I’ve been impressed by the almost unanimous support for the TV and movie writers in this strike. Considering that writers in general are disrespected, misunderstood and marginalized, this comes as a welcome surprise. Maybe it’s a worker versus boss issue to most people, or maybe it’s reflexive sympathy for the underdog—whatever the reason, I’m beginning to think that this strike might possibly have an impact on the image and treatment of all writers.
Ian Shoales, in an NPR Perspective this morning, mentioned that when he was hired to write video game instructions his job title was Content Provider, which he found demoralizing. I’ve seen that job title all over the place, for writing that’s even more creative than instructions, and it chills me to the bone–not that instruction writing isn’t creative. In fact, sometimes it’s too creative. It ought to be treated as a specific skill and taught by professionals. When was the last time you read an instruction manual you understood?
As anyone who’s ever heard Ian Shoales knows, he speaks, shall we say, rapidly, so half his Perspective sailed right over my clouded pre-coffee head. Apparently, though, it reached my subconscious: when it was over I found myself mulling over this idea of the professional writer’s image benefiting from the strike.
The discounting of writing as a skill and a profession is so common in America that I’m not sure if I’ve been more oppressed by attitudes towards mothers–and if you’ve read my blog you know this is a biggie for me–or attitudes towards writers. I’ve had outrageous experiences in both departments, but I’ve chosen to relate just one of these occasions regarding my role as a writer:
In the late 90s I was living in an upscale apartment complex where dozens of activities and classes were offered, but the frugal residents would only sign up for something free or dirt cheap. I began teaching creative writing, charging the ridiculous amount of $5.00 for an hour-long class, figuring it might lead to word-of-mouth gigs.
After a few months, I got a call from a woman who’d heard about me from one of my students. Halleluliah! I thought–my idea about the class was actually working. She wanted help writing an autobiographical book based on unusual life circumstances that I no longer recall. At the time I found her story exciting, and thought it had commercial potential. We had a long and enthusiastic phone conversation, and set up a date to meet in person. She was about to hang up when I said, “The only thing we haven’t talked about is the amount of my fee.” After an awkward silence she said, and I quote verbatim, “You mean you charge for this?”
I felt exactly as if she’d slapped me in the face; I may even have winced. Controlling a raging fury, I explained that I was a professional, that I made a living this way. Her lame defense was that this was all new territory to her, and she had no idea blah blah blah. How is this possible? Imagine calling a plumber expecting free toilet repair, or a housecleaner, or painter, or, to put it into the intellectual services sphere, any kind of school tutor.
The producers’ refusal to guarantee writers a percentage of Internet and similar sales is the equivalent of saying “You mean you charge for this?” And so, right on, Hollywood writers! You’re speaking for all of us, from those who write sitcoms to instructions, from news stories to novels, or even…BLOGS. We’re rootin’ for ya!