Resilience, Patronage, and the New Bard

On the 14th of September in 1607, Neill of Tír Eóghain, Rory Ó Donnell of Tír Chonaill and about ninety followers left Ireland for mainland Europe after several years of crushing defeat at the hands of the English. In the wake of their departure, the old Gaelic world began to collapse, and with it, the system of patronage that kept a hereditary class of Gaelic poets housed and fed. In the generation after this Flight of the Earls, the complex meters of Gaelic poetry gave way to freer, more melancholy verse as poets no longer had stable homes from which to compose. In time, this unique contribution to the world's literary craft was abandoned by its caretakers, since they simply did not have the support they needed to continue writing in the way they once had.

Fast forward to a book I'm presently reading by peak-oil theorist and fellow Pagan John Michael Greer entitled Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills From the Appropriate Tech Toolkit. In it, he describes the difference between efficiency and resilience thusly:

"We can define efficiency informally but usefully as the practice of doing the most with the least…The just-in-time ordering process that's now standard in the retail and manufacturing sectors of the economy, for example, was hailed as a huge increase in efficiency when it was introduced…What few people asked is what happens when something goes wrong."

Much of modern society is intentionally or otherwise structured around efficiency; we make a specific number of dollars to do a specific job for a specific number of hours per week. We purchase groceries (also delivered by truck just-in-time) rather than growing our own food. We plan and execute our schedules according to the most efficient use of our precious time.

The problem here is obvious. What if we lose our jobs? What if the food trucks stop delivering? What if the vagaries of life interrupt our schedules? When efficiency breaks down, the structures that rely upon it break down as well, including our lives.

Now read what Greer has to say about resilience:

"What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient, by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of the extra steel comes into play and keeps the bridge from coming down."

Greer goes on to discuss the creation of resilient structures, which are inefficient and time-consuming to craft, in order to survive the post peak-oil situation we're all driving toward with alarming speed.

In other words, it takes time to fell a tree, drill holes in it, and plug the holes with mushroom spores. It might take a day. It might take two, and all you get out of the effort is mushrooms. Why do that when you could just buy mushrooms from the supermarket, delivered fresh by truck just this morning? Well, it matters if mushrooms aren't being delivered to the supermarket anymore and you want to keep eating them.

It strikes me that the Bards of pre-Flight of the Earls Ireland existed in a felling the tree and planting the spores paradigm. They had the patronage of their Chieftains and, therefore, the gift of time to create complex art. This is because Bards and Chieftains understood that in order for poetry to be great (resilient), it couldn't be fast (efficient).

This is important for modern writers because we are working in a craft that requires a resilience economy while living in a world that runs on efficiency. So we end up with articles like Dean Wesley Smith's recent piece Topic of the Night: Making a Living Writing Short Fiction. In it, he describes his own production speed of roughly 110,000 words a month and 32 short stories. That's awfully high, and it doesn't seem to leave much time for reflection upon and editing of the art he's creating. However, it does force the resilience craft of writing to meet the demands of an efficiency economy. I don't know about you, fellow writers, but I don't care to sacrifice quality for volume. And that's exactly the trade-off I think he's advocating.

But where does that leave the writer who wants to earn a living at the craft in a modern world? Well, most writers don't, and those who do are writing easily-marketed work and/or producing at mind-numbing speeds. The rest of us are either under the patronage of loved ones or supporting ourselves in other ways while we write during lunch hours, evenings, weekends. And while I have no blanket solution for this problem, I do believe it might be helpful to introduce the ideas of resilience and patronage to it and see what emerges.

First, it's important for us to forgive ourselves as writers when we aren't meeting the demands of efficiency in a resilience craft. Art takes time. It just does. Of course, the other side of this coin is the realization that we might never become wealthy on slow, meaningful work. But the world needs writers who think, craft, and edit carefully. It always has, no matter what the latest blockbuster sales figures tell you. In short, make art. Know it takes time. Know you might not get rich doing it. Make art anyway, because art is important.

Second, it's crucial that readers support the writers whose work they enjoy by buying it and leaving reviews of it in places like Amazon and Goodreads. Writers require patrons, and patrons have responsibilities. First among these is supporting us financially so that we can continue to work. (I also take payment in food, drink, and services, just as my Bardic ancestors surely did.) And if this straightforward talk of remuneration reads as gauche to you, I would ask what you're willing to do forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year simply for the love of it and where your money tree grows.

Third, when writers can leverage services like Patreon, they should. It's the old patronage system made new, perhaps not perfectly, but enough that writers can reach a dedicated community of readers for dedicated pay. In this way, writers are motivated to create their best art in order to keep their patrons, and readers are motivated to support that creation in order to enjoy more work from that artist in future. Remember, the relationship between Bard and patron was one of mutual obligation and mutual benefit. I think it's time we revisited that relationship for the sake of the art itself, whether it be through services like Patreon or through the simple exchange of good art for its monetary value to those who engage with it.

Finally, notice I used the word 'community' above and not 'audience'. Bards were part of a community. They struggled, celebrated, ate, slept, and lived with the people who supported them. They weren't stage performers putting on an act for an audience. Rather, they knew what their families, friends, and neighbors needed, and they provided it. Modern writers can take a lesson from that. We're servants of craft and community, even now in 2016. I can't promise that viewing ourselves this way - understanding our craft through the lens of resilience and nurturing communities of readers by meeting their needs - will make us wealthy. However, I do believe this is an important way that writing which is also art reaches readers who want to be entertained, informed, challenged, and changed. It's a good road forward, even if it isn't paved in gold.