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The Labor of Writers

Writing is like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.–Philip Roth


It goes without saying that poets and writers don’t make big bucks.  People seem to think that writers, especially those who don’t have a dozen fat books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble (e-books haven’t yet achieved the same status) don’t deserve to be paid, because we aren’t really working: writing is viewed by most people who’ve never done it as child’s play. They imagine writers as dilletantes who loll about all day in our pajamas fiddling with words. Unlike the factory worker or waitress or computer technician, we have fun doing what we do. Besides, what of any import have we ever contributed to society? I readily admit that my work is not as laborious as, say, a day in the coal mines. I do, however, work hard, and like other workers I deserve a living wage—yet I’ve been shown over and over again that few people agree with this principle.


For instance: several years ago I taught a creative writing class for seniors in the upscale apartment complex where I lived. I charged a mere $5.00 per class, after trying for $10 and nobody showing up. But wait—that isn’t the crux of this anecdote.I didn’t mind the pennies too much since I love teaching and hoped that by doing it I’d get my name out and attract clients to my writing services . Sure enough, I soon received a call from one of my students’ friends who was working on a memoir and needed help. This is just my line! Helping another writer structure her work, eliciting someone’s story and talent, editing her words and sentences–this is my favorite kind of work. Besides which, this woman’s story held elements of fascination for me, and we talked for a good half hour. I told her how I work and explained the process by which I’d help her complete and revise her book, and also advise her on publication routes. We scheduled an appointment for our first meeting. Before we hung up I said, “The only thing we haven’t discussed is my fee.”

After a moment of dead air she said, her voice dripping with outrage, “You mean you charge for this?”

Moneyhouse$$I had never met this woman. She didn’t know me. She called me out of the blue and actually thought I’d be glad to donate my time, experience and skills out of the goodness of my heart. Can you imagine calling a car mechanic, or a piano tuner, or any other skilled professional expecting free service? This incident still knocks me out when I think of it—and believe me, I’ve run into dozens more like it.

Okay, that’s “creative writing.” So let’s talk journalism—surely a profession, no? Except for the few journalists who live at the top of the heap—those who publish in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, for instance—we’ve never been paid fairly. Before the online phenomenon burst into life, I wrote for magazines and newspapers, earning $50 here, $100 there, sometimes a whopping $800. I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the East Bay Express, and even the SF Chronicle, with an occasional coup such as once for Mother Jones. Since the coming of the Internet, however, I cannot believe I complained about the low pay.

With all these entrepreneurs getting rich online, we writers thought our rate of pay might also rise. Instead, things went from bad to woefully worse. Go onto the job sites—Elance, Guru, Media Bistro—and browse through the ads; go ahead. Online employers offer $10 or $20 for 500-word articles of the kind that once brought in $100. They want ghostwriters to do 300-page books for $500. My proposals are consistently rejected for fee estimates that are “too high.” Recently someone wanted an editor to put together an erotic anthology. You’d think since I’ve done a dozen of them I’d be a shoo-in. Not! Knowing they’d never pay it, I lopped off half the $3000 I used to get for the same work—and was told yet again my estimate was too high.

I’ve gotten nasty emails telling me I’ve got chutzpah asking for so much money—and I give back as good as I get, with my own workers’ rights messages. One reasons they get away with paying so little is that the Internet makes it seem as if anyone and everyone can write, and all writers are created equal. There’s always a newbie or incompetent willing to write for bubkes. You may have noticed the quality of online writing, or rather lack of same.

pay-here2I’ve done online work that, when I added up my hours, paid less than minimum wage. A few months ago I began editing manuscripts for a publisher who paid $75 per. Each manuscript took me 15 to 20 hours. After I did four of them I calculated my earnings: $3.75-5.00 an hour. When I asked for more I was flatly refused, and the publisher stopped sending me work. Was I better off with $75 or with nothing? I imagine other writers ask themselves this question, and must sometimes answer by continuing to work for less than minimum wage.

WallSt.ProtestsSpeaking of other writers, I am not alone. I’m not the only one who can’t make a living at this anymore. While it was hard ten or fifteen years ago, many of us managed to eke out an impoverished existence. We can no longer do even that. To expand my base of colleagues, the same goes on these days in the fast food industry, retail establishments, corporations, small offices, non-profits, upscale restaurants, hotels—name an industry and the people who work in it are doing 40 or more hours a week, have two or three jobs, and yet have to sleep in their cars or worse; they jump through hoops for food stamps (a whole other topic); go hungry so their children can eat; and let us not forget mothers, who get paid for none of their work (another whole topic). We’ve heard the stories and we know the causes. We’ve demanded change in a million ways. Will it ever come? Will people ever make a living by honest labor again? I don’t know.

Happy Labor Day to all my writing compadres and other workers! Enjoy taking the day off—if you can.


M Train by Patti Smith: Review

M Train by Patti Smith: Review

Patti Smith is more than the goddess of punk, more than the genius behind Horses. She’s a vessel for a kind of haunted haunting consciousness, ruled by an inner spirit I cannot hope to understand beyond a few simple impressions. Her second memoir, M Train, is a product of that haunted consciousness, and as such it’s difficult to fully grasp. I found I had to let go and enter into the atmosphere she creates, to just go along for the ride.

She’s certainly a strange person. I cannot claim to relate to her obsessions and behaviors….but though the details of these are woven through M Train, the overall feeling is, primarily, of loss, and that is something most of us, especially of a certain age, can identify with. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel the tremendous force of Smith’s aching, enduring love for her husband Fred, which she lives with on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. And there are less significant, but still deeply felt losses: her favorite coffee shop closes; Rockaway Beach all but disappears in the wake of Hurricane Sandy mere days after she buys a bungalow there; her longing for her children as they were when they were small. This last is something few people seem to write or talk about: I miss my babies as well as my grandbabies; the adults they have become just aren’t the same people I knew back in the day, and they never will be again.

02BOOK-master180-v4Smith spends a lot of time and consciousness honoring her dead—not just Fred, her brother Todd, and her old friend Robert Mapplethorpe, but also the writers who have inspired her: Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath. She travels halfway across the world on pilgrimages to their graves, leaving appropriate offerings and taking away Polaroid snapshots.

Her purchase of the Rockaway bungalow moved me deeply. My happiest childhood memories—ecstatic, really—are of summers spent with relatives in Rockaway: the boardwalk, the rides, the beach, the ocean. Rows and rows of sweet little bungalows, the women playing Mah Jong, the men poker; no traffic, room to play and breathe and wander, where I spent summers from age four to fourteen. Knowing the way Patti Smith cherishes inanimate objects as much as she does people, I feel a glow of reassurance from  knowing she’s the proprietor of one of those beloved old bungalows.

Ultimately, Patti Smith continues to fascinate and inspire me.


Rockaway in the 1950’s

Portrait of a Lady

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Every once in awhile a book turns out to be not just a good read, but an immersive life experience. I cherish, for instance, the memory of staying up all night in a snowstorm with Wuthering Heights, and one Christmas Eve with Great Expectations. Now I add to the list Portrait of a Lady, with whom I’ve just spent an entire weekend.

(That “whom” is intentional.)

Last year I heard Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review and author of Why I Read, speak in Berkeley; she noted that she has a long involved relationship with Henry James, as meaningful and real as any she shares with living people. It was Lesser who made me finally crack one of his formidable tomes—only to discover it wasn’t formidable, but all-consuming, and surprisingly relevant to my own life and times.

This is not a book review per se; after two decades I’ve given up reviewing in order to return to enjoying books the way I did before I had to worry what I’d write about them. But Portrait grabbed me by the throat, left me so filled with feelings and impressions, they’re spilling out and over the morning after.

The Lady in question, Isabel Archer, an American woman on the verge of adult life, visits her aunt, uncle and cousin in England. She is clever, curious, pretty and charming, as well as eager for life experience. Her uncle pushes her along by conveniently dying and leaving her half his fortune, at the urging of his own son. Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, wanting to remain free to explore the world. Within a few years she falls in love   and marries Gilbert Osmond, only to find herself captured and caged by a scoundrel of the highest order.

That’s pretty much the plot—but it’s the literary style and brilliant psychological insights that make Portrait a masterpiece. Though written circa 1880, the description of Isabel Archer’s cage, i.e., her marriage, isn’t far from my own experience of that institution. And while Isabel has the financial means to free herself, at that time in history women didn’t just up and leave their husbands because they were unhappy—not even for mental cruelty.

On Goodreads, where readers can pose questions about books, someone asked how Isabel could possibly be as clever as she is thought by everyone who knows her, when she turned down two perfect gentlemen and married a psychopath. Hah! It happens every day. Isabel is clever, but not, as we say now, street-smart. She is also, despite her seeming originality, a woman of her time, conditioned  by the society around her. She recognizes, long after the fact, that she’d kept much of her personality hidden from Osmond during their courtship, and that once he discovered she had her own ideas and opinions, which frequently clash with his cynical and superficial beliefs, he comes to despise her—and treats her accordingly. In addition, there are secrets and horrifying deeds in his past that only come to light towards the novel’s end.


The end of Portrait is a major bummer. Defying Osmond, Isabel leaves him and their house in Rome to visit her dying cousin in England; her husband tells her not to go, threatening  repercussions. Isabel goes, not sure if she will return. But she does, at which point James ends his story, leaving us to wonder at the outcome. Will Osmond kill her? Up the ante on  mental cruelty? Or simply leave her­? I hope he did. But I so resent Henry James for leaving me, and Isabel Archer, in the lurch.

Some interesting articles on Portrait:



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The tickle of icicles
dripping down my neck
between parka hood and hair
comes back sixty years later
in a place with no icicles
dripping or otherwise.

In this land of relentless
sunshine and drought
trickling icicles bespeak
exile, loneliness,
a thirst that is never

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is nothing if not aptly titled: after reading nearly 100 pages it seems to me to be one huge joke.

I’d been wanting and meaning to read IJ for years, and the more I heard about the book and its author, the more I wanted to read it—but a thousand-something pages? I still haven’t finished War and Peace! Finally, after seeing The End of the Tour, I began.

In the first three chapters I found gems of wisdom buried in acres of verbiage, and was in serious need of guidance; I went to the Internet and found dozens, if not hundreds, of sites dedicated to IJ. I read a few reviews and reader discussions, scanned the Wiki site, and returned to reading. But now, fresh from laudatory reviews by people whose opinions I respect, and gushing declarations by fans and readers, my gut reaction was: You’ve got to be kidding! I mean, huge chunks of IJ are absolutely unreadable. The boredom, the repetition, the footnotes, many of them wholly unnecessary: was DFW putting us on?

Wallace committed suicide in 2008, 12 years after the fame and glory that followed IJ. I don’t know enough about the guy to speculate, but it’s safe to say there was some sort of mad genius going on in there. IJ is indeed a work of mad genius—so much so that I’m somewhat scared to admit my lack of enchantment. David Eggers, who wrote a somewhat negative and astute review of IJ when it came out, has hidden or somehow banished his review from the public; many years after IJ‘s outsized fame he wrote a foreword to the book that was purely positive, expressing the opinion that not a single sentence of IJ is imperfect, not a word out of place. Duck and cover, Eggers!

Thus, to ward off my fear of fans and laudatory literary luminaries who will surely attack my intelligence, or lack of same: for the record, my favorite author is Doris Lessing—no literary slouch—and I’ve slogged through, even delighted in, the works of Henry James, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Edith Wharton, to name just a few who can be rough going.

Is Infinite Jest a work of infinite jest? Is it The Emperor’s New Clothes? No: the shame is, this probably could have been a  much more accessible, readable, and therefore better novel. In the final analysis, Infinite Jest is a powerful testament to the utter absence of bold, intelligent editing in the publishing world today.