Not long ago I declared an interest in writing a post about storytelling and privilege. That was dumb. This whole issue has me stuck in a mire of frustration and uncertainty, so I'm writing this post to get it out of my system. I have no answers, only questions and a reminder to admit my own good luck and circumstance.
I've gone around and around about what I want to say. I came up with sweeping generalizations, some scathing indictments of a culture that doesn't value arts adequately, pointed observations about how privilege hurts our art yet some of us profit from it. I had hours of conversations about privilege. I was told I should write about white privilege, economic privilege, cultural privilege and more.
My head was spinning and I got lost. This is such a big topic and so pervasive, I found I had too much to say and became mute.
What I can write about is my own, personal experience with privilege and my response to it. Perhaps some of you will feel a resonance with it and might be moved to think about privilege in your own artistic lives (or lives in general). If you're wondering if you might be privileged here is a quiz you can take.
Let me start with the following admission: I am living a life of incredible privilege. I am a white, middle-class woman whose appearance falls within ordinary parameters. I am mostly able-bodied and able-minded. When I decided to leap into self-employment I spent two years building savings specifically for a safety net AND I had a spouse who was willing to support me while I got the business up and running. When he died I still had an economic safety net, so I was able to make the choice to continue self-employment.
I am very lucky.
I feel as though I can only write about privilege in personal terms though it's a global issue. I hope that by acknowledging it, I become more aware of it on a routine basis and so will more readily extend a hand up to those what may not have my arbitrary advantages. I hope that my understanding of it will be sharpened and I can more readily monitor my own responses and be aware of those times when I get something not because I deserve it but because of my status. I hope that I remember my obligation to open those same doors for others. None of this means I feel particularly guilty about having these privileges, I don't see the point in that. What it does mean is I think I have an obligation to acknowledge it and to use it for the greater good.
I am absolutely certain there are gifted artists who do not have the option to devote themselves to their art. They create in the interstices, time stolen from their jobs or their families. I wish we lived in a world that would permit them more latitude. All I can do is support their work when I encounter it and try to create opportunity for them. I am also certain there are gifted artists who do not want to pursue art full-time and that's fine. Wallace Stevens maintained his insurance career while writing poetry that changed American literature. He wanted the security and social network a job provides. There is nothing wrong with that.
Storytelling is a universal art. If you are human, you tell stories. Yet when I look at career storytellers and those who are up-and-coming I don't see an even representation of my larger community. I am not an even representation of it. I try to counter it by being aware, by promoting and mentoring tellers who do not have the same privilege I do. I fail often. I try again.
I am writing this because I don't have answers. I don't know what to do about it, because it seems as though the ideal solution involves systemic change I don't know how to create (though I hope my small actions have ripples). All I can do is ask the questions and make the best, most informed choices I can.
I am incredibly lucky. I certainly have to make careful decisions but I am building the life I want through hard work, tremendous support and privilege. Economic, racial, cultural, sexual and more.
I am writing all of this because I am struggling with the idea of privilege and living the creative life. I don't believe starving artists are the only kind of legitimate artist - frankly I wish that stereotype wasn't ongoing and sometimes accurate - but I do believe many of us who are able to live this creative life are doing so from a place of privilege. We have a responsibility to at least acknowledge it then to try to make it possible for those less fortunate to experience the same opportunities. It's so often about access to opportunity; those who are less privileged may not hear of opportunities or may not have the resources to reach for them. I don't see the point in railing about a skewed cultural value of art and artists though I do believe our society has some misplaced visions of worth and payment. Mostly I believe I can make a difference by naming my own privilege, by trying to change systemic bias, by offering a hand when I can, by being grateful for what I have, and by continuing to ask difficult questions.
I don't have solutions for any of these questions but they are worth asking. I think we all deserve a chance to shine. I'd love to know how you think about privilege in general and in storytelling in particular.