Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Working Writer

Somewhere in my distant memory I recall reading an interview with John Updike in which he noted that, as a child of the Depression, he rarely turned down a job.  And for Updike, that meant a writing job.  He went on to say that his peculiar work ethic also precluded that he would write for small sums of money, and that he felt guilty if he turned down a writing opportunity, even if it paid little.  His compulsion was to write in order to earn a living . . . and he eked out his existence early, making enough for grocery and oil changes and a small mortgage payment, but little else.  This was early 1960's.

I've never come anywhere close to making a living as a writer, but I do know what Updike was talking about.  I have always shared this guilt of turning down writing jobs--and so I rarely do.  I will write most anything as long as someone is willing to shoot a check in the mail . . . and, in fact, a larger portion of what I write ends up being pro bono. In essence I write for nothing

There are times, however, when the writing offers some unexpected rewards . . . as when I noted a woman in Starbucks the other day reading one of my books.  I didn't say anything . . . although there was a part of me that wanted to walk over and say, "Hey, lady . . . do you want me to sign your book?"

I just smiled.  And I probably didn't even do that.  I sat and sipped.

But a working writer doesn't have speaking engagements and book signings and guest appearances on high-profile talk shows.  A working writer doesn't make money from having others ghost write a book or from being on the speakers circuit.  A working writer is a stud who cranks out material every stinking day--barrels of it--and doesn't sleep until he writes his assigned pages.  His remuneration is minuscule . . . barely enough to buy a ham sandwich, and he is paid approximately one red penny a page.  Someday, he hopes to make a nickel.

A well-meaning fellow once asked me at a book signing:  "What do you do with all of your money?"  (Supposing that all writers make money.)

I told him I give most of it away, and the rest I keep to buy toner cartridge and paper for the printer.  "And sometimes," I added, "I take some of my windfall and have an Arby's night."  He flinched, scowled, and strutted away in search of a wealthy writer.

He'll never find one in Indiana.


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