Friday, May 01, 2009

My maternal grandfather was a tailor. It was a craft with a long history-- in some ways, as old as civilization. My grandfather worked in a tailor shop in Pittsburgh and then in Greensburg, near the train station and the town's major hotels. But for most of his life after his children were born, he had his own tailor shop on Depot Street in Youngwood, an even smaller railroad town. I visited him there many times as a child (though I usually wound up going to the barber shop next door to read comic books,) but I'm not sure of all that he did. I know he made men's suits to order, and he did alterations. He had a sewing machine and a big steam presser I remember.
Being a tailor was an honorable craft in the Italian village he came from, and in America. He had to read and write well, keep account books and do billing, and he had to interact with customers who weren't all Italian immigrants and their children. Though there was talk about closing the shop as he got older, it was still a going concern when he died in 1966, at age 73.

But independent tailor shops were getting to be few and far between by 1966. A close friend of his who came with him to America, a little younger and also a tailor, spent his last working years altering men's ready-made suits in a department store at the mall. By now, tailoring as my grandfather knew it is a phantom occupation. Nobody where I grew up becomes a tailor now. [This sequence continues below...]

When I was growing up in the 1950s, my father sold and repaired sewing machines for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. That logo was on the side of the gray panel truck he drove. For about a century, women used sewing machines at home to make and alter clothes for themselves and their families. Presumably that meant people made a living selling and repairing sewing machines for at least a century.

My father worked out of the Singer Store in the prime retail area of South Main Street in our town of Greensburg, PA. He became an assistant manager there, then manager for smaller stores in the area before becoming the Greensburg manager. He was the first manager at the new store when it relocated to Greengate Mall. But the store didn't last long. By the mid 60s, home sewing machine sales were falling. All the Singer stores soon closed. They had also begun selling vacuum cleaners in the 50s, and later my father got into that business, becoming the factory rep for Hoover, until he retired.

His father had been a coal miner until he contracted Black Lung and retired on disability. He had two younger brothers: one a truck driver, the other worked in a factory in the 50s and 60s. A man's job was supposed to support his family, and thanks to union contracts, many factory jobs did. My father's income was usually near the margin. He was paid a salary but he depended on commissions on the sewing machines and so on he sold. We had a new house in a new neighborhood, but supporting that and three kids was a struggle. Before I was in high school my mother had to get a job. She eventually worked her way up to be a hospital administrator, and judging from the people who worked for her, a good one.

So selling and repairing sewing machines was apparently not a great living. But at least it wasn't coal mining. Now it's a job that almost nobody has anymore. Nobody drives a panel truck with that big red S on the side. My father's occupation disappeared before he was 50. Everything he had learned about sewing machines was pretty useless.

Tools of my trade over the years...
So I've worked at the writer's trade. Writing has been what I've done for income, in one form or another, as well as what I've mostly done, for one medium or another. Apart from my book, I've published in major newspapers and national magazines, and even some international ones. My writing for clients included some big projects. My resume looks pretty impressive.

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]
More tools of my trade, among the oldest, and for me they will likely be the last to go...
Here's his main point: "But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go. But anyone hailing from more hardscrabble environs may find it too difficult to get traction before succumbing to the dismal economics of it all."

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.