Don't Write for Readers, Write for Grants (June 2005)
Civil War authority and author Shelby Foote, who just passed on at age 88, wrote all his works in longhand and then typed up the day's output later in the day. This appears to be double work but I reckon he edited the morning's work while typing. As the cliche says, "writing is re-writing," and this process enabled a quick re-write.
Contrast this work ethic with the current state of creative affairs, in which savvy writers don't bother risking their own time or sweat--they just write a grant and thus get paid "upfront." Gosh, I wish I was this smart; but alas, I turn a dark green shade of envy at this brilliance. I just read about a creative type--you know, performance artist, filmmaker, writer, you name it, the kind who brags about never holding a "real job" since the age of 23--who just secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation so generous that it funded her move (she bought a house, of course) to Los Angeles. The "job": churn out a film script--yeah, the same job tens of thousands of other dummies do "on spec" each and every year in the hopes that their golden idea will morph into one of Hollywood's handful (about 200) of feature films.
Never mind if her script or film (if it is ever made) is any good or attracts an audience--what does she care? The money's already in the bank, pal, thanks to the "dead white males robber baron tax scam" which allows the family of said dead white robber baron to avoid estate taxes by setting up a foundation. And I wonder if Mommy and Daddy provided any support for the la-di-da creative lifestyle which so glibly eschews "real work." Hmmm... oops, my bitterness is showing, pardon me while I clean up a bit....
My bile rises at these most excellent grant writers (I don't think they start their pitch with, "Dear Offspring of the same Dead White Male Robber Baron I loathed in college but now love 'cause you're gonna give me $50K") partly as a result of some recent scutwork required of all lowly free-lance types like myself. It seems publishers sold various free-lance stories to database outfits like Lexis-Nexis without compensating the authors of the stories. Thanks to a handful of writer's organizations (National Writers Union) and authors (E.L. Doctorow, et. al.), a settlement of up to $18 million has been won on behalf of us free-lance scribes. (I think the $18 million works out to about a week's pay for the robber barons who stripped the assets of Enron, HealthSouth, Tyco, etc.)
Unfortunately I haven't kept accurate records of all my published pieces, so I had to fire up an old Macintosh computer to sort through all the stuff I'd written between 1989 and 1993. (The total count between 1989 and 2004 came to about 250 stories.) While there is some chance I might pocket a couple hundred smackeroos for this toil, it won't compensate for the depression brought on by reviewing the woeful pay doled out to peon free-lancers like myself. Yes, a handful of premiere magazines pay big bucks for pieces, but outside that elite circle a $1,000 fee is pretty decent, and fees on the order of a couple hundred bucks are the norm, even for glossy national magazines whose ads cost thousands of dollars per page.
In an economic sense, the fees paid for writing are absurdly low because the barriers to entry are absurdly low. Anyone with access to a computer can become a writer, and so there is an endless supply of new writers competing for a relatively rare byline with existing writers. And as all of you creative types know so well, we'll all do it for free just to get a byline, or space in the show. So the publishers never have to bid competitively for writers except at the top tier--and even there, the number of mastheads paying real money for essays or fiction has dwindled to a mere handful.
Back in the day, the barriers to writing on a personal computer were higher. When my business partner and I bought our shiny new Macintosh computers in 1984, we finagled a discount from $2,500 down to $2,300 by buying two Macs. In today's money, each original Mac cost $4,300--a staggering sum given its wimpy 128K RAM and reliance on floppies to load the OS and store files. To add insult to injury, I paid $2,000 in 1988 to upgrade the memory to a then-cutting edge 2 MB and purchase an astoundingly capacious 32MB hard drive--in today's money, another $3,200. This minimal computing power and storage (by today's standards) thus cost me $7,500--and that's not counting the $500 Imagewriter printer and external floppy drive.
The original Mac was indeed a technical marvel, but it was definitely a pricey one. Just recently I replaced my Wintel PC (yeah, I still have a Mac, too) with a basic H-P model for $450, and tossed in another 256MB RAM myself for $30. This is a rather astonishing bargain.
If you're a free-lance writer with a bit of a niche or expertise, you might nail down a job which would pay for this new PC in one fell swoop. But to pay for a new Mac in 1984--over $5,000 including the printer-- you would have to be one of a very rarified clique to earn $5,000 for stringing together some words. Hats off, gentlemen and gentlewomen, those of you who can demand such fees; at least you earned it the hard way, by creating something, rather than excelling solely in the art of grant writing.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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