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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 01, 2007

the golden rule

Kimmie opted to take Friday and today off from work, so we've been enjoying an extended long weekend.

I don't spend my early mornings much differently on my "days off" than I do on my "days on". I make coffee and come down here to my office to type notes from my research books. But on my "days off", I feel free to stay longer and meander on to other things as the mood takes me. I also, generally, don't bother with a blog-post, which feels like a "workday" responsibility. For even though I find it not very difficult to draft these posts, it is an effort, and it's tempting to take time off.

This is one of the many blessings of unpaid work. I was struck when I read this excellent line by Thomas Carlyle in William James's Principles of Psychology, volume 1:

Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet.

How true this is. Generally we all need wages to live, but the less need you have of them, the freer and more self-directed you are. You can place your effort where you want, rather than where your paymaster tells you to.

The more need or desire you have for money, the more vulnerable you are to those from whom you're trying to get it. This often leads into conflicts of interest, in which your desire for money interferes with your moral integrity or artistic judgment. It leads us to that jaded place where we find ourselves doing something we personally feel is wrong, or at least something we don't believe in, but do it anyway because "that's what they're paying me to do."

Years ago I was at a conference of some kind for people in the TV industry. One panelist was a story editor for a high-profile CBC TV series. That is, the series was independently produced, but broadcast on CBC. Something she said bothered me. She talked about getting episodes ready to shoot, and referred to the network as "the client".

I myself was the creator and de facto "story editor" of a successful drama series, also running on CBC. But I would never have dreamed of using the word client to describe the network. To me, this was the vocabulary of the advertising agency, not of a creator of dramatic works. And to be sure, my relationship with the network proved to be quite adversarial, and it got me kicked off my own show as soon as they could find a way to get rid of me. Still, I was, as far as I was concerned, standing up for the right things: the creative quality and integrity of the show, and the quality of the audience experience. I was fighting for the viewers. The network was buying the series, but I did not regard them as a client, someone to whom my position as vendor required a meek and subservient attitude--a subservience bought with money.

These kinds of thoughts are mainly alien to functionaries within the broadcasting establishment, and most other establishments. People sell out and make their peace with doing as they're told in exchange for big paychecks. But this is not good for the product, it's not good for the audience, and it's not good for your soul. And the bigger the paycheck, the more bought you can become. I've mentioned before Michael Jordan's infamous line, "Republicans buy sneakers, too"--his reason for not involving himself in a political campaign in his home state against a racist incumbent. What is money, that it can turn one of the United States' richest men into an Uncle Tom?

I'm not saying that Michael Jordan, or anyone else, should be obligated to participate in a political debate he doesn't want to. But the reason he gave for demurring showed that he had been bought: his income-stream was the overarching value. What good can ever come of this?

At a time close to my attendance at that TV conference years ago, I also attended a weekend workshop on independent film production by the producer Dov Simens. At the workshop, he taught us would-be indie producers the "golden rule": "He who has the gold, makes the rules." Whoever's spending the money calls the shots. The producer who's aware of this has leverage over the services and vendors he's trying to deal with. To land a job, to get some of that gold, people will bend, twist, accommodate. Often they have to: they've got to eat.

But we shouldn't forget that Simens's "golden rule" is not actually the Golden Rule--"do unto others as you would have others do unto you"--but a deliberate parody of it. I've left his "rule" in lowercase to make the distinction clear.

So: by all means, sell--but don't sell out. I'd even say, if you possibly can, try making your wages a zero, at least sometimes, and see what happens.


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