“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, September 16, 2003


Ledger of a writer.

What a fabulous month. At the beginning of the month, I was informed by two New York papers for whom I had written reviews that appeared in the first week of August, who had me write them to deadlines by mid July, that they wouldn't be paying me until the last week of September. Now a friend, who offered me money to do some research for her, has pretty much told me that she is sending me a check -- through the post office of the country that she lives in -- that will reach me by the end of October, or November, or December. I made a grandiose gesture, and told her to forget it. But it really isn't that grandiose: who knows what address I will have when the wayward check hits my box? The torment of waiting for it overshadows the amount itself. I have offered to pay (with an I.O.U.) for her not to send the check.

So: zero dollars has landed in my account, and I made zero in August. I am facing a bills of about 550 dollars. Oh, and that money they take at the store when you try to buy bread. And the month is half over. This is only the icing on this comedy. There is also the pathetic twenty to thirty jobs I have applied for, with a cover letter that has increased in specificity of what I'd do even as I know that all of that servility is being wasted on the indifference of a waste basket. No: I did get the stray post card, one from the Bar Association of Austin, the other from some legal firm, both informing me that my application was under consideration. Well, of course the only consideration it was really getting was by the guy at the dump, directing the garbage truck it was in to this or that site. If Walt Whitman embodied America, LI is embodying the cursed part of Bush's America, the non-dividended, the luckless, the unskilled and the doomed. We have contemplated, with teeth grinding envy, those who are wheeled about in wheel chairs; those who enter or exit prison; those from broken families -- in fact all who call down upon them, for one reason or another, the intervention of one of the thousand points of light. But the truth is, LI doesn't even know how to steal. That just isn't going to happen. So we went to the grocery store and used the credit portion of the debit card, knowing that there was no money there. Why should there be? But we don't intend to starve to death quite yet.

It's good to record this, in spite of my friend D.'s protests whenever I write one of my lamentations. There is a value to waving your fist in the face of an absent deity -- or the all too present spirits that haunt this economy. I wander through this landscape with all the contemporary marks of Cain -- the inability not to appear sweaty (the mark of the pedestrian); in the clothes I have worn out from five to ten years of use, and can't afford to replace (the mark of the ragpicker); with my decaying teeth (the mark of the Lombrosian idiot); and of course the pathetic inability to disguise my age -- 46 -- and my evident criminal record -- I have been a freelance writer, for God's sakes (the mark of the turd).

Solomon, in Proverbs, claims the dog returns to his vomit -- which, if true, indicates that I do not bear, at least, the mark of the dog. If, oh glorious if, I can snag a counter postion, a sales position (outside), a research position (do you have allergies? are you alcoholic? are you a diabetic man between the ages of 25 -39?), a general labor position (no drunks need apply), I will not return, I will never return, to the torments of being a "freelancer" -- and if you see my byline in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle again, may my tongue be torn out! and all that jazz. Seriously, I think I have really witnessed the end of a certain cultural pattern in America. Ginsberg thought he had seen the best minds in his generation go mad. LI doesn't have a generation. If I had one, I would piss on it with all my might.

I was going to write -- call me Ishmael. As if I, too, had witnessed a great wreck. But this is a small and private wreck. My life keeps reminding me of Titular Counselor Marmelodov's, in Crime and Punishment. Here is how my precursor introduced himself to Raskolnikov:

"Honoured sir," he began almost with solemnity, "poverty is not a vice, that's a true saying. Yet I know too that drunkenness is not a virtue, and that that's even truer. But beggary, honoured sir, beggary is a vice. In poverty you may still retain your innate nobility of soul, but in beggary--never--no one. For beggary a man is not chased out of human society with a stick, he is swept out with a broom, so as to make it as humiliating as possible; and quite right, too, forasmuch as in beggary I am ready to be the first to humiliate myself. Hence the pot-house! Honoured sir, a month ago Mr. Lebeziatnikov gave my wife a beating, and my wife is a very different matter from me!

Do you understand? Allow me to ask you another question out of simple curiosity: have you ever spent a night on a hay barge, on the Neva?"

A question which, lately, I have to physically hold myself back from asking random strangers.

Addendum: I have idly been figuring out the economic consequences of my disastrous decision, in 1999, to become a full time writer. Using as a base my last full time job, I'd estimate I've lost about 30, 000 dollars over the last four years. But the dollar loss is just the tip of the iceberg. From 98 to about the middle of 2000, I wrote for about ten publications. On average, the job would schedule like this: a deadline for the piece would be set, I'd meet it, it would be published one or two weeks afterwards, and three weeks later I would be paid. Maybe 25 percent of the time, I'd be paid late. A small, lefty magazine like In These Times, for instance, would try to stretch a payment out for four months. A newspaper like the Wall Street Journal would usually stretch the deadline to publication date, but would otherwise be timely.

After mid 2000, I wrote for maybe 10 other publications. Many of the publications in the 99-2000 period went under. After 9/11, a clear pattern emerged. Deadlines would spread apart from publication dates by almost a week more than the previous average. And even generous payers -- National Post -- would 'accidentally" lose my invoice about 40 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the float -- the three weeks after publication date before I would be paid -- turned into a five week float.

So, here's the picture. Just to stay current with what he made in 2000, a freelancer would have to have almost twice the client base. And even then, given the raised percentage of 'lost" invoices, and the extra week added to the payment schedule, it is unclear that he would be able to forecast his income for a month. That is, although bill schedules remained steady -- rent, phone, electricity, etc. -- payment varied so widely that there was no guarantee, at any time during the last two years, that those payments could be met.

I imagine the same thing happened to blacksmiths and saddlemakers when the horse was replaced by the car. The written culture exploded during the Internet bubble -- writers were all over the place, with more outlets than ever -- but it was the fever before the death. To be an indenpendent writer now, you must have at least $50,000 you can fall back on. You must be able to fall back on it for at least five years. And at the end of that time, if you have not placed in some major market -- say, the NYT - you should definitely pack it in. Even if you have, you will be poorer than anybody you know with your level of education. But if you haven't, you will be radically poor -- third world poor. I myself can't, at the present time, respond to certain want ads in the paper. Why? Because to pay the two dollars in bus fare is beyond me. This might be a temporary condition -- who knows, tomorrow a place that has owed me money for three months, really, might actually pay me -- but it is a chronic condition.

I smile, nowadays, when I see those popular directories, Writers Publishing Guide 2003 or whatever. They list magazines and newspapers with little dollar signs next to them to signify that they pay. But one question they never ask is: when do they pay? It doesn't really matter anymore if it is Dow Jones or Times Mirror -- they will probably pay late at least forty percent of the time. One time in three they will pay radically late -- like months late.
The upshot is: writing has become like polo. It is a sport for the idle rich.

Writer beware!

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