“Writer? Write what ah?” is one of the most common responses that I get when I introduce myself as a writer. Based on my interactions, most people have a highly binary idea of what being a writer is—and understandably so. Throughout our education, we’re taught that a career in writing exists only in the form of an author or journalist. So literature majors must surely find themselves in one or the other.
In truth, language is all around us, and where words exist, writers must too. We pay little to no attention to the UX writer who executed your favourite video game character’s voice lines, or the copywriter who worked tirelessly on press releases for that huge TV show launch. Many who work in the creative scene—not just writers—are often overlooked, and undervalued. We’re expected to deliver top-notch work, yet many aren’t willing to pay us for what it’s worth.
In a society that values skills from the fields of STEM, business, and finance, it can be tiring to always to have to explain your job scope, always to have to justify your education and to always be misunderstood.
And that’s why it’s painful when we get deemed—by the very same society that we serve—as non-essential. If you haven’t already caught wind of the Sunday Times survey in which artists emerged as the top non-essential job, now you have. Yes, the audacity! The betrayal!
Like many others in the creative industry, I had a whirlwind of emotions when I first saw the survey infographic. And as expected, we already have a slew of memes and satire surrounding the topic—made by none other than artists themselves, of course.
There’s even a T-shirt line to celebrate our lack of essentiality now because, remember, no one can call you non-essential if you declare it yourself first.
But jokes aside, I’ve sat on this topic for a while. I’ve trawled through enough memes, jokes, rants, and infographics about the many ways that many people feel about having the “non-essential” label slapped across their titles. It’s frustrating and hurtful, it really is.
My knee-jerk reaction to this piece of news was, “If I’m non-essential, then work for what?” It wasn’t until I paused to gather my thoughts surrounding the matter that I arrived at a few realisations.
To understand what we’re dealing with, we have to first unpack what “essential” means.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘essential’ is defined as “necessary, needed, relating to something’s or someone’s basic or most important qualities, and a basic thing that you cannot live without.”
Therein lies the catch. Many of us have seen the rants of frustrated designers, editors, and creators asking the layman to “delete their Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube applications, since art isn’t essential”, and that without entertainment platforms, most of us would’ve been bored out of minds during Circuit Breaker.
But on the flip side, I have also had creator friends acknowledge that looking at the barest sense of the word “essential”, art is, technically, not essential for survival. Without art, yes, life would undoubtedly be extraordinarily dull and devoid of happiness. But hey, at least we’ll still be alive.
Tapping into the long-referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that many Psychology, Sociology, or Medicine majors might be familiar with, it is—to put it simply—a theory of human motivation and what we need to drive us.
Reading the pyramid from bottom to top is how Maslow posits the order of our needs in decreasing priority. At the bottom, we have what is deemed as the most essential resources—food, water, warmth, and rest, labelled as our basic psychological needs.
‘Creative activities’ are shelved under the umbrella of self-fulfilment needs, which Maslow considers to be the last rung of needs—fundamentally good to have, but not necessary for survival.
There has been much debate over what the term ‘artist’ actually means as well, with netizens pointing out the difference between an artist and an artiste. The former is defined as “a person who creates paintings or drawings”, and the latter “a professional entertainer, especially a singer or dancer”—which is certainly more relatable to the modern-day content-creator.
Whether you choose to adopt a strictly prescriptivist view that an artist refers only to “individuals like Picasso”, as local influencer Xia Xue puts it, or to subjectively view the term as relating to any individual who creates art—that’s a choice personal to you.
The point of Sunday Times publishing the results of their study was to highlight the discrepancy and even hypocrisy of Singaporeans who conveniently label jobs such as doctors, nurses, and garbage collectors as essential, yet also list these very same jobs as those that they would not want to do.
Some have highlighted that it was possible for Sunday Times to omit the ‘non-essential’ jobs from survey results—basically, we can uplift some jobs without putting others down. While I wholeheartedly agree with that concept in every sense of it, I can only guess that Sunday Times made the decision to publish both extremities of their findings to best frame the general consensus of their respondents.
In other words, their intention was never to shame nor put down the alleged ‘non-essential’ jobs, but rather to accurately reflect both ends of the spectrum—which in turn gives readers a greater understanding of the comparisons and subject matters in question.
Also, remember that we have been and still are undergoing the brunt of a global pandemic. Based on the news, current affairs, stories, content, and even humour that we have been consuming as of late, we have been primed to frame our views relative to the context of a pandemic.
It is human nature to adapt according to our surroundings, and our mindsets have merely been doing just that. Being a respondent of the survey in the time of a pandemic compared to an idyllic world devoid of global issues, your priorities and needs would differ. Hence, your responses would too.
Importantly, let’s also bear in mind that this was the results of a survey conducted with 1,000 Singaporeans, and might not be reflective of the opinions of Singapore’s general populace.
Is it fair to equate non-essential jobs or the people holding them as lesser? To me, the fact that ‘non-essential’ alludes to being dispensable is where the problem lies, but we must stop ourselves from jumping to that conclusion, no matter how tempting it might be.
To fully make peace with this, we have to remove connotations of being inconsequential from being “non-essential”.
Growing up as a student of the Arts from as early as secondary school all the way up to my Bachelors’ Degree, believe me when I say that my heart breaks for the Arts scene.
I’ve had to sit by and watch my peers mock me for “using the Arts stream for admission to the same Junior College as them because my grades didn’t make the cut”, even though it was a conscious choice for me to study the Arts. Every day, I have to square up to the fact that I am paid half of some friends’ salaries even though we’ve had the same starting ground and—if I may add—that I spend more hours at work as compared to them.
It’s tiring, and the unhappiness could be endless. Which is why I’ve learned how important it is to pick my battles and to discern when to get riled up.
Something that has helped me feel less angry at the situation is knowing that my self-worth is not tied to what people perceive about my career. Cliche as it sounds, sometimes it’s enough to love what you do and to have the people who matter appreciate you for it. And the sooner I come to terms with it, the easier it becomes for me to strike a happy medium with my plight.
I’m a non-essential writer, and that’s okay.
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