Book Notes: Scratching out a living
Feb 15, 2017 10:34 AM -
"Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living" Edited by Manjula Martin, founder of Scratch magazine. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2017. $16. Coal miners. Fishermen. Factory workers. Lumberjacks. These are among the professions that will, most likely, continue to recede from the front lines of our labor force. Add writers to that list. Yes, of course, they're still at it. But when and if they do get paid, it's usually at some small fraction of the product's value. And because they're not dealing in a scarce or potentially harmful resource like cod or coal, respectively, their struggles aren't as noisy. And they just keep pivoting. You don't have to know anything about publishing to get hooked by Manjula Martin's compilation of essays written by journalists, essayists, novelists and agents titled "Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living." For one thing, their problems are like your problems. The 99 percent aren't earning what they should. Their labors -- the blood, sweat and tears they put into their efforts -- are increasingly devalued. Second, because the people presenting these personal essays about work are writers, they turn their troubles into affecting, funny and rousing stories you can gobble like Hershey kisses. Note -- there will be heartburn to pay, at least for the compassionate reader. Martin organized her book into sections to give a feel for what writers experience at different stages of their careers, from Cheryl Strayed, the author of the bestselling memoir, "Wild," explaining the sad realities of a first big book advance to Jonathan Franzen's impassioned critique of the Internet that now figures so prominently in the circumstances of a writer's impoverished lifestyle. We read about the ghostwriter, Sari Bottom, in "Ghost Stories," whose client, a multimillionaire founder of a major cosmetics company, lies to her about all the research he'd done in advance. She signs the contract with the assurance that the work will take just a couple of months. "The job seems like it will never end," writes Bottom. "It ends up taking nine months, monopolizing my life, and leaving me nearly broke." She doesn't even get the deep discount on cosmetics he'd promised because he sells the business. The trend seems to be that the wealthier the client, the less they want to pay, she writes. Novelist Jennifer Weiner, whose father walked out on her family and left them prey to hostile bill collectors, makes up her mind to make money. And she does earn a living as a writer, but without the comfort of critical approval. It takes time and effort for her to move beyond "worthless" in a career where public dismissal by critics keys into old wounds. And Martin herself asserts that whatever a writer does to make money is, in fact, the "Writing Life." "Today I make a living from a mix of freelance writing, copywriting and copyediting, and consulting work. I live paycheck to irregular paycheck, but I never go hungry. Do I have a day job? Honestly, I'm not sure. I do know that I work all the time. Sometimes with a capital W, sometimes without." Colin Dickey writes, in "The Mercenary Muse," that once he learned that Charles Dickens was paid by the word, that "once we'd been introduced to the economy of writing, everything was tainted." He tracks the history of writing for money, back to the Greek poet Simonides who "put money above all else." Aristophanes describes him as one who would "put to sea upon a sieve for money." Poets are not known to be earners of money, even today, and Simonides became "a stock figure for greed." Jonathan Franzen is outspoken about "the Internet's accelerating pauperization of freelance writers." He says, "I think the tech corporations are like the 19th-century coal magnates, and the freelance writers are like the people slaving in the mines, the only difference being that the tech corporations can't stop congratulating themselves on how they've liberated everybody … Why should Apple shareholders be getting rich while working journalists are getting fired?" Many writers who contributed to this book expected to make money as writers and, because they know they're smart and talented and well-trained, they expected to publish. They write about teachers, like Annie Dillard, who counseled students on ways to make money through writing, and they write about the books they write that wind up in a drawer because they weren't good enough. The proverbial "day job" -- the balancing act -- is both honored and bemoaned here. The art of making a living is always evolving, writes Martin. "What the authors in 'Scratch' have in common is that they are creative professionals navigating and expanding the relationship between art and commerce every day." In other words, they pivot. And pivot. And pivot. -- Rae Francoeur is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached at email@example.com.