Thursday, October 15, 2015

Portrait of the artist as a chimney sweep.

This is actually an update of some thoughts I first posted in the fall of 2013. See, at this time yesterday I was doing a phoner about est with a veteran writer for The New York Times, a fellow who's been in the biz awhile and around the block a time or two...and as the interview wrapped up we were comparing notes on the infelicities of contemporary freelancing (which is a precious, overwritten way of saying it sucks to be a freelancer. Especially an older one). FYI, graphs seven through nine below are all new for this post. Here goes...
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Looks like I may be teaching again in 2016. Pretty sure I'm on the short list at a couple of colleges with solid journalism/nonfiction writing programs. So this morning, while scrubbing the toilet, I was thinking of my students' perceptions of the writing life.

I always begin my classes by touching on the milestones of my career, e.g. the books, the movie deal*, the cover stories, 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 students' eyes. I don't do this in order to elicit oohs and aahsalthough I invariably get some of thosebut rather to establish my bona fides to teach, to LEAD, the class. I want them to know that I've been there/done that, that if it involves nonfiction writing of almost any mainstream type (including, more recently, ghostwriting and PR), I probably know its ins and outs well enough to speak authoritatively. It's a preemptive strike that tends to discourage the smart-asses who've written a column or two for the college newspaper and think they're David Brooks. But as noted, a common side effect of this presentation, which with the usual Q-&-A may last 45 minutes, is that my students come away thinking that writing is pretty damn glamorous. Assuming they didn't think that already. 

Indeed, the glam factor is a prime reason why so many young people go into writing and allied fields.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also tell them about the writing jobs that we wordsmiths are inclined to omit from our resumes. I'm certainly not talking about my work for Playboy, of which I'm rather proud (as are most writers who crack Playboy). This piece, for example, broke new ground in the coverage of organ transplantation (yeah, organ, Playboy, I get it, ha-ha, guffaw...), while this one gave readers a fly-on-the-ball look at NFL officials as they went through their paces in a recent Super Bowl.

No, I'm talking more about the kinds of mundane assignments that one takes on for no reason except that you hate being late on the car payment two months in a row. I even tell my students that there are times when these pedestrian jobs supply the bulk of one's writing income. In other words, though we all love to talk about our Harper's cover story or that delving feature for The Los Angeles Times Magazine, it may well be the brochure for the hardware chain that kept the bill collectors from calling in May and June.

Finally, I will 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 style or distinction, so when he lost his job in a mass purge of my staff after my own ouster, he found it hard to hook on elsewhere. It took him two years to land a halfway decent job in academic PR. Before that he worked as a carny, a pest-control "consultant," a highway flagger, a chimney sweep and any other number of menial, put-food-on-the-table posts. I used to tease him that he should write a book about his "chimney sweep period"; the obvious title would be My Life as a Writer. I think it just might have been a hit, certainly with the rest of the writing rank-and-file. I'd definitely put it on my classes' reading list.

Even in just the two years since I first posted on this topic, the Web and its indigenous effect on writing (and the perception of the value of same) has made things much worse. The very term writer has been abandoned in some quarters and supplanted by content provider. We provide content...we fill space...is what we do. That's how bad it's gotten, especially in the minds of younger editors who came of age amid writing as it's perpetrated on Facebook, LinkedIn, and the thousands of DYI blogs. We're seen in those precincts as an entirely fungible breed, and workmanship is immaterial. I know young editors who laugh uproariously at the idea of spending two days getting a paragraph right. "Are you effing kidding me ?" they'll muse. "I don't have two days to wait for you to fall in love with your words. I need content!" (Of course, to some degree this has always been true at newspapers, with their daily deadlines, but we magazine/long-form types marched to a different drummer. And the standards for publication in the likes of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal have historically been as high as any.) 

All of this naturally has a depressive effect on pay scales. If content is content, why should they pay me (or anyone) $2.50-a-word when they can get "the same thing" from some eager young content provider for one-tenth that sum or less?

Another of today's odious developments is the tendency among editors to turn everything into a service piece ("news you can use"); at minimum editors are wont to pump up any given piece's service elements or create such elements if they're not there. Editors will ask a writer, "How will our readers apply this information?" Because that is how they'll play your piece; God forbid an editor embrace the idea that readers might value something as a "great read," and let that alone be the story's raison d'etre. Quality itself has been redefined: "Good writing" is easily digestibleimmediate in its communication and obvious in its intent. All too often editors quite specifically bristle at the very things we writers used to hold dear: like, say, making the reader pause and think. Or the parsing of an idea to explore its nuance, rather than the oversimplification of every idea into "actionable" bullet points.

So there you have it: Those are the kinds of glamorous things I reflect on as I scrub the toilet.

One last story about Playboy, 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 would get impatient with me for emphasizing the vocational aspects of the writing life, i.e. the kinds of insights that might actually help students get a job after college, thus vindicating their parents' six-figure outlay for their degree. 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. 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 classroom discussion. (Yes, I brought the actual magazine to class, though 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 $8500 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. "Writing 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, 9 cents per copy. Maybe a dime.

Now I was speechless. I am quite sure that if my chairwoman received anything at all for that bit of wordsmithing, 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 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 screwing each others' brains out, are supposed to play this gender-denial game.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've argued for a while now that journalism and writing programs are guilty of a kind of fraud by taking all that money to prepare students for and PROMOTE jobs that don't exist! You can't make a decent living starting out as a writer these days. Just saw a survey the other day where some writer's professional group got in trouble for calculating that the average writer makes under $11,000 a year. Tbat includes a lot of people like yourself who have been doing it for years. Be better off taking janitorial work.