Thursday, October 27, 2011

What I do is who I am

I was out with friends the other night, and one of us said she dislikes it when she meets a guy and one of the first things he asks is, “What do you do?”

“My job doesn’t define who I am,” she said, adding that she’d rather talk about what she likes to do and is passionate about.

We all nodded in agreement, but I wondered if any of the others thought what I was thinking: I sympathized, but in fact, my job does define who I am.

I’m a writer.

I’ve been writing since I was a young girl. My two sisters had moved out of the house by the time I was a third grader, so I had a mostly solo upbringing. I sat in my room and wrote stories, poems, songs and puzzles. In fifth grade, having memorized by now all of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales from an old book that had been my mom’s as a child, I began writing spoofs of the stories. I even adapted one into a play that was performed in front of the entire school and hundreds of parents.

In my corner of the world, though, everyone knew you couldn’t make a living as a writer. My parents urged me to pursue a practical career. I briefly considered being a pharmacist, until I failed chemistry. One day, a high school friend mentioned he wanted to be a journalist. Light bulb! I could write AND get paid for it!

Somewhat coincidentally, as I recall, two other creative friends and I decided to start an “underground newspaper” called The Scum in high school to rant about the general unfairness of high school life and being penned in by an authoritarian bureaucracy. (High school was not the pinnacle of my existence, as it was for some.) My friends Mike and Jason and I collaborated on articles. Sometimes I’d slip in a record or concert review. It was smart, sassy and rebellious.

Mike had a primitive PC, so he’d type it up, add some clip art and illustrations that he and Jason created, and print it out. My dad made 300 copies on the Xerox machine at work, and I’d staple them together and pass them out in the halls at school.

Soon, we were blindsided by the interest from professional media. Journalists from nearly every newspaper and TV station for miles asked to interview us. Most of them got facts wrong; one reporter from one of the big-city Detroit papers who should have known better admitted he had a strong bias against me going into the interview because of how I dressed. He added that he was surprised how smart and well-spoken I was. I was aghast, and decided I would go into journalism and not be “that guy.” I had found my calling.

I started writing for our small community paper, covering events happening at my high school. I was earning bylines, back when that meant something, at age 16. By age 18, I was working – 20 hours a week during the school year, 40 hours a week in the summer – at a legal newspaper, mostly re-writing press releases and typing up lists of court cases files that week, but occasionally interviewing a judge or covering small stories pertinent to the legal community. In college, I interned at Detroit Monthly magazine and was managing editor of the student newspaper for a few semesters. I was going places.

My bubble burst when Gannett bought the Detroit News just before I graduated and decided to break the union. A long strike ensued, and numerous veteran journalists were out of work. I could have crossed picket lines, like some of my contemporaries, and gotten a job right out of school at a big-city daily paper. I did not. Instead, I tried to compete for jobs at community weeklies against award-winning writers with 20, 30 years of experience. Ask me how that worked out.

Fast forward to today. Now I have 20 years of experience in the writing and editing industry, but jobs are even more rare. I hunt, peck and beg for piecemeal freelance work. Some places still pay a reasonable amount, but the market is more competitive than ever, and fees are getting dismal. One web site recently offered me four cents a word and insisted it was the “going rate.”

If that’s the case, all of my expertise and hard work is worthless in today’s marketplace. The Internet is a beautiful thing in many ways, but in others, it’s cheapened my craft considerably. Plagiarism is widespread. Language errors are the norm, not the exception. Opinions are passed off as fact. Facts are irrelevant in the face of sensationalism.

Few things infuriate me more when I hear people say, “I don’t read the paper anymore. I get all my news online.” As if an Almighty Powerful Computer Program spontaneously generates news stories for everyone’s consumption. When I point out that actual reporters must actually report those stories that magically appear on the screen, the person gets a confused look and has to think hard before understanding how it works. Many times, I don’t think it ever sinks in.

Even business web sites are riddled with poor writing obviously done by the owner’s fifth grader, or maybe a monkey with a keyboard, or perhaps that Almighty Powerful Computer Program that spontaneously generates words. Few care about quality writing, and even fewer care to pay for it. “Professional writer” has become an oxymoron.

So what of those of us who have staked not only our careers, but our entire lives on the business of writing? Some have told me, “Write a book.” Oh yes, as if I can just plunk out a masterpiece and become rich and famous. I know many writers who have entire series of books on the shelves and still work day jobs or pump out constant freelance stories. Book publishers are no more generous than any other kind these days.

I’m a writer; it’s what I do and who I am. I’ll continue to write for my own pleasure, just as I did when I was in elementary school and no one had assigned it and no one was paying me. If you ask me what I do, I’ll proudly continue to say, “I’m a writer.”

Just don’t ask me to write for you for four cents a word.

1 comment:

Rick D'Elia said...

Of course this is much the same for the image makers whose work often goes along with the words. It does to a large degree figure into my identity and I am also asked to create for bylines (valueless) or for rates that make it difficult and impossible to maintain and replace the gear that is necessary to create the images. And yet we continue to look for ways of paying the bills. They are out there, just harder to find,