Monday, September 16, 2013

Portrait of the artist as a toilet-bowl technician.

I'll be teaching again in the spring. And this morning, as I was scrubbing the toilet in the shared bath between the guestroom and my home officewe're expecting house-guestsI was thinking of the glamors of the writing life, and my students' perceptions of same.

I begin my journalism classes each semester with an introduction in which I touch on the milestones of my career, e.g. the books, the movie deal*, the covers, major features and memoirs for the likes of Harper's and The New York Times Magazine, the one-on-ones with sitting presidents (e.g. Clinton) and premier athletes (e.g. Kareem), etc. The fascination is clear in their eyes before I'm 5 minutes in. Understand, I don't do this in order to elicit oohs and aahsalthough I invariably get some of those anywaybut rather to establish my bona fides to teach, to LEAD, the class. It's a preemptive strike, if you will. I want them to know that I've been there/done that, that if it involves nonfiction writing of almost any mainstream stripe (including ghostwriting and PR), I probably know its ins and outs well enough to speak authoritatively on it. This tends to discourage the occasional smart-asses who've written a column or two for the college newspaper and think they know it all. But as noted, a common side effect of this presentation, which elicits questions and therefore will go on for a good half-hour, is that my students come away thinking that writing is pretty glamorous, if they didn't think that already. Indeed, the perceived glam factor is a prime reason why so many young people go into writing and related fields.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I do tell them about the writing jobs that I'm wont to leave off my resume. I'm certainly not talking about my work for Playboy, of which I'm rather proud (as are most writers who crack Playboy). As an example, this piece broke new ground in the coverage of organ transplantation (yeah, organ, Playboy, ha-ha, guffaw...), while this one gave readers an unprecedented, fly-on-the-ball look at NFL officials as they went through their paces in the Super Bowl.

No, I'm talking more about the kinds of mundane assignments one takes on for no reason except that you hate being late on the car payment two months running. I also tell my students that sometimes these pedestrian jobs form the bulk of one's writing income.

Finally I tell them about an acquaintance of mine who used to work for me when I was publisher/editor-in-chief at The American Legion Magazine. He was a junior writer of reasonable competency but not a lot of imagination or style, so when he lost his job at the Legion in a mass purge of my staff after my own ouster, he found it hard to hook on elsewhere. Before finally landing a halfway decent job in PR, he worked as a carny, a pest-control "consultant," a chimney sweep and any other number of low-level, put-food-on-the-table posts. I used to tease him that he should write a book about his "chimney sweep period" with the ironic title, My Life as a Writer. I think it just might have sold. I'd definitely recommend it to my classes.

So those are the kinds of glamorous things I reflect on as I scrub my toilet.

One last story about Playboy and then we'll call it a day.

A local college with an excellent liberal-arts reputation, Muhlenberg, once made me its writer-in-residence. I kept the post for an ever-uneasy 18 months during which the tenured English faculty and I viewed each other with suspicion. My colleagues were often impatient with me for emphasizing the practical, vocational aspects of the writing life (i.e. the kinds of insights that might actually help students get an effin job after college, thus vindicating their parents' six-figure outlay for their education); I was often impatient with them for implying that financial considerations should play little or no role in the student's approach to his or her craft.

However, I did get to teach upper-level courses to some very bright and ambitious young men and women, many of whom have gone on to win nice jobs in the uber-tough and -competitive field that writing/editing has become. Several have thanked me for my contributions to their success.

Anyway, the Playboy thing...

One day word filtered back to our female department chair that I had used one of my Playboy articles as fodder for a classroom discussion. (Yes, I brought the actual magazine to class, but I made sure that no female forms were visible in any stage of undress.) Later that day I was summoned for a sit-down before an unsmiling chairperson.

"I like to think we aim higher than to have our graduates get their work into Playboy," she told me.

I'm pretty sure my eyes went wide. I then said the third-dumbest thing a man can say in an academic setting; I told her that Playboy had paid me a five-figure sum for the piece. For the record, the second-dumbest thing would've been to tell her she had a great ass (which she did not, by the way), as such comments are absolutely forbidden in academia, where one must pretend that gender does not exist**; the first-dumbest thing would've been to say I voted Republican in the previous presidential election. (I did not, as blog regulars know, but it still amazes me how openly hostile so many institutions of higher learning can be to dissenting opinions.)

Anyhow, now her eyes went wide. "Art isn't about money!" she snapped. "And success certainly isn't about money!"

With that, she ruffled through some items on her unkempt desk until she located, seized and held up a copy of a publication in which she'd recently placed a piece, The Journal of the Ephemeral Unconscious. OK, that wasn't the actual name, but it might have been. It was wafer-thin and contained nothing but text printed on fourth-rate paper stock. Clearly it had been put out on a budget of at least, oh, 11 cents per copy. Maybe even 12.

Now I was speechless. I am quite sure that if my chairwoman received anything at all for that bit of wordsmithery, she was likely paid in copies of the publication. That is often how it goes in academic or literary publishing: You are paid in copies of your work, which you can then use to browbeat unruly writers-in-residence who get $2 or $3 or more per word toiling for magazines like Playboy.

It's insane, people. But it's how they rig the sails in college English departments. Which may explain why so many writers end up as chimney sweeps.
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* There were actually two movie deals, but one option was never picked up.
** Even the students, who spend much of their weekends fucking each others' brains out, are supposed to play this gender-denial game.

1 comment:

RevRon's Rants said...

Morning ramblings... I can't help but wonder whether your old department chair participates in 18th-century reenactments, bedecked in powdered wig, silver snuff box in hand, proclaiming her importance in the literary community. In those days, the "publishing industry" consisted of small groups of entitled gentry who, for lack of ability to do much of anything else, would take budding authors under their wing, supporting them and paying to have their work committed to beautifully-illustrated and bound books.

What the woman - and sadly, many aspiring authors - seem to believe is that the industry is still driven by patrons of the arts, whose sole objective is the perpetuation of the wordsmith's craft. In reality, industry decisions are ultimately made not by literary visionaries, but by CPAs, the singularly predominant objective being ROI (Return on Investment), rather than artistry. And as such, writers are valued more for their marketability as for their skill in turning phrases.

While we (my partner and I) would love it if all we did was ghostwrite books, we're realists, and know all too well the feast and famine nature of our business. While we've admittedly passed on projects (and clients) that didn't feel right to us for one reason or the other, but there's a price we pay for being selective, and sometimes that price is taking on the more "mundane" projects such as writing ad copy and press releases and designing promotional brochures and displays, or (in my case) strapping on a tool belt and applying my carpentry skills. If we were to hold out for only those projects that satisfied our more esoteric leanings, well, let's just say that the tools would get a lot more use than the computers.

Like you, Steve, we write in the real world, rather than in some 18th-century fantasy. Not for riches or fame (especially since the greater body of our work bears the names of others, with ours in small print acknowledgment as editors, designers, etc), but for the pure satisfaction of being able to make a living doing what we love. The dress code (clothing optional) is appealing, as are the hours, which can be exhaustingly long, but are mostly our call, especially now that I'm officially semi-retired.

Now... about the wisdom of perching that notebook on the toilet tank... :-)