Songs for the Struggling Artist


Americans Need Dario Fo

Thanks to my dad and the Friends of the Library, a parcel full of books by and about Dario Fo arrived at my door recently. It’s been years since I last looked at his work and suddenly I was up to my ankles in Fo plays and biographies.

If you’re American, you probably haven’t seen many, or any of his plays. I’ve never even seen a notice of a production here, not to mention an actual production. This work just isn’t done in the United States. The first time I read some of his plays, I could not understand why but now that I’m reading his work anew, I actually understand completely why there’s been no American embracement of his work.

First, he and Franca Rame, his wife and artistic partner, were not allowed to enter the US until the 80s. Our government would not let him in. Second, his work is funny and while the American Theatre lets an occasional comedy through the system, it is a rare occurrence. If an American Theatre institution is going to produce foreign work, it wants it to be arty and arty usually means moody. But also the odds of doing foreign work at all are very slim. Also…particularly in the 80s – artists who had some dealings with the communist party were not likely to be heartily embraced.

Third, and this is the bit I realized while reading, the American Theatre has been much too class unconscious to welcome particularly politically progressive work. For example, in Il Ratto di Diana (the Kidnapping of Diane) – there is a recurring joke about the ruling class. And the problem is, the only theatres that could have afforded to put this show on are all funded by the ruling classes, the kind of folks who really don’t find that sort of thing amusing. The way theatre gets made in this country is antithetical to the presentation of actual working class work that might be critical of the ruling class.

American Theatre is only possible because the ruling class has, historically, donated the funds or the buildings or the grants to keep the doors open. The reason there are parties for donors and velvet ropes is that the American Theatre depends on the ruling class continuing to write them big checks.

American Theatre thinks of itself as liberal but it is rarely actually progressive. Our radical progressive theatres like Bread and Puppet and San Francisco Mime Troupe have only managed to survive by the skin of their hippie teeth – instead of embraced as the brave American changemakers they are.

American Theatre puts on a lot of plays about upper middle class families. Like, a lot. This is because those are the people who write the majority of the checks and they like to see themselves on stage. Those audiences are not so interested in being implicated among the ruling classes and so, of course, no big budget theatre has interest in translating and producing Dario Fo’s work. Of course. Of course.

Translation is part of the issue, too. The English translations we have are English, as in from England, and they read very British. In order to do these plays in America, we need to commission American writers to translate in an American style. I suspect that the way American writers are seen and supported also plays a role in keeping Fo from our stages.

But I think we need Fo’s work. We need to talk about the ruling classes. We need to develop an awareness of class. We need to put on plays that challenge our system –not just sit comfortably within it. And not for nothing, anyone deciding to produce this giant of world theatre will pick up a whole lot of hungry theatre goers who have been waiting for it. That is, if I see someone – anyone producing a Fo play any time soon, I will be purchasing tickets. I will even pay full price to actually hear and see a play that challenges the ruling class.

Also – sidebar – my Italian is passable and I’ve already done a translation of one of Rame’s plays, so I’d be happy to give Fo’s a go if you need an American translation.

Photo by D Frohman

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The Velvet Rope

After the show, we went to the lobby to wait for the actor to emerge after her performance. The lobby was pretty busy. There seemed to be a little reception in progress, featuring sparkling wine and chocolate.

The party was cordoned off with a velvet rope.

We were on the other side of the velvet rope.

The party, we guessed and later had confirmed, was for donors to the theatre. We had been given to understand that the actor would be appearing here eventually. We had been told to look for her here. On our side of the rope.

As the theatre emptied out, only a handful of us stood on the peasant side of the velvet rope. Among us were the actor’s family and her friends.

You might wonder why we didn’t simply unhook the rope from the stanchion and go in. Well – this theatre had thought of this, too. It was so important to them to maintain this separation between the donor class and us plebeians that they had an intern on duty to police it. He dutifully unhooked the rope to allow donors out and did his best to look forbidding to those of us on the outside. He made it clear that this party wasn’t for us and we were not to be included.

For a good long while, this theatre’s lobby featured a small party of about 24 people drinking prosecco inside a velvet rope and seven people standing around outside it, policed by an intern and his boss.

The “party” proceeded like this for some time – that is, until I spotted and made complicitous eye contact with the actor – who, after all was the woman of the hour and finally I just unhooked the velvet rope and ran in, to give her a hug.

Seeing the actor showing me such warmth, the woman in charge of this party, who had clearly found our presence distasteful before, now invited us to eat and drink. We had all been brought inside the rope. There was no one left outside it.

I don’t know what happened to the actual velvet rope after that. It had been designed to keep the riff raff out and once the riff raff was inside, there was no purpose for it anymore. As someone now on the inside, the rope was no longer of any concern to me. I expect that to those who had been inside all along, the velvet rope barely registered their attention. Did they know it was there? Once I was inside it, it ceased to be important to me – but before I got inside, that velvet rope and the people policing it were my primary focus.

This exercise in absurdity seems to me to be the perfect allegory for the American Theatre and maybe for American Art in general.

The theatre where this happened states, in their mission statement, that they “seek to create broad public access and to bond the diverse New York community” and yet, with a simple velvet rope and a zealous gatekeeper, they created division and diminished access – right there in their very own lobby.

It’s not just them. This absurdity plays itself out through almost every arts organization in America. A few years before, just down the street from this theatre, at another arts organization I used to work for, a crowd of artists sat in the lobby while the party for us went on upstairs because the gatekeeper would not let us up. And that’s just a literal example.

The whole field seems to be arbitrarily divided up by absurd velvet ropes. Once you have been invited inside, you can enjoy the prosecco and chocolate and opportunities but when you’re outside, you just sort of stand there awkwardly trying to make eye contact with any friends you have inside. And woe to the person trying to get in to the party without any friends inside.

Trying to make art in this country is like trying to get inside the velvet ropes without any friends inside. There are multiple forces at work that are actively trying to keep you out. There are things like submission fees, onerous grant application processes and requirements for references from well-known persons (this is a way to prove you have a contact inside the party.)

There are ways to increase your chances of getting past the ropes – depending on your field. Getting an MFA might introduce you to an insider (that’s indirectly how I met my insider at this donor theatre party) or interning at the right spot might help you rise up the ranks but your best shot is being born into a social circle or with access to someone who knows someone.

And of course, just making it inside the ropes for one day, for one party won’t really help you in the long run. You need to be a regular insider, to become so used to the prosecco and the chocolate that you don’t even notice them at the party. In order to stand a chance of having your art produced, you need to be so far behind the barriers that you forget the velvet ropes entirely.

The difference between a struggling artist and one who has made it lives in those velvet ropes. The struggling artist is acutely aware of where the ropes are and who is guarding them. They are, after all, designed to keep us out. In a country that prides itself on its egalitarian values, this exclusion is particularly galling. That is made worse by how easily and quickly the barrier is lifted and also how entirely unnecessary the barrier is to begin with.

There was so much prosecco and so much food at this donor party that the staff had to take boxes of it home to prevent it being thrown away. That velvet rope made me feel that that this theatre would rather throw their chocolate away than let me have it. Then I got a nod of approval from an insider and suddenly I could have all the chocolate I could have wanted.

There was no difference in my quality on one side or the other of that rope. I was the same person on both sides of the barrier. Inside, I had approval. Outside, I was a nuisance. It is not nice to feel like a nuisance and yet, because I am outside the rope most of the time, I do feel it a LOT. I made myself go talk to a famous actor recently. While I was telling her how much I admired her work in the show she’d just done, I felt fine – like the metaphorical velvet rope between us didn’t matter at all. But as soon as I tried to hand her the play she’d inspired me to improve and keep going on, I felt the velvet rope pop up – whether on my side or on hers, it doesn’t really matter – the point is, it showed up. I felt like a nuisance and an idiot. The sense of humiliation was profound – even though there was no actual rope.

Part of what is so difficult about being a perpetual struggling artist is constantly bumping up against that rope. If you have a well-connected friend or two, you may on occasion find yourself on the other side for a moment but a well-connected friend will not protect you from all the other velvet ropes that arts organizations put up to keep out the riff raff.

At the heart of the velvet rope distinction it feels like those who are on the inside are just better people. If you’re a writer with an agent, then you must be a better writer than one without. If you know a famous person, you must be cooler than your average person. It is not so far from the American sense that money makes you better – that the rich are rich because they worked hard and deserve it. They’re just naturally inside.

What’s ironic is, I would wager you a bottle of prosecco that the donors inside the rope don’t care a bit about keeping out the riff raff. It is the gatekeepers that are concerned about it. And very concerned they are indeed. Also, ironically, riff raff-wise, everyone in that lobby with me had a degree of privilege already. The tickets at that theatre are quite expensive – so the separation is not between top-hatted monocled millionaires and fingerless gloved ragamuffins – it’s the difference between someone who can afford to donate a building and someone who can afford to enter it. The riff raff are people who can pay to see esoteric theatre for an average price of $75 a ticket.

In the case of this theatre, with its mission to bring people together, it was a literal velvet rope – but arts organizations put up metaphorical velvet ropes every day. If you run one, look at how and where you put up barriers to access. Anything you put in place to reduce your submissions, for example: that’s a velvet rope. Obviously, you can keep it there if you want to – but if you’re only including the agented, the recommended, the degreed or the submission fee’d, you’re sending a message that you are only interested in privileged artists, that you prefer your donors to your audience, that you only want insiders. Your velvet ropes say that you only want to give that prosecco to the people who have a case of prosecco at home. If, like this theatre, you aspire to create broad public access and to bond your community, you have to let your velvet ropes go.

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They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can listen to this episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The One Who Says Thank You
March 28, 2019, 12:07 am
Filed under: class | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

At my local bagel shop the other day, the cashier said to me, “Oh, I thought I recognized you. You’re the nice one.”

This may be the saddest thing I have ever heard. Like, sure, I’m nice. But I definitely don’t want to be THE nice one. I want to be among the nice ones. ONES. Plural. Then, she went on, “Yeah, you say thank you and all that.”

WHAT?! What is happening, people?! Are you NOT SAYING THANK YOU to the people who serve you? What the hell is wrong with people?! I mean. Listen – I’m happy to be memorable because of my bright smile and my charming sense of humor. If you remember me for my magnetic personality – that is A-OKAY. I am delightful and I’m glad when people notice. But to remember me because I’m the only person who says, “Thank you?!” That is not okay. You know – all of y’all have to do better.

Does saying thank you come naturally to me? Sure. I could not grow up in the South without knowing how to say Please and Thank You. They’d take away my birth certificate if I didn’t. BUT. Even in this mad New York world, people gotta say thank you, too. Most people do, actually. You HAVE to, guys.

I have concerns about my neighbors now. Who is coming here and not being polite?

A few days later, I was back at the spot and witnessed a woman quietly saying, “Thank you so much.” Twice. So I know I’m not literally the ONLY one saying, “Thank you.” But I have concerns. And they are not disconnected to the car count I did the other day. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of out of state plates and fancy cars parked on my street. There was a Jaguar parked in front of my laundromat the other day. And there seems to be an endless supply of BMWs. So I counted them. In the block leading to my building, I counted eight BMWs and four Mercedes. Now – to qualify – some of my best friends drive BMWs. Literally. One or two BMWs on my block would not have even caught my attention.

It’s like, one giraffe in the neighborhood would be pretty cool. We’d all be like, “Wow, have you seen the giraffe?” and feed it from our second story apartments. A pair of giraffes might be kind of sweet. But twelve giraffes? That starts to be a herd and we start to have some trouble. A street full of fancy cars is a like a herd of giraffes showing up in the neighborhood. I have concerns.

Look, there have been some studies related to fancy cars and the tendency to be a jerk. You can read about it in Scientific American, of all places. And of course, I’m not talking about you, my BMW driving friends – you’re like that first giraffe and maybe even the second. The study points out that while fancy car drivers tended to be the jerkiest, only half of those in the study were really jerky. But I suppose given the established correlation between fancy cars and bad behavior, it might be possible that there are a lot more rude folks buying bagels in the neighborhood. The gentrification of my neighborhood is escalating. And it is having some weird effects. There are a lot of metaphorical giraffes and I am now the nice one who says thank you.

Please say thank you when you buy stuff. It’s not hard. You can drive a fancy car and still be nice. I do not want to be the ONLY nice one. Thank you in advance.

“Y’all want to go get a bagel?”

 

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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ID NYC Makes a Difference
September 15, 2016, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, class, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve lived in New York City for over a decade and a half. This year, I’ve probably gone to more museums and cultural institutions than I did in all the previous years put together. This is due to the new ID NYC, a program originally conceived to assist undocumented immigrants but that is now making a difference in the lives of all kinds of New Yorkers.

The ID NYC allows for memberships to over 3 dozen cultural institutions across the city. It means for me, that dozens of places that were formerly cost prohibitive are now completely available. I feel like I’m participating in the culture of the city I live in in a way I never have before. The doors are open.

I have experienced this kind of availability in London – where so many of the pubic institutions are truly public and charge no admission fees. This kind of openness creates an engaged literate population. Why has it taken so long for NYC to open its doors this way? I can’t imagine that any of these institutions were thrilled about offering free memberships – but a lot of them operate at the city’s pleasure and the city must be making it worth their while somehow. It’s a hugely important step toward making art be for more than just the privileged few. I hadn’t been to the Guggenheim in probably a decade. The Museum of the Moving Image, maybe 2 decades. And I care about the things they have in their buildings. I just couldn’t shell out $25 a pop to see that stuff. With the doors suddenly open, I can engage.

We talk about accessibility a lot. In so many of the grants I write, the foundations or governments or whomever’s doing the funding, want to know how we make our work accessible. The burden of accessibility seems, in the past, to have fallen primarily an individual artists or companies, while institutions, just by virtue of existing seem to been able to claim accessibility because of various education programs or community events. But those are just gestures. ID NYC has flung open the doors to so many places and I’m very excited about what that will mean for the art that’s going to come. Maybe, finally, we can have a real diversity of audience – of income, of race, of culture. Accessible and exciting.

One of the most amazing things about suddenly having access to museums is my new ability to just run in for a short time. I was early for an appointment and I was near the Met – so I just ran in for half an hour – I got a dose of the Egyptians and ran back out. It was actually a perfect way to experience the museum. When you’re paying, there’s a need to somehow make it worth your while. You don’t want to pay $20 to just dash in and look at one thing. And then in trying to get my money’s worth, I end up over-stimulating myself and I forget more than I remember.

Previously, the policy at some museums where the “Suggested Donation” meant you could pay them whatever you wanted didn’t actually make the work accessible. The shaming effect of just paying a dollar is probably hard on everyone but for people who are actually poor, it can be prohibitive as there is already considerable stigma for poverty. No one wants an appraising look from a museum clerk to add to the bad feeling. So to be able to run in for free, with no status drop required, for as long or as short as you want – it’s a total game changer. For me, it will surely make a difference in my creative work to be able to dash in and get a dose of inspiration when I have a spare half hour.

Culture should be like this. We should be able to access it whomever we are or however much money we have or don’t have. This stuff is important.

I’m inspired, too, by Italy’s decision to invest half of their terrorism prevention dollars in culture. I think it’s very smart. Because the more culturally engaged we are, the less likely we are to want to murder people.

Being able to freely see things like Ancient Egyptian papyri and beautiful paintings can save lives! But also…it just makes for a richer arts environment and that makes for better art, in the end.

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The Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

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I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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In which we lose an old growth forest, hope and Marley’s ghost

The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.

The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.

And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)

Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?

And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?

I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before.  BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.

I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.

I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:

1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.

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2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.

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If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.

I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.

I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.

That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.

SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.

Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?

Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.

Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program,  (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.

And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.

Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”

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Charging Application Fees
April 13, 2015, 11:14 pm
Filed under: business, class, Rejections, writing | Tags: , , ,

The day I published my blog about the math of rejection and patronage, I got a rejection notice from one of those very residencies I’d applied for. The cost of that application was $25.

In the rejection notice, they let me know that around 500 people applied. This is supposed to make me feel a little bit better, to indicate how competitive the program is. I think I’m supposed to take this news and go, “Oh well. It’s competitive then. Okay, I guess it sucks less.”

What I ACTUALLY did with that information was Math. Because what this means is that they made about $12,500 on those applications. On what this organization made from aspiring writers, I could have lived for a year. This makes me feel a little funny.

I understand that the cost of running residency programs is probably a lot more than this – that someone, somewhere is very likely covering the actual cost of the program – and probably all the help they can get helps. However – collecting so much money from people who just want a shot, well, it makes me twitch a little bit.

I understand why people charge for applications. It takes time and effort to read and respond to those things. If I ran a residency program, I’d want to compensate my adjudicators for doing that work. But I’d want that money to come from somewhere besides the applicants.

I also know a lot of places charge an application fee, not because they need the money but because they’re trying to weed out applications. The idea is that you’ll lose the less serious applicants that way, that you’ll get a higher quality of writing by charging a fee. Very reasonable, of course.

But the unintended result is that you privilege the wealthy artists over the poor. By charging a fee, you’re effectively saying “Economically privileged artists only.” Which, you know, everyone’s doing that in some form or another, so, you’re in good company – but it is definitely something I find troubling in a nation that prides itself on giving everyone a fair shot.

It’s not a fair shot. Application fees are a significant obstacle. I was only able to apply to this particular residency program due to the generosity of my Patreon Patrons – but other economically disadvantaged writers were not so lucky. $12,500 is a lot of money to collect from writers. I hope they do something awesome with it, like commission a writer to write something.

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