Friday, May 01, 2009
People have been writing professionally for a very long time. There were patrons--kings, churches, etc.--and there were little writing jobs ( as a girl or a young woman, my maternal grandmother got paid to read and write letters for other girls in her village who weren't literate.) Getting paid through publications has been a primary source of writer income for a few centuries.
Now they say this job is also becoming obsolete. Although newspaper reporters often will insist they are not really "writers," they are just about the only people who write who have steady jobs, with union benefits. But now newspapers are dying one by one, and companies with multiple newspapers in many places are teetering.
The magazine business is also endangered, and so is book publication. Within publications, particular fields are fading or gone. There are few theatre critics left, and partly as a reflection of the declining book business, book reviewing and book reviews are disappearing.Except for a very very few, writing in my lifetime has not been all that lucrative. Freelance rates were arguably seldom if ever at the level that they were in the 1920s, say, inflation adjusted. (In fact, sometimes they were identical, inflation not adjusted.) But the current crunch began contracting my income sources several years ago. My magazine markets having dried up, I began freelancing for newspapers. In one year, I had pieces in five separate sections of the San Francisco Chronicle. The next year most of the paper stopped assigning freelance pieces completely, and the others bought fewer. The Book Review was the last, when my editor was replaced, and then that editor was also replaced within a month or so. Now the future of the section and of the newspaper itself is in doubt.
I wrote my first piece in years for the New York Times, which the editor loved and we began discussing future assignments, when the order came down at that paper to stop all freelance assignments in the arts section.
Some of the changes for me are to be expected at my age--I'm not the demographic for subjects I used to write about, and frankly they don't interest me anymore. But I saw this article recently by a young writer, about even younger writers. It's called "Is writing for the rich?" [continued below]
Now it's kind of been that way in the arts, including dramatic and literary writing, since at least the 1980s, when I researched an article on the subject. But he's talking about the world of the Internet, where self-publishing through blogs means that lots of people are writing for free, and just about everybody is reading for free, too. Very, very few people are getting paid to write on the Internet, and almost nobody is making a living at it.
To some extent, there's still the phenomenon of one door closing and another opens (though it's at least as likely that, rather than more noble or useful, the place it leads to is more degrading.) But things can only contract so far before they functionally disappear, like tailor shops. Without getting into the complexities of all this, the general tenor of things seems to be saying to me that my trade, like that of my father and grandfather, is becoming obsolete.
It's not the activities themselves that are obsolete or without value. Sewing, tailoring, making clothes are crafts requiring skill and they make valuable products. But for a long time they were paying occupations for many people, and now they aren't. Apart from sweatshops, they are more like hobbies (and as such may end up generating income. The current knitting craze has generated web sites, online companies, podcasts, books and book reviews, etc.)
The activity of writing continues, even if for small (very small) audiences or just self-expression, which might define it as a kind of hobby. When I started blogging, it was partly out of frustration with the barriers to publication, let alone payment. I spent way too much time writing book proposals instead of writing books, as well as plays never produced, and songs that voices never shared. So I chose to write for free, just to make something that was public.
But I'm also still writing for income, and will probably always need to. The truth is I never made what could reasonably be called a living at it, but I never felt it was obsolete, or that I was. At this point I wonder if it even matters. The income is largely to finance more writing, that doesn't generate income, or at least not yet.
Back when my grandfather had a tailor shop and my father worked for Singer Company, how I was going to make a living by writing was a mystery to my family, as it was to me. I didn't have a clue. That was a class thing partly, and apparently it remains partly a class thing.
In those "writing career" terms, I've made some wrong-headed mistakes and bad guesses. I've followed my intuitions to some successes, too, when others thought I was nuts. At times I've let self-indulgence and self-pity, ego and romantic delusions misguide me. Still, that's no more than half the equation. The rest is outside me--the context, the circumstances, the times, the places, the forces, the people, who decided what I was good enough to be given to do, or allowed to do. And what its value then was.
While in large measure other people and larger forces have defined my life, I keep trying not to let them define me. Which is another way of saying that as long as I am writing--in notebooks, on legal pads, on typewriters and computers and in the sands of time, scribble, scribble to the deluded end--I am.