Am I the blue-footed booby? I have been called booby before, but this is not about measurements, it’s about going extinct. As a writer.
The New York Times recently ran an article, “Does It Pay to Be a Writer?” It should have come with a warning in fine print to any author: Consume at your own risk, may induce stomach upset or suicidal thoughts. The article outlines the downward pay scale for writers who now cannot even make a living wage. The median pay for full time writers has dropped 42 percent since 2009 to $20,300. The study by the Authors Guild is sobering or body-shot inducing depending on your predilection (a word which is probably also going extinct).
Do words matter? Is it too late to become an intern at Goldman Sachs?
Richard Russo, the vice president of the Authors Guild, said in the study, “There was a time in America, not so very long ago, that dedicated, talented fiction and nonfiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best, while contributing enormously to American knowledge, culture, and the arts. That is no longer the case for most authors, especially those trying to start careers today.”
As a professional writer who, yes, has to take many jobs to make it all work, I am deeply worried — not only for myself but for the readers. Growing up in a homogenous suburb, it was reading that introduced me to the world. Books taught me how to be a woman, how to have an intelligent conversation, how to tell a story, how the rest of the world that looked nothing like me experienced a different reality.
In my imagination, with these books and articles, I visited foreign countries, cooked, worshiped, grieved, fought, celebrated, time travelled, fell in love, mixed the perfect martini, and saw the best and worst of humanity. Not bad for a 16-year-old in Darien, CT.
If “video killed the radio star,” then the internet killed the print star. What else of value do we get for free? Not food, clothing, shelter, or pumpkin enzyme facials. The writers’ water cooler joke used to be about the Oxford comma going extinct. Now there is not only the missing comma but no water cooler, no office, and often no writers.
Some say part of the problem is that everyone writes so they don’t think it is a particular skill set. Look, I don’t know anyone else who can create a shopping list in sonnets. I love the quote sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Stories of John Grisham getting up at 5 AM to write “The Firm” while working as a full-time lawyer or Terry McMillan editing her work on a New York subway on the way to work as a single mother are the exceptions, not the rule. To be a successful professional writer, you need to feed your creativity and have the time and space for the magic of a blank page turning into a compelling work.
As I contemplate the title of The New York Times article, I think of it in another way. Does it pay to be a writer?
It pays to be a writer to experience the satisfaction of an idea clearly and cleverly expressed. It pays to be a writer when a reader lets you know how your work has affected them, made them laugh or cry, or realize they are not alone in the world.
It pays to be a writer when your characters, real or imagined, trust you to tell their story. It pays to be a writer when you can call out evil or hypocrisy — just think about the Boston Globe “Spotlight” story exposing church abuse.
It pays to be a writer when your own self cannot remain hidden under the covers but is illuminated and further understood with more compassion. It pays to be a writer when you are madly in love and hope your unsupportive ex reads it. It pays to be a writer when you can give your reader wings.
Now shouldn’t all that be worth something?