People keep asking me if I’m writing anything currently, and I keep saying no. I get the impression that I am expected to keep writing even when no one is either reading what I’ve written or paying me to write it. There is a tacit expectation that writing, which is pretty exhausting work once you actually know what you’re doing, is something a true writer can’t help but do.
I used to get paid to write, which is to say to rewrite, rewrite and rewrite until a small group of experts, including myself, were satisfied that a piece worked. A lot of people did this. We weren’t paid terribly well, but one or two dollars a word was money, and money is an acknowledgement of value in most places. In memory of those days, I’m going to be posting some of the things I got paid to write on my archive site.
But gradually, after the Triumph of The Internet, free content became so plentiful that compensation for freelance articles, posts—all the short forms I used to favor—dwindled below a sustainable level. Last I looked, The New York Times’ “T Magazine,” for example, was paying $50 for a blog post of 200-500 words or so—a 90% pay cut. Facebook, a company whose market cap is in the hundreds of billions, peddles to its advertisers a content matrix made up of mini-essays, photo collections, personal mementos, etc., generated for zero…zero…cost by its ill-used “users.”
And it isn’t just a question of the money paid the writer. Even when paid to write in our current era, a writer can’t count on getting any of the editorial services that publishers used to automatically provide. Friends who write books report that they are expected to hire their own editors out-of-pocket. Increasingly a writer is expected to fill the role of fact checker, copy editor, and even photographer. All but a few are expected to hold another job.
I grew up in an era when books were valued possessions, but now, when I want to thin out my shelves, I have to give them away, and that to libraries that truck half of them to the dump.
Some changes are hard for certain people, and the writing biz changes have been hard for me. I see many who grew up privileged to be white and male getting passionately angry about seeing those privileges challenged by women and minorities. These disgruntled guys see the world that loved them fading away, replaced by an indifference, even an antipathy, that feels to them like an insult. People whose god used to provide stability and a sense of order, are furious at those whose sense of personal liberty and evidence-based mythologies challenge older deities. I feel for such people, even though they come down on different sides of most political issues than I do. The fate of writing as a profession in 2016 inspires in me a similar kind of twisted anger.
In a spirit not comfortably enough far from “you can’t fire me; I quit!” I sort of went on strike. It happened after I tried to speed up my output, having been told that doing so was key to building enough of a fan base to get paid. In rushing to publish I got sloppy, leaving me open to a troll-like attack against which the online organ for which I was writing offered no support.
People on the left and the right whose idea of fighting income inequality has been channeled into a desire to sabotage free trade sadden me, because I am pretty sure that their strategy, if implemented, will harm them more than help them. And in mulling over their anger and their reactions, I’ve become sad about my own personal labor strike.
Not writing is not going to change the situation. Writing probably can’t, either. But it makes some sense to grope around for an approach to literacy that works for me and for the moment. So I might write a little something here from time to time by way of exploration.
I don’t feel compelled to write, and I don’t always like to. But I know enough about the process to hope that, if I persist, it might lead me someplace worthwhile.
So I’m not writing to tell you something you don’t know the way I used to do. I’m doing it to try to figure something out, specifically: is there any reason to write? Can I live with doing it for nothing if it is feeding me? And is it?