One of the nice surprises in a year full of shit has been my Ko-fi page. I started my account partly on a whim – I wanted to see what the deal was, since I am usually a bad combination of curious and clueless when it comes to any platform I haven’t used – but also it was an exercise in trust. And it turns out to be one that has been successful beyond my wildest dreams.
One thing that had been made repeatedly apparent to me over recent years is that I am very, very bad at asking for help. I’ve structured my life and my work around a core of independence and solitude. I freelance, I live alone, I’m single, I publish my own books rather than faff about trying to get a publisher, and it’s become increasingly apparent that these things are not a quirk of fate but the result of my own decisions and personality. I’m very social (yes, I am finding lockdown HARD) and I have a lot of friends – it’s a standing joke in my circle that my birthday is a month-long bonanza of giftage. Moving back to Newcastle has also reconnected me with an extended family I was for decades practically (if not emotionally) estranged from: I liked them all, but regularly went years on end without seeing them. I have, in the grand scheme of things, an impressive network of support. So why did it take so long to accept that?
It’s not like the universe hasn’t tried to send the message – repeatedly, and often robustly. A period of physical injury (when I broke my wrist twice in succession, putting me in hospital and leaving me with 14 weeks of not being able to type, wash my hair properly, and being all-round feeble) forced me to finally accept that maybe it wasn’t some great insult to my independence to let someone do my shopping for a bit. My Summer of Homelessness meant I had to rely on the kindness of friends (and sometimes relative strangers) to put a roof over my head.
And I got better, I did. I was only mildly reluctant to let my family handle most of the logistics of my move north (although admittedly that’s because they are all super practical and I am… not). They did have to scold me to let them help more when I actually moved – I slept on the sofa for a week because I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t figure out how to assemble my bedframe. But gradually being part of the ebb and flow of such a close-knit group of people, the kind of family dynamics where you’d do anything to help someone even if 5 minutes ago you had a massive row with them, eroded some of my edges. I’m still the family weirdo – the artsy unsensible southerner with weird tastes who can’t be trusted to keep warm in winter (I get a LOT of gloves and scarves for Christmas) – but I am happy enough to lean into that, knowing it’s meant with fondness.
So how does this tie into Ko-fi – and Coronavirus?
Like many people, I’ve been hit hard by the pandemic, even though I am luckier than many. My work dried up, leaving me financially vulnerable. The theatre work that I derive much satisfaction (if little income) from all but vanished. Living alone, I too often felt – feel – isolated and lonely. Although I’m someone very comfortable in my own company, I need to be around other people on a regular basis to keep me mentally and emotionally recharged. My coping mechanisms are almost all social, to some degree. I also realised how much I’d got into a dynamic of being the ‘organiser’ – the one who reaches out to people, who sets up the nights out, who keeps friendships buoyant for years even when contact is only sporadic. (I don’t think that’s out of any inherent niceness, btw, or something that deserves particular applause: it’s just a quirk of my personality). But deprived of the rewards of such conduct – the night out, the human company – I felt myself become sullen and resentful.
In the face of something as implacable as a pandemic, then, even my independence crumbled. Yes, I will accept money from the Government, thank you. Yes, I’ll let you fetch me some shopping and won’t protest too much when you wave away payment. Yes, I’ll let you drive me to the coast because we’re not supposed to use public transport. Yes, I’ll let you set up the sanity-saving Zoom calls. And yes – I will let friends and strangers give me money. And so should you.
Because the truth is, venal incompetent Tory bastards aside, most people want to help others. It’s part of being in a human community. And yes, there are urgent demands on people’s money – but you do them no favours by deciding for them where to spend it. When I look at my own financial outlay, I try to support urgent / chronic causes (just this month I donated to a food bank, and I have standing orders set up for Amnesty, Cancer Research and Guide Dogs). But I value the creative industries, and I want to see an arts scene that isn’t just dominated by poshos. And I recognise that means putting my money where my mouth is, even when I don’t have a lot of it. Sometimes that means supporting things on an organisational level (I have monthly commitments to both Arts Emergency and the theatre publication Exeunt), but sometimes it means chucking a fiver towards someone trying to make some money from their art. And while sometimes that’s a direct exchange – I like your art, so I bought a print or a postcard or downloaded your album or bought a ticket to your show – I think it’s increasingly important to recognise it doesn’t – shouldn’t – have to be.
There’s been a surge of interest lately in the theatre world in schemes that, instead of hiring people for specific commissions, pay them a wage simply to art. It might sound like an unreasonably cushy gig, but the reality is it’s already how a lot of people in the sector live. If you have family money or a spouse covering the rent, it’s a lot easier to find time to dedicate to creativity. Unless we have schemes that replicate that cushion, there will be less work done by those without that support. With mainstream funding ever harder to come by, artists are likely to find themselves more and more trying to find alternative sources of income: so why should platforms like Ko-fi and Patreon and Kickstarter be frowned on? Yet still they are so often cloaked in some kind of shame or embarrassment. I know plenty of creatives who sort of have a Patreon, sort of have a Ko-fi, yet somehow never find time to update or promote it, and it’s not hard to guess the reasons behind that.
When I set up my Ko-fi, I admit I struggled with those very feelings. God, I’m just asking people for cash, isn’t that needy / egotistical / an admission of failure / financial ineptitude? If I really had any talent, wouldn’t I be rolling in royalties by now and not need any help? But as it’s grown, I’ve become to actively enjoy it. It’s a huge buzz when people read one of my blogs and feel moved to donate. It’s also – I’m realistic enough to know – a low-discomfort way for friends to help out during rough times, since ‘buying me a few Ko-fis’ in encouragement is a lot less awkward than going ‘you can afford groceries, right?’ (I can, fam, don’t worry). It’s also led to some surprising advantages – when I started giving my cross-stitches away, it was an easy way of letting people cover my postage and materials costs. In a hellscape of a year, it’s turned into something fun, and god, don’t we all need that?
The key thing about a Ko-fi or a Patreon or a crowdfunder is that they make it easy for people who want to support you to do so. Let them. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues
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