Seeking paying writing opportunities in the world of professional writing is like bidding at an auction in which the auctioneers charge first an entry fee (education) and a service fee (unpaid or low-paying internships), and then only accept offers from bidders they recognize, regardless of the presence of better, or just plain other, bids. And that’s before you tally up the other fees and the externalities, like student loans and living in expensive cities where so much media is based, which already has many striving bidders severely in the red.
He describes—to use my words, not his—the weird ways editors jerk around the prospective author. (He tempers it with sympathy toward the editor’s own position.)
Oddly, I came closest to having Salon accept a piece—back in 2008 I reckon—when I was making my last-ditch effort to earn some few sheckels via the creation of “hack work” (as I saw it). The piece which I proposed met with approval; but another piece similar was waiting in the wings, so mine was declined, and within a couple of months I read the article which bore (in my view) significant similarity to mine. There was no question of plagiarism, I might add: with the economy in the process of tanking, similar situations were cropping up in diverse quarters and people were writing about them.
Further pieces were proposed, ideas shot off not only to Salon’s but other editors—none of whom I had a relationship with. Cold-calling met generally with lack of response; or possibly enthusiasm followed by silence. Pieces were sent off as though into a black hole of oblivion.
Having been a poet this was nothing news to me.
Still, having set myself a goal, I continued to write pieces—editors be damned—which grew to be more and more for the satisfaction of my own personal liking: “You can’t please everyone but you’ve got to please yourself.” In the back of my mind I thought I would compile them in book form under the title of Hack Work, and I did so. It used to be my rule of thumb, when I finished a book (or a play), to send it off to at least one publisher (or theater company) just as a means of asserting to myself that I had accomplished something. Wholesale submission to scores and scores of venues was something I gave up on relatively early in the game; and even targeted submissions, with a narrower focus, proved a fallow field—for reasons I care not to speculate upon.
It is something of a goal of mine to salvage my prose pieces from wherever they lie scattered. (Some exist on floppy disks which I cannot find; and the PC which remains capable of reading them—those that have not deteriorated—may itself soon reach its obsolescence.) The logistics involved may prove insurmountable, as I have lost my tolerance for scanning multitudes of pages and then correcting the OCR.
Actually, my very first book of prose, Notes on the Cultivation of a Harem, probably an immature work to be looked upon only as a joking bit of satire now, was typed on a Smith Corona word processor that had its own special type of mini-floppy: I had borrowed the machine from a neighbor when my typewriter went on the fritz. Barely reaching book-length, or not, I filled out the page count with an appendix of some poems, the tenor of which was in keeping with the essay.
Next—around the time I decided to teach myself prose—I assembled a collection titled Prose Pieces. Not very imaginative that; but it contained essays of (for the time) new minting as well as older things I had done sporadically, on a whim or for special occasion. To round it out I added a couple of promotional interviews I had done for my Non Fit Press books Against Holy War and The Soul’s Refinement. The former is here with my posted essays; the latter has not seemed worth the trouble to resurrect for the purposes of this website. Lastly a theater or dance scene I had done in prose was included.
Lately, with several of the newer essays posted here (some of which also were taken by online journals), plus what I might be able to cull from the blog, and the long essay I keep asserting I want to write (but keep failing to follow through on), I felt I might have sufficient material for yet another book of prose writing, what I would take to be my final one. I have even patched together an introduction for the volume; but without that last piece forthcoming the project remains at a standstill.
Sometime after I had finished my connoodling (brief though it was) with Salon, there appeared a series of articles by Scott Timberg about “Art in Crisis.” How the so-called “creative class” was finding it harder and harder to earn a living at what they did—driven in part by the public’s demand for free content (aggregated or no). This interview with Jaron Lanier occurred subsequent to the period of time I describe; but he has suggested creative and viable solutions to some of these common problems—if not likely to be implemented without a sea change, because there is much profit to be made by advertisers and their ilk, while “creative sorts” are increasingly willing to work for reduced rates, or gratis, for “exposure.”
Yesterday I wrote briefly about a woman who appears—to a degree slightly more tinged of desperation than Kearse quoted above—debasing herself by reducing herself to beggar status in the hope for some rescue. She entirely has my empathy. As one who has grown “long in tooth” fretting about the PoBiz —albeit from the most extenuated of outskirts—I have long since ceased to harbor many of the illusions about the prospects of the pen breaking new fields for me in the manner of a plow, whereby harvestable produce might be sown.
Poets have always known what the lay was; writers of another ilk (or any other ilk) perhaps have had to face a rude awakening. Clearly it is unjust; though the robbing of fruits of labor is not a new topic. Many of us, like Kearse—however against objective evidence before our own eyes—hoped somehow to be the exception to the rule, the unique individual that was able, against the odds, to assemble a “patchwork utopia” of revenue-generating means somehow from the products of his pen. Such individuals do exist—albeit ever so rarely.
Today, the silver lining, is that, if patronage comes not so readily available as it did to writers of Claude McKay’s generation, at least one is spared the debasement of groveling before one’s benefactor (and sniping behind their back—as seems to have been the universal trait of that era). The alternatives are limited. Hack work, which pays less and less, is anathema to the artist; or, figuring out what kind of degenerative income-streams may be tapped (perhaps in the academia) by enacting a universal and self-stroking con, as I have written about, likewise obliterates any possibility of finding—to use Marianne Moore’s words— “a place for the genuine.”
At the time of the Timberg pieces, I noticed a commenter at Salon who used the handle “Neutron”: his repeated assertion, was that there was no one, in America, who got paid for writing. At its baldest I think he was correct. Why so many of us have been duped into believing otherwise remains a question. Much has been written about that also; but mostly, I think, we prefer to live in hope—lest our lack of options truly drives us frantic. We dupe ourselves.
A commenter on the Stephen Kearse article suggested, “I think the auction-house situation you've described is applicable to nearly everything that qualifies as a ‘profession,’ these days. Writing is not necessarily separate from all of that.” Also correct, this points to inequities well beyond the field of writing, certainly beyond that of “creative writing.” Kearse writes intelligently about an untenable situation: to have such voices in the public sphere benefits all of society. Driven by debt, however—the main focus of his argument—no one can be faulted if they affirm his conclusion: “I can’t wager my future on the arbitrary machinations of an industry that doesn’t value my time or what I can produce.”
As Kearse has written under a different context, “[I]f the world is indeed ‘under new management’” (quoting the rapper Jay Z) “I think we need to adjust how we work. If we continue to use the same familiar techniques and routines when the world is changing around us, our ability to solve problems is diminished.” The artist, “creative” individual, or even prophet, must envision new solutions to reflect changed circumstances. To paraphrase something attributed to John Maynard Keynes (in slightly altered form), “When the facts change, we must change our modalities.” If the old hopes prove inadequate to present day modes of management and production, then we must devise new ones.