the hope of an abandoned mine is really a noble dream: one in which you don’t have to ask anyone else to sacrifice their means to support work which you believe will be good for the world.
How do I justify my continuing dream of Mormon writing despite the limited economic infrastructure for such work? I tell myself to keep going with the consolation that if things ever get truly bad, maybe somewhere in Pennsylvania there’s still that abandoned mine. Sometimes, I think, it’s possible to fuel improbable dreams on nothing but the still-more-improbable dreams history has been kind enough to give us.