On gift-giving


I’m part of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and as such receive a trade-type magazine produced by the union called Write.

{confession: I’m not entirely sure why I’m part of the Writers’ Union, other than it seemed very exciting to join way back when my first book was published; I’ve stayed out of principle, despite the annual dues, because I want to be part of a writing community, even though I’ve yet to feel particularly at one with this community. Hm. Is this something I should be confessing publicly? Do others feel the same way?}

Long aside. My point is that yesterday I read an interesting article in the latest issue of Write. It appears not to be available online, so here is a mini-copy-and-paste of the parts that resonated with me. It’s written by Rosemary Sullivan (who was my professor in grad school), and titled: “The gift-giving culture: In defence of creative writing workshops.”

We writers were seduced for awhile into believing we could speak of culture as a product. We could speak of cultural industries, adopting the commodity model, and asserting that we contributed to the general monetary economy and should be rewarded. But books are not products that earn a market reward. They are works of art that are essential to our collective human experience, and society, for its mental and spiritual health, should sustain their creation in the sheer principle of self-interest.

{and here I shall skip backwards in her essay, because it makes sense to me}

We need to acknowledge that writers live in a different cultural paradigm: they live in a gift-giving as opposed to a commodity culture. … We are so deeply inside consumer culture that we cannot imagine a cultural paradigm other than that of private property. … But in a culture based on the gift (giving without assurance of return) … giving in itself creates a cycle of return. In a gift-giving culture, when you give, you create a moral debt that will be paid back when the circle of giving completes itself.

{this reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Payback}

Well, what do you think? I’m drawn to the writing-as-gift-giving idea (at least for literary writing). If I bake a loaf of bread and sell it, I can work out a pricing scheme that takes into account labour and cost of materials, and what the market will bear, and I can hope to earn a fairly stable return for my investment. But if I write a book of fiction, there is no way to estimate in advance the cost of my labour (which is essentially time), or whether I will ultimately be producing something that anyone wants to purchase. As Rosemary Sullivan puts it:

There is no relationship, except perhaps that of luck, between the energy and thought put into a book, and the return the writer receives.

She goes on to argue that creative writing workshops and programs are a defence against superficiality, and provide writers with community, with networks of support. She says creative writing programs aren’t trying to teach people how to write, but how to be part of a gift-giving paradigm, as writers, readers, editors, publishers, etc.

I like the idea of being part of a larger collective conversation, through my writing. In a sense, that’s what this blog has become (for me). I’m still not sure I buy her argument about the larger purpose of creative writing programs — but then I’ve never been part of one. Maybe I would feel differently if I were. Anyone out there want to comment on this? I will be leading creative writing workshops for teens this fall, as part of my participation in the Eden Mills Writers Festival. What should I be trying to foster, there?

One more thing on the collective voice. In the past few months, I’ve been invited to contribute essays to four different proposed anthologies. This is hugely exciting; and it is certainly not monetary excitement I’m feeling. It’s excitement about being part of collaborative experiences, being asked to participate, and potentially adding my voice to the mix.

Which brings me around to a final thought on the gift-giving paradigm. Gift-giving is so life-affirming. To be asked to give is in itself a gift; especially when you are being asked to give of a talent, or to give exactly in the way you feel born to give. So when I’m asked to write something creative and literary and thoughtful, I’m thrilled. Really I am. Whoever is asking is recognizing that I (may) have something to offer, and I love giving it, whether or not I receive strictly monetary payment in return.

{note: this does not apply to the freelance writing/editing work that belongs to the commodity culture, and which I am truly grateful also exists}


News: I was interviewed by poet and new mother, Erin Knight, for a piece just published on Open Book Ontario about being a writer and a mother. Take a look, here.

Creative discomfort
Party night


  1. Laura Rock

    My mother’s day surprise this morning from my 16-year old daughter (along w/ breakfast in bed) was a copy of The Juliet Stories. She bought it on the fevered recommendation of her English teacher, who knew I’d love it. And while I’ve just begun the stories, already I’m in deep. A gift begat a gift that begat a gift. And then your blog post. Cheers.

  2. Carrie Snyder

    Oh my goodness!! Thank you for letting me know. Happy Mother’s Day. What an awesome daughter you have.


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