by | May 17, 2016

At some point, I had less time to go out for coffee than I used to.

At some point, I had less time to go out for coffee than I used to.

Around the time my first book came out, I experienced a sudden surge in invitations to “have coffee sometime.” These dates were usually requested by emerging writers. On these dates, we would talk about their writing. I might offer advice about publishing, applying for grants, or breaking into the teaching profession. Sometimes the writers asked me to comment on their poems, or a whole manuscript.

Often, our contact ended with the one date. Just as often, I was asked on a second date, or a third. Sometimes I received thank-you notes. Sometimes people asked me to be their mentor, and meet once a month for a heart-to-heart on their work and career. No one offered to pay for my time, though sometimes I got coffee, and occasionally a sandwich. The one time I mentioned payment (to a person who wished to meet monthly for manuscript advice), the person disappeared.

I’m the type who genuinely likes most people, and also likes to help, so I said yes to almost all of it. But at some point, I started to wonder whether all these coffee dates were the best idea. I wasn’t that much further along in my career than the people asking me for advice. The dates were taking time I should have been writing and seeing friends I didn’t often see.

Were some kinds of dates okay, but not others? Were some kinds of requests okay, but not others? Should I have been charging? Should I have been more generous?

I never came up with a good solution.

When I told my writer friends that I wanted to write about the creative advice coffee date, I was surprised at how thorny the topic is. About a third of them feel the only correct response to such a request is along the lines of “my consulting fee is $75 an hour or $10 a page.” They are appalled that other writers give away so much for free, because it devalues our skills and creates unrealistic expectations.

Another third freely gives their time, skills, you name it, to anyone who asks. They are a little baffled about why the others are so stingy and upset. The final third has a personal set of rules about when they say yes or no. No two sets of these rules, far as I can tell, match.

I turned to the Magic 8-Ball of the Internet, to see what other writers have to say. I found out almost nothing, except that there’s a group of men out there who won’t go out for coffee on a first date with a woman because coffee never leads to sex. (Good to know.)

I did find one good blog post — I wish I could still find the link — from a woman in business, on the coffee-advice phenomenon. She concluded that most of the aspiring designers who wanted to meet with her would better have their needs met in other ways, and instead refers them to those outlets.

She also decided that when she gave her time for free, she would do so by speaking at certain conferences and events instead. That way, she felt, she could be helpful and pay it forward, but not compromise her own time to work.

At any rate, I don’t expect us to find a not-messy way to sort this out any time soon. Although it’s true that no one would ask a doctor or a plumber to meet for coffee and give advice about one’s body or kitchen sink, creative fields seem more complicated.

I think this is because creativity functions in a gift economy, as Lewis Hyde says in one of my favorite books, The Gift. Just about every other profession functions in a market economy. To further complicate things, of course, creative people still live, eat, and pay their bills in a market economy — so it’s natural for all of us to be unsure of where the line is. Next week I’ll offer my own list of suggestions toward the end of making such get-togethers better for everyone involved.


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