A week or so ago, eating a late breakfast with The Raven at Canters’ on Fairfax, she said she couldn’t imagine me not writing. It took me by surprise. She sees me not writing most of the time we’re together. I spend most of my waking hours not writing, and every one of my non-waking hours.
It put me in mind of Richard Dawkins’ retort to a Christian, a little. Dawkins pointed out that the Christian didn’t believe in Zeus, Ahura-Mazda, Odin, Shiva, Quetzalcoatl, in fact of all the many hundreds of gods referred to in the literature, the Christian disbelieved in all but one. As an atheist, Dawkins said, he merely disbelieved in one more god than the Christian did. I spend almost all of my time not writing: all I’d have to do is change what I did with a fraction of my day to not write at all.
It’s actually pretty damned easy for me to imagine not writing. I spent my twenties not writing. I think I wrote three or four little things during that decade, all of them prompted out of sheer unemployed boredom during a summer in which I was -literally -staying in my father’s basement. Maybe a thousand words during the entire decade, which works out to a consonant and half a vowel a day on average.
I have heard it said that the defining characteristic of a writer is that writers absolutely must write. They can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. By that metric, I am not a writer. By that metric, I am pretty much the opposite of what a writer is. Most of the time, I have to be forced to write. This post, for instance, is prompted by my desperately needing to work on something else with a looming deadline. Yes, it’s still writing, but my only alternative is doing the dishes. There have been days this week where I chose a sinkful of dishes instead.
I like writing. I’m good at it. I’ve come to realize that my writing has made a few incremental changes for good in this world: swaying people’s opinions, helping people better appreciate some neglected things.
But do I need to write? No. I have been happy with my life without writing being a part of it.
I think about this as more and more of the Old Order of writing collapses around us. There’s a lot of talk lately about the future of the book, and almost none of that talk concerns the person who creates the book. Who will triumph in the race to determine the industry standard for the piece of electronic machinery that people use to carry the book around? That’s the important question.
In the meantime, discussion of the digital rights management issue over past years has focused on music, and to a lesser extent video and the visual arts. It’s only recently that the topic of electronic duplication and dissemination of written works has become an issue deemed worthy of discussion. This despite the fact that people had been mass-copying and distributing written works electronically for many years before the mp3 was developed.
Ten years ago I made a phonecall to a local newspaper editor and landed myself a gig writing feature stories and a biweekly column. Doing so brought me a few hundred dollars in a good month. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to justify the time spent. That’s pretty much impossible these days. The bottom’s dropped out of the newspaper freelance market. There are still papers buying things from freelancers, some of them online. I’ve sold a few pieces that way. Whether I’d be able to if I was just breaking into this thing, I don’t know. It seems most people who get that kind of gig do so from the launching point of a successful blog, which it becomes increasingly hard to start. That land rush is over, and the ecological niches are full.
The mid-list publishing house is assumed to be on its way out, and the corollary of that assumption is that non-best-selling authors will have to assume responsibility for promoting their work if they want their books to sell. I don’t wish to stereotype here: there are certainly talented, artistic writers who have a knack for promotion. The Eggerses and the Lamonts will do well. But what of the Pynchons, the Salingers, the D.F. Wallaces? I think it’s safe to say, without insult to the few percent of non-hack writers who possess bullet-proof self-promotion chops, that a system in which those most adept at self-promotion are most likely to succeed will elevate hackery to the detriment of art.
Yeah, I know: what else is new? It’s been like that for decades. But the editors and publicists in the mid-list houses have made a difference, pushing books so that the writers didn’t have to as much, scheduling book tours so that the writers could complain about being on book tours. What happens when there are no more mid-list editors and publicists?
This Joshua tree book is going to be good, I think. It’ll be a miracle if sales bring me a tenth of what I’ve spent writing it. I wouldn’t complain if it made a fortune, of course. It started out as a deliberate attempt to fill a vacant spot on National Park Visitor Center Bookstore shelves, after all, a calculated bit of market research. It’s turned into a mission. I’ve had friends in my writers’ group tell me that the few chapters I’ve brought in have started them caring about the Joshua tree, prompted an interest in desert wildlife. That’s worth the time and money I’ve spent. I suspect those of my readers who donated to the progress of the book might feel the same way.
But once the Joshua tree book is done, I have to say I doubt I will have it in me to do another project of that magnitude unless it creates income instead of outgo.
I’m not a self-promoter. (Buy my Zeke book anyway, please.) That fact may consign me to penury if I keep writing as a primary avocation. I’m not claiming to be unique in that regard. Writing is notoriously an underpaid gig. Current industry trends making it harder for writers to support themselves by writing just make an already unpleasant situation worse.
The one consistent answer I’ve seen to all this, the doom and gloom forecasts about writing’s financial future, has been that trope about writers having to write. The usual application of this trope can be pretty much summed up as “yeah, but it’s not like you’ll stop writing, so it doesn’t really matter to me whether you get paid or not.”
It may be that I’m an aberration among writers in my only doing so because I want to. It may be that not all writers could, as I conceivably could, put away the keyboard for a trowel and shovel. Maybe all writers other than me couldn’t stop writing to save their lives.
But if you’re one of those people who assumes that means it doesn’t matter whether we get paid and that you’ll still have plenty to read, I have a question for you.
What makes you think that once we write that text we “simply have to write because we’re writers,” that we’ll be compelled to put it somewhere where you can read it?