“Are you still writing?”

Homework Session
Homework Session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They always ask this with a little chirpy voice. Like…really?

They’re usually people with office jobs and big paychecks and paid sick days. People who line up every morning to catch the bus or train or subway and some of whom pray for reprieve from the vocational choice they’ve made.

Writing for a living looks so damn easy. No stress! No boss! No demands or deadlines!

Anyone can do it, right?

I thought I was alone in hearing this annoying question after spending my entire life as a journalist and author.

But Roger Rosenblatt, a much bigger name than I here in the U.S., gets it too, as he writes in The New York Times Book Review:

And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

Everyone wants to be a writer — it looks like so much fun! Sit around the house in your pajamas all day waiting for inspiration. Sign me up!

Even the plumber who recently came to my apartment, and socked me with a $225.00 bill for fixing our only toilet, said “Oh, when I retire I want to be a writer.”

“You don’t,” I warned him, wincing as I wrote the check. “Most of us don’t make a lot of money.”

“Oh, I just want to be a successful writer,” he replied. “You know, like John Grisham.” (Who last year raked in a cool $18 million.)

Those of us who’ve been cranking out journalism or book-focused copy for a few decades, even with some nice reviews, (my first book was called [swoon!] “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential publication), know it’s a risky way to make a living. Because your “living” can vary from $4,000 a day to $4,000 a year.

Last year I made more money from public speaking engagements and a TV option from CBS for my memoir, “Malled” than I did from the book itself. It cost me 10 percent of the option income to have an entertainment attorney review the inch-thick contract with CBS negotiated by two agents — now taking 20 percent of the option cash for their input.

I waited 12 months after publication for the final instalment of my advance, which, after my agent took her standard 15 percent cut, came to $8,500. That’s a year’s income, or more, in sub-Saharan Africa. In suburban New York, (with no kids to support), that lasts quite a bit less.

Here’s a great list from Forbes.com, and fellow journo/blogger Jeff Bercovici, why journalism still kicks ass as a way to make a living. Because it just does.

(Here’s a brilliant blog post with a visual of how “success” appears to different people, including writers.)

So, why do so many people long to be writers?

People want to be rich. If writing doesn’t make you rich (and it certainly can for those who hit and stay on the best-seller list and/or sell their work to film or television), then why the hell are you bothering?

People want to be famous. If your book is on a shelf in a store, you’re the bomb! (So is weed-killer and diapers, but hey, retail exposure is cool, right?)

People want to be on TV/radio/blogs. They crave global attention. Because then life will be so different. (Not!)

People want to feel cool and creative. As opposed to cube life with 10 days of vacation.

People want to have other people quote them as wise and witty experts. Not just their Mom.

People want to feel validated as having something compelling to say, with millions eager to listen to them. Not just their Mom.

So, having published two non-fiction books (so far), is any of this true? Does it happen?

Sort of. I’ve met a few people who knew my name before I walked into the room. That can be pleasant.

I write because it’s how I make sense of the world.

I write because it stitches me back into the crazy quilt of other people’s ideas and feelings.

I write because my skill and talent and hard work, even working freelance for most of my life, have still allowed me to earn and save more than the average American with a steady paycheck.

I write because it allows me to indulge my insatiable curiosity about the world and get paid to do so.

I write because it has allowed me to meet everyone from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes to a female admiral to the Inuk man who greeted me on a snowmobile when our tiny plane landed in his village just south of the Arctic circle.

I write because…

I’m a writer.

Why do you write?

Gerald Posner's Plagiarism Apology — And Why It Doesn't Work

Gerald Posner, a writer I haven’t read and don’t know personally, has resigned from his spot at The Daily Beast for plagiarism. Part of his explanation:

Readers of my writing over 26 years, 11 books and over a hundred articles, have the right to trust that I have personally vetted and corroborated the facts I present, and that I can vouch for them. Plagiarism is insidious because it rightfully violates that trust. Just the mere use of the word raises the idea that the accused journalist has broken one of the cardinal rules of writing and is somehow cutting corners on research, facts, or original reporting.

Since June 1, when I accepted the full time staff position, I have published 72 articles (8 were published freelance before accepting the full-time reporter’s job). That averages about 2 articles a week. They all required intensive reporting, and the subjects ranged from the Michael Jackson death probe, CIA morale, Teddy Kennedy’s fortune, whether there was a John Doe 2 in the Murrah bombing, exclusive interviews with Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers, Roman Polanski, probes into domestic and international terror, and the Tiger Woods story, among many others. At least a dozen stories that I spent time researching did not pan out, and never got published.

I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I’m not buying it. As a writer of his vintage, who has written hundreds of articles, likely more than a thousand by now, and only 1.5 books (the second is in progress), I know he knows the rules of the game.

What he’s not telling us, nor does he need to although it might better explain his need for speed, is the payment method that dragged him into this mess. Why was he working so quickly and cranking out so much copy? Because his editor(s) asked him to? Because only then would he make more/enough income from his Beast material? Because that’s what his competitors do?

Every ambitious writer who works in the game of intellectual piecework known as freelance journalism faces growing economic pressure.

Very few  — either because they’re making $8,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 per story can thereby earn $100,000+, which — after 11 books and 26 years’ experience — would barely match what a staffer of that level is making at a decent magazine or newspaper job. Pay rates in journalism are risible. Many major magazines have reduced their freelance pay rates in the past two years and also reduced the number of stories they are assigning. In addition, very few want a story of 3,500 words at $2/word (i.e. a $7,000 check) or $3/word (generally considered a high rate).  When you are paid (as we are) by the word, your income is going down, not up.

Pay rates haven’t budged in 30 years — a payment of $700 or $1,000 or $1,500 is not unusual for those writing even for prestigious outlets like The New York Times, for whom I’ve written since 1990. Do the math. Unless you have a steady gig, or make $3/word+ every time you turn on your computer, it takes an insane amount of production to scrape together a middle-class income, or more.

The pressure to keep up, both intellectually and financially, is enormous.

But…blaming this issue on the acceleration from the slow lane of writing a book to the express lane of blogging doesn’t work for me as a reason. I’m doing it, and others are as well. Every day I’m swerving between those lanes — blogging here and writing a non-fiction book on deadline. Last night I wrote a blog post and spent two hours on my book.

They are totally different creatures. They do require quite disparate ways of thinking, writing and connecting with your audience.

Frankly, and maybe it shows — there are only so many hours in a day — my book will take precedence until the final manuscript is accepted. It is tougher and tougher to get a major publisher to commit to a book, so it’s not something you can or should, take lightly.

I’ll blog here as often as I can intelligently. The pressure, now, for writers to grow their digital “brand” is also enormous and not one we can afford to ignore. But the revenues aren’t there. Books generally don’t pay well either, (maybe for writers of Posner’s stature), but using the excuse of shifting from one slower writing style to another faster one, arguably for some voracious, insatiable audience dodges other issues.

Maybe Posner, like many of us, simply placed inordinate pressure on himself to produce a lot of copy. Two stories a week, of the sort he describes, is a lot of work when thoughtfully reported and well-written. Why two? Why not one? Blaming the “warp speed of the net” clouds the issue.

It’s the warp speed of trying to keep up, to keep up your standards while keeping up.

Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices.

Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? Fall out of the elite slipstream?

Which is worse?

At Least No One Can Fire Me

Forbes Building on Fifth Avenue in New York City
A little emptier than last week/ via Wikipedia

The media massacres continue.

The latest bloodbath is at Forbes, where 100 people are said to be let go.

Earlier this month, Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet and three others; in April, they closed down Portfolio.

Freelancers, some of whom lost staff jobs years ago, watch this parade of pink slips with mixed emotions. For some of us, it’s lost income writing for those magazines. Staffers might be personal friends or former colleagues we care about. And, selfishly, many of them will now be competing for freelance work with us as well. One editor snapped at a colleague of mine recently seeking freelance assignments: “I know many editors who are now out of work!” The line for paid assignments lengthens as the list of available gigs shortens.

The only good news, from the living-room-based desk of this self-employed writer — it’s still mine.