On Contribution

Summer thunderhead in Southeastern Nebraska

Over the last few years I’ve been thinking and been forced to think about work and what it means to me. This is because I have stopped working in the conventional sense, for the most part, wherein people have a job and they go to it most days of the week. I am also not a freelancer, someone looking for work who has a business name and area of expertise. I have been instead doing random gigs on farms, for websites, bits of photography here and there, and more — basically utilizing every skill I have in order to make enough money for food, and a few luxuries like new notebooks and tea.

This life, of essentially being unemployed, has given me a measure of freedom, but it’s not as freeing as you might think. Everything costs money, and since I don’t have a steady income, I can’t own things like a car, which requires expensive maintenance. I also can’t live anywhere consistently, as that would necessitate a rent check every month.

This has given me quite a different perspective on life than I had before. I think there is something to be said about the simple exchange of work for money on a regular basis, which is why the majority of people end up living that way. However, I think it’s rare that jobs are what we ultimately want to be doing with our time, most see them as a necessary evil to support other parts of their life. I think that creative people who make a living through their work also realize that as soon as money is involved, their relationship to their work changes. That is precisely why I have separated my money making activities from my art/writing. To occasionally write and photograph for money doesn’t spoil the pot, but I can imagine if I only wrote and photographed with the intention of making money from it, my work would become different.

I have been musing about how my work connects with people lately, and whether or not it’s effective based on the impact it makes. A large amount of my work is unseen, because I am saving it for books and hopefully gallery shows. So right now, I can’t tell if the work I’m making is effective or not. I know many people who will read this are fellow creators (we all are, whether we want to believe it about ourselves or not), but I would like to say that it takes courage to set aside your work and wait for it to mature. To see if it’s finished can take a long time. And why do we wait, why do we put so much effort into things like writing and art, that in a practical sense have little utility? In my case, it’s because that’s how I give back, that’s how I contribute to society.

I think the beauty of art and work is in its potential, its possibilities. The creator may have an agenda, but the work they find to create may go far beyond that. It may connect with people in a way that the maker never foresaw. It may inspire someone to think differently, or to do something they always wanted to but didn’t have the courage. Some people say that novels have changed their lives. But did the novelist write that novel for that one person? Did they even have the intention of changing any lives? Maybe not. But what they did have the intention of was contributing something.

This is where courage comes in. Because as I sit in the mornings scribbling in my notebook, or taking photos in the woods, it takes a lot of courage to think that it matters at all. But despite all the doubt, rejections, and difficulty, I keep doing it.

I think the highest reason to create is not ego based. It’s that you have something to say, a beautiful perspective, some skill, words to write, or paintings to make, and those things just won’t go away. So you have to go and make them. If you enjoy it, and making these things ends up satisfying you, then that happiness will spread. We need happy people, who have meaning and purpose in their life. Sometimes the greatest gift art can give is a sense of purpose to a person, who then goes and contributes in other, more directly useful ways. Maybe any contribution, in that case, can be deemed “art.”

I spend a lot of time outdoors. The outdoors are simple on the surface, but rich in meaning. The dark woods, the silent grass, the roaring surf, high rocks and mountains all help me to come back to a certain place within myself. That particular state is one of placid awareness. It isn’t worried or self-conscious. It’s useful to be away from the world that humans have built up, to return to the more simple place that we came from. It is simple, in this relationship with a landscape, to contribute. Each breath we take is part of it, as CO2 leaves our lungs and O2 is absorbed by them. Eating and drinking are also part of this relationship with the earth.

My goal, as a writer and photographer (dare I say artist?) is to contribute. In particular, I want to give back to the earth that is mother to all of us. I am still figuring that out, and it’s not easy. It takes a measure of courage to keep doing so. My intention is not to make money from my work, because I feel like that intention would change it. I want it to be free from binds that making a living puts on such things. Maybe, on the basis of that alone, I can prove something: that living a life and creating what you have to, what is trying to come out of you, what inspires and interests you, what makes you feel alive, is worth far more than the money it can earn.