As I struggled with learning how to put myself on the written page, I asked my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Sue William Silverman how she found the courage to share her trauma as a childhood victim of sexual abuse in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. She first told me that writing the memoir was a form of therapy. But of course she could have written it and then put it in a drawer. Sue added that she has learned from readers that her printed words have provided an opportunity for others to salve their own wounds or better understand the suffering of others.
In other words, Sue’s book was a way of giving back to the world.
Consider Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, in which the Johns Hopkins University psychologist who treats those with bipolar disorder reveals publicly her own struggle with that mental condition. A significant portion of her memoir addresses her own struggle with deciding to actually let the world know her diagnosis through the book. She writes that her final decision was that publication would help reduce the stigma of bipolar disorder.
It isn’t just memoirists who give back, if you will. Consider Rebecca Skloot, who during the decade in which she researched the biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came to the realization that the family of the late Ms. Lacks–who unwittingly provided the cells that have cured diseases but also made the procurers of those cells millions–had been left out of the medical industry windfall. Skloot created a nonprofit to benefit Lacks’ heirs and gives a portion of the proceeds of her book to the cause.
But what do you say to someone who surrenders their entire multimillion dollar estate to charity?
I’m currently reading another memoir, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. The immigrant from Scotland applied creative thinking and moxie to the building of a steel empire, becoming so wealthy by the turn of the 20th Century that he was considered one of that era’s “robber barons.” But Carnegie once said “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” I’m only five chapters into the book, but I’m already getting a glimpse of the compassion and drive that led a man to become one of the greatest philanthropists the world has ever seen.
We find ourselves a century later with a new era of creatively minded entrepreneurs profiting from their innovations at a level of disproportion relative to average income. I’m referring to the creative minds in the technology boom, our modern-day robber barons.
Bill Gates is following in Carnegie’s footsteps with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a global operation looking to cure diseases and improve lives. Gates and another billionaire—Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, who made his billions well before the tech boom—have since 2010 convinced a few dozen other very wealthy Americans to sign the “Giving Pledge,” in which they promise to donate half of their wealth to philanthropy during their lives or in their will.
Some of you, particularly my readers outside of America, may not be aware that Gates is one of our few tech entrepreneurs who did not come from Silicon Valley, a region outside of San Francisco, California. He grew up in Washington State and founded Microsoft there. Another Washington State tech baron, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, also has proven to be philanthropic (some would say his purchase of The Washington Post was an act of charity). But, as many observers have noted, the young tech billionaires of Silicon Valley “underperform” compared with other wealthy Americans both in philanthropic efforts. Maybe there’s something in Seattle’s water that isn’t found in “the Valley.”
It’s not my place to judge the actions of others. And if I suddenly found myself a billionaire, perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to start giving it away. But my personal experience with creative minds—whether artists or inventors—is that on some level, they don’t just wish to create solely for creation’s sake. They hope their creation will impact the lives of others. There are so many ways creative output can do that, both large and small, with individuals or populations. Giving back is the true legacy of art and invention.
Whether a creative mind is funding a foundation or simply sharing a personal story in an honest way, I cherish their gift. They serve as role models for the rest of us as we pursue our own creativity.