When Creatives Give Back

As I struggled with learning how to put myself on the written page, I asked my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Sue William Silverman how she found the courage to share her trauma as a childhood victim of sexual abuse in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. She first told me that writing the memoir was a form of therapy. But of course she could have written it and then put it in a drawer. Sue added that she has learned from readers that her printed words have provided an opportunity for others to salve their own wounds or better understand the suffering of others.

In other words, Sue’s book was a way of giving back to the world.

Consider Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, in which the Johns Hopkins University psychologist who treats those with bipolar disorder reveals publicly her own struggle with that mental condition. A significant portion of her memoir addresses her own struggle with deciding to actually let the world know her diagnosis through the book. She writes that her final decision was that publication would help reduce the stigma of bipolar disorder.

It isn’t just memoirists who give back, if you will. Consider Rebecca Skloot, who during the decade in which she researched the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came to the realization that the family of the late Ms. Lacks–who unwittingly provided the cells that have cured diseases but also made the procurers of those cells millions–had been left out of the medical industry windfall. Skloot created a nonprofit to benefit Lacks’ heirs and gives a portion of the proceeds of her book to the cause.

But what do you say to someone who surrenders their entire multimillion dollar estate to charity?

The latest nonfiction book on my reading list...

The latest nonfiction book on my reading list…

I’m currently reading another memoir, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. The immigrant from Scotland applied creative thinking and moxie to the building of a steel empire, becoming so wealthy by the turn of the 20th Century that he was considered one of that era’s “robber barons.” But Carnegie once said “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” I’m only five chapters into the book, but I’m already getting a glimpse of the compassion and drive that led a  man to become one of the greatest philanthropists the world has ever seen.

We find ourselves a century later with a new era of creatively minded entrepreneurs profiting from their innovations at a level of disproportion relative to average income. I’m referring to the creative minds in the technology boom, our modern-day robber barons.

Bill Gates is following in Carnegie’s footsteps with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a global operation looking to cure diseases and improve lives. Gates and another billionaire—Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, who made his billions well before the tech boom—have since 2010 convinced a few dozen other very wealthy Americans to sign the “Giving Pledge,” in which they promise to donate half of their wealth to philanthropy during their lives or in their will.

Some of you, particularly my readers outside of America, may not be aware that Gates is one of our few tech entrepreneurs who did not come from Silicon Valley, a region outside of San Francisco, California. He grew up in Washington State and founded Microsoft there. Another Washington State tech baron, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, also has proven to be philanthropic (some would say his purchase of The Washington Post was an act of charity). But, as many observers have noted, the young tech billionaires of Silicon Valley “underperform” compared with other wealthy Americans both in philanthropic efforts. Maybe there’s something in Seattle’s water that isn’t found in “the Valley.”

It’s not my place to judge the actions of others. And if I suddenly found myself a billionaire, perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to start giving it away. But my personal experience with creative minds—whether artists or inventors—is that on some level, they don’t just wish to create solely for creation’s sake. They hope their creation will impact the lives of others. There are so many ways creative output can do that, both large and small, with individuals or populations. Giving back is the true legacy of art and invention.

Whether a creative mind is funding a foundation or simply sharing a personal story in an honest way, I cherish their gift. They serve as role models for the rest of us as we pursue our own creativity.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

33 Responses to “When Creatives Give Back”

  1. I have often struggled with feeling like my art is a selfish thing. And yet, there are examples everywhere that art can be one of the most giving things you can do. How much more can one give after sharing your own story?! You continuously add great books to my reading list Patrick thank you!

    • I had a running debate with my first semester VCFA instructor on selfishness and art. I had expressed in a portion of the memoir how I had put aside creative writing because of family obligations. That upset him; he said an artist must put his talent first. Well, I had read his memoir, and it is about him putting his writing first, and his wife leaves him in that book. So I wasn’t sure that was the model I wanted to follow! That anecdote isn’t completely related to the post, but I guess I’m saying that it can feel selfish to “indulge” in creating art, but we can assuage our guilt a little bit by thinking about how it might mean giving back as well.

  2. Thanks, as always, for the call to thoughtful creativity, Patrick. In one of the circles I’m a part of, we literally call the sorts of things you describe here a “giveback”. Kudos and thanks for all you are giving while you’re alive.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creativity for creativity’s sake vs. making a meaningful contribution to the world. Thanks for the timely reminder that putting oneself out there is also giving back. Great post!

  4. I love this post. It reminds me of a quote from Seth Godin that I recently read: “Here’s conventional wisdom: Success makes you happy. Happiness permits you to be generous. In fact, it actually works like this: Generosity makes you happy. Happy people are more likely to be successful.” You could just as easily replace the word happy with the word creative in that quote. Giving back in some way, regardless of the form or size of the giving, simply makes us feel good — happy, inspired, creative. Thanks for giving back through this post, Patrick. It provided me with much needed inspiration today!

    • You nailed the dirty little secret of philanthropy. It feels good to help others. It’s not an act of true selfishness to help someone else; we get a rush from it. And thank goodness, because without that there would probably be far less charity out there.

      • Years ago, in a discussion about my having spent too much time benefiting others rather than concentrating on my own needs, my brother said I did it because it made ME feel good—that it was selfish motive that drove me. That IS true for some givers—their primary motivation being to make themselves feel good in whatever way. I corrected him because I don’t like to be misunderstood. I am the kind of giver who, when I see a need, my first thought is “Can I help this person? How can I help?” Then, if I am able to and choose to do so, in being able to help in whatever way, I ultimately feel good that I was able to do so. And then, of course, there are those who give out of guilt or obligation or feeling indebted. Whatever the motive, as long as it helps rather than hurts people, I’d say it’s a good thing🙂

  5. Patrick, I can’t say enough about the quality of your posts. There are some blogs I’ve discovered that are TRULY worth my (anyone’s) time, and yours is most definitely one of them! Thank you for that😀

    For me, personally, I can say that most of my creativity has ultimately benefited others, (though many times it was people taking advantage of that creativity : / ). I think that, as long as a person can handle be open to the world, by sharing something bad or painful in order to help others also fits the “lemonade out of lemons” adage. To share not only our good experiences, knowledge and wisdom, but the bad, is what having them is all about, at least in my opinion.

    I often daydream about what I would do with my millions/billions should I ever be in that position, and I agree—there are way too many people and causes in need to be overly self-serving, right?😀

    • Donna Marie, thank you for those kind words. I don’t blog as frequently as some, but I try to bring value with each post.

      Yes to being open to the world. It isn’t easy, and I still have a ways to go on that front. And on sharing the good vs. the bad, in my critical thesis for my MFA program I explored the memoir genre in some detail, and learned the most powerful (and honest) ones are where the writer shines the brightest light on his/herself.

      I don’t need millions/billions, I’ve learned. I prefer fairly modest living. That said, if I had the spare cash I’d buy a lake house someplace, perhaps on Vermont’s Lake Champlain. I discovered last summer that my soul is truly at peace while looking out over a peaceful lake. https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/how-does-it-feel-to-have-earned-an-mfa/

      • I’m with you on the lake house, or even the ocean, though I’d have to be high enough not to worry about its occasional wrath! I’m glad you discovered that preference and I hope you can attain it!

        And with the “shining the light on his/herself,” the first thing that came to mind (though not a memoir), as far as people exposing their great weaknesses and mistakes, was the Bible (Christian). They weren’t in it to make themselves look good/better, but to show results—consequences—in the effort to teach and help others. This is not to say that memoirs are the best way to benefit others. I think I said, in another comment, that fiction can have just as great—if not greater—impact.

      • I love serendipitous coincidences, Patrick, and just today on Cynthia Newberry Martin’s WONderful blog (another with very high-quality content like yours, in case you werne’t aware of hers), her guest this month is a memoirist! You’ll enjoy this:

        http://catchingdays.cynthianewberrymartin.com/2014/05/01/how-we-spend-our-days-sue-william-silverman/

        • Not just a memoirist, but my mentor Sue William Silverman, who I cite in the opening paragraph of this post! Thanks for directing me there!

          • LOL…I didn’t even realize that! I rarely remember names, but find this so typical of me🙂 Still—glad to direct you to that post AND Cynthia’s wonderful blog😀

  6. Every once in a while we need reminding that not all rich people are greedy misers, hoarding away their millions while they build fifty-foot walls around their mansions to keep out the peasants. Thank you for this post, Patrick. i always feel better after visiting your site.🙂

    Another rich and famous person who changes people’s lives is music producer and Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am. I’m not a fan of his music, but the man himself has done some incredible things. He founded the non-profit organisation i.am angel, which incorporates funding to prevent poor and disadvantaged families losing their homes, and funds scholarships and even a purpose-built free academy to provide quality education for poor and disadvantaged kids. He’s also part of the Black Eyed Peas Foundation, which helps all sorts of good causes worldwide, and has regularly made massive donations to other charities like the Princes Trust, the Red Cross and many others. Pretty impressive for a guy with ADHD, who’s mostly known for being the bonkers one on The Voice UK and making records most people over the age of thirty struggle to like.🙂

    If my writing should ever enable ME to become rich (hey, dreams are still free, aren’t they?) my biggest dream is to use those riches to fix some of the things that are broken in life, i.e. suffering people who need stuff but aren’t getting the stuff they need. It just strikes me as the practical thing to do; they need money, I’d have it, no-brainer. I honestly don’t understand all those megabucks people who buy dozens of vintage cars or fill their baths with Evian… how do they do that without feeling even the slightest twinge of “Mmmm, yeah – I’m a bit of a sad old tool really, aren’t I?”

    As for sharing the dark parts of the soul…. yeah, that takes a lot of bravery. Not least because there are some sections of society who can make you feel as if doing that is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong.’ All of the writers you mentioned would certainly have come up against that at some point, probably more than once – and it’s a tough thing to overcome, because you can be made to feel so guilty by those who want to pretend that bad stuff never happens and decide the best way to maintain their sunny, safe illusion is to silence anyone who challenges it.

    Abuse and mental illness are subjects I could certainly write about from personal experience, but so far I’ve been kind of cheating and doing it via fictional works – the not-so-brave approach.🙂 Growing up in an environment where asking for any kind of help was considered a ‘weak’ and ‘selfish’ thing to do means I feel like I don’t have the ‘right’ to share that information any other way – but that’s a personal hang-up that I apply only to myself; I have nothing but admiration for those who can be open about their struggles. Maybe one day I’ll be as brave as them.

    • Wendy, after reading your comment , I am compelled to comment!🙂

      I’m glad you mentioned the Black-eyed Peas producer. Didn’t know that! You also made me think of Stephen King. I don’t know what he does as far as helping people, but his attitude about “the rich should pay” is refreshing!. I, too, don’t know how these “vintage car”-type people can sleep at night. I know a lot of self-serving, shallow people, and they’re not necessarily well off, but the richer they are, the bigger their character shows!

      I also feel that you sound apologetic, not wanting to share your personal experience through memoir. Including wisdom, etc. in your fiction can serve just as well—and sometimes even more so—through fiction. Not something to feel lesser about, for sure🙂

    • So much to address here! Thanks!

      On the philanthropic artists, thanks for mentioning will.i.am. I interviewed a musician a few years ago who said his role model in this regard was John Legend; I didn’t know about his philanthropic efforts but they are extensive: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Legend#Philanthropy Also, I live in D.C., and celebrities often show up in town to testify on behalf of some cause on Capitol Hill. Some seem to be doing it for PR purposes, but others seem genuinely sincere.

      On sharing dark parts of the soul, I mentioned my MFA critical thesis in another comment here. (I keep thinking I should try to have it published someplace.) It was titled “Selling Someone Out”: The Challenge for Memoirists in Telling their Truth about the Living. It’s one thing to share your own dark secrets, but it’s almost impossible to do so without writing about others in your life. You want to be honest, but they didn’t exactly choose to have their truths written and published. So there are a lot of factors that go into that “bravery.”

      That relates to your final point. It is not cowardly to take a fictional path. I have a good friend who is doing the same thing. She has expressed to me the same sentiment, that she is cheating. She is not; she is sharing in a creative way, and people will benefit. Of course what holds some people back is the “other people” factor I just mentioned above.

      • Oh yes – the “other people factor.” Exactly that. Because no-one suffers in a vacuum, and so ‘my’ story would automatically include parts of other people’s stories too – which they might have no desire to be told at all, let alone by someone else who doesn’t necessarily see things the way they do. Putting the events into the lives of fictional characters in a made-up world is a way around that, I guess – so while it might be considered the less brave route, it’s also the one of damage limitation. Perhaps, in a way, hiding things behind the mask of fiction enables me to speak with MORE truth about them than I would otherwise, because there isn’t the attached worry of dragging real-life others into the spotlight too.

        I’d never thought about it that way before – well, not consciously anyway – so Patrick, I’m so glad there are wise people in this world like you and writersideup. Thank you both.🙂

        And now I have another reason to like John Legend – aside from him having the Best Name Ever for a performer AND writing the only love-song-written-for-his-wife that made even an unromantic old tomboy like me go “aaawwww” instead of “bleeeuurrggh” at the lyrics!

        • Wendy, to actually call me “wise” alongside someone like Patrick is SUCH a compliment, and I thank you for even appreciating whatever I said. It came on a day I really needed to feel “of benefit” in some way (how timely!). Because last night I got a “rejection” from someone (from a sweetheart of an editor I know) whose pub.house looked VERY promising, according to all the info I gained through research, for one of my series. It’s why I submitted to him. He VERY generously and thoughtfully responded the same day with a very explanatory email, for MY benefit (and so an example of a “giving” act), as to specifically what their focus is on. It wasn’t his “rejection” that got to me so much as the continued I-don’t-know-WHO/WHERE-to-submit-to-anymore! frustration. I’ve come VERY close a few times to getting a contract, but there are always obstacles, of course. THAT is what made me sob and makes me question if I should continue trying to do this. I’m VERY resilient, but it’s getting harder. Once I get through this “feeling drained” day, I’m sure I’ll push on ’cause I’m not one to give up, nor do I have a choice.

          As writers, we all know these pains, (and I usually just roll with the expected rejections), but every once in a blue moon it really affects me. Thank you for helping bring a smile on a day when I’ll have trouble doing so😀 We really MUST keep on keepin’ on😀

  7. I think the difference is an attitude one. The young and newly rich often treat the money as theirs and theirs alone. As one gets older and wiser, this attitude can shift so that with the money comes a sense of responsibility, and the person having it is merely the steward. Then the focus becomes “Where is the money best spent in order to do the most good in society?” I am currently wondering this as I grow older…and at times feel overwhelmed with the plethora of need in this world community. Creativity is slowly changing how philanthropy is accomplished.

    • I like the perspective angle you introduce here. As I read Carnegie’s book some more, I’ll look for that inflection point where he decided his legacy would be his philanthropy, not his industrialism. I suspect it was fairly late in life.

      When we’re young, we are a bit egocentric, and thus anything good that happens to us we assume we deserve; it is our right. (Conversely, anything that goes wrong is unfair and has nothing to do with our actions.) As we get older we realize that yes, we can make our own luck, but life isn’t always fair, and sometimes you are simply the recipient of good fortune. For every techie who strikes it rich with a new app or program, there are hundreds as clever and enterprising as that person, but they didn’t meet the right angel investor or their market debut didn’t sync exactly with what the market wanted at that time. It’s hard to see that when you’re a twenty-something. Bill Gates is older than many of the techies now making crazy dollars; perhaps you’re right that their perspective will change as well.

      • I have very much enjoyed reading all the comments, this is a subject that is very much in my mind these days. When you’re twenty something, you tend to see just today. As you get older, your view of the world widens. My knowledge of Carnegie was as a robber baron with huge amounts of money. I will read the book to see his transformation.

  8. Interesting parallel between artists and inventors. I do think that both kinds of people hope to make a difference/have a lasting impact.

    • Hi Ellen! I spent most of my career professionally interacting with artists. The last few years I have primarily been involved with inventors. I have come to realize there is no difference in how they think creatively; the only difference is their output. (And as I wrote last week, many artists are also inventors and vice versa.)

  9. Hi!Patrick and thanks for this post, it is something that needs some contemplation.
    There truly is nothing that equals the pleasure of giving, ‘Be he so wise as to give all he has made’is something of a mantra for me these days.
    I suppose being creative is in itself a form of being wise enough to give it all away.After all every part of creating is coming from the inner-being and if one was to forego that essential ingredient and substitute it with a commercial bent, then everyone is short-changed.
    I can tell from your writing that you give of yourself and you must rest comfortably in that knowledge. I guess that, were you to be the fabulous billionaire that you declare you are currently not, it would be interesting as to how your excess funds were distributed. My take on it is that you, because of your need to bleed, your concept of money would not be important.
    Thinking is one of the most under-utilises assets of today, given the easy access to devices and information generally. As an artist/writer your base job is to think and think hard on all matters, your need to bleed is paramount in the understanding and offering that results. Money and wealth is really just a part of the broad world you are in and I’m sure that you, as I, would take as much pleasure from seeing others succeed as achieving that yourself.B

    • If I were a billionaire, the first thing I’d do is hire a money manager. I am eager to give charitably when I find myself with money, but too many times I’ve been a bit too generous, i.e., left myself a bit vulnerable myself (and thus my loved ones) financially. That doesn’t do anyone any good!

      I like how you’re separating money and wealth from the “base job” (nice way of putting it) of creative thinking. The latter can bring in the former, but not always (as I noted above to vsperry). Most of the writing I’ve done in my life has had a direct correlation to money–in my day job I am paid to write speeches and blogs, and before that I was a journalist and a think tank fellow, also paid to write–but with my personal writing, I am not chasing a market as much as I am trying to create the best writing I can create, while hoping there is a market for that. I know some very successful commercial fiction writers who have found that balance of writing to a market while also focusing on creating great writing, and I truly admire them for finding that balance.

  10. It’s funny, I was just talking to my husband about this yesterday. I was raised to believe that giving back to society HAD to be in a “serious profession,” not the arts, e.g., science. My interest in writing was poo-pooed as a hobby–or worse. My “only choice” was science. It’s only recently I’ve started contemplating that giving back or making a contribution can take many forms, but really believing it… that’s a daily struggle. I’ll never have billions to donate (wish I did because like you I think I’d give it away, probably in handfuls), but I’ll hold your words close today: “There are so many ways creative output can do that, both large and small, with individuals or populations. Giving back is the true legacy of art and invention.” A sincere thank you for helping me along my path to true believing. Many books and works of art have made enormous impacts on me, and I want to do that for others. Thank you, Patrick.

    • Julia, your comment really moved me. And although this discussion centers around philanthropy—the BIG givers—I think we all know that every day of our lives we have a chance to give to others in beneficial ways. It’s a rare occurrence that any of us will have the opportunity to impact “the masses,” but we can most certainly live a “giving” life🙂

    • Well, Julia, perhaps you have to be an artist to understand how it is giving back. The act of creation can feel a lot like being bled; it is painful and draining. How sad to think we’d go through that without anyone possibly benefiting other than ourselves! Perhaps instead of just losing blood we’re donating it.

      I’m glad you found this post of value, Julia, and it’s always good to see you here.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. When Creatives Give Back | Stan Stewart's Non-Blog - April 30, 2014

    […] See on artistsroad.wordpress.com […]

  2. When Creatives Give Back | 21st Century skills ... - May 18, 2014

    […] As I struggled with learning how to put myself on the written page, I asked my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Sue William Silverman how she found the courage to share her trauma as a child…  […]

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