Friday, May 21, 2010

Belated Bloggy Self-Promotion Moment: Blockbuster Knockoffs and More, at Slate

I'm still trying to figure out the fine points of self-promotion, here at David Roth The Writer, the Internet's Premier Site About David Roth, The Writer(tm). Obviously that sort of thing was this site's original purpose, although I haven't been terribly zealous about keeping things within the originally proscribed guidelines. (For instance) Some of this is because I'm just kind of geeked to have a place to write about whatever, and much of it is because I'm a little careless with my (strictly notional) brand as a general rule. It's like if I don't acknowledge that it exists, I won't have to deal with my ambivalence about being able to apply the word "brand" to myself. It works okay, actually.

Obviously, when I have a biggish deal piece like my compare-and-contrast between low-budget hit Paranormal Activity and its lower-budget knockoff Paranormal Entity at Slate, I'm going to link to it here. (The handsome devil above is Shane Van Dyke, grandson of Dick and director of Paranormal Entity) But despite the fact that I've felt like garbage -- or rather like a person whose sinuses are filled with garbage -- all week, I've actually done a great deal of other writing of late, and not actually put up the Slate piece. I suppose it might be a good idea -- or it might not -- to go into why.

I've written and edited some on my novel, and really and truly for the last time appear to be in the home stretch there. (Hopefully) (But I think maybe this time for real) But mostly I've been doing blogging work, paid and unpaid: three Daily Fixes at the WSJ (here's today's) and four posts at Can't Stop the Bleeding of variable interest to non-sports people -- rumors about LeBron James' mom sleeping with a backup guard on his team don't do it for you? maybe then a speculative grouse about the travails of smart football players? -- and the usual quota at Greenbuildingsnyc and this strange real estate place I work for, which I really probably shouldn't write too much about here. Some may be more worth reporting than others, but here as in real life I have tried to err on the side of too-little self-promotion rather than too much. Which is, again, absolutely 180 degrees from what this web-place is supposed to be about. So you see the problem.

But there's another reason why I was late on putting up the Slate piece, which came out while I was on my honeymoon. I didn't put it up right away because I was in Florence or Siena or somewhere and there were obviously better things to do/eat. But sometime between when it went up and the second-to-last night of the honeymoon, my editors at Slate took down a throwaway joke that had been in the piece and issued a qualified correction, in response to what some commenters were calling plagiarism. I emailed my editor after I saw this and asked what was up, and he emailed back quickly and seriously -- he would've gotten in touch with me, but figured (reasonably) I'd be out of touch while on my honeymoon. The whole exchange was good-terms, if not good-times, throughout, and I can only hope that his impression of the working-together experience was as positive as mine. It was embarrassing, but I've made mistakes before in print and dealt with it, and it didn't seem or feel like a big deal -- a botch I wish hadn't happened, obviously, but just that. It helped, of course, that I knew it was an accident and not a conscious thing, but while I'm really happy with the piece that resulted, and proud of it, I have spent a lot of the time since then wondering how big a deal I should consider this to be.

I have been and will be accused of a multitude of writerly sins, and I'll be guilty of a lot of those. My worst-ever mistake as a professional freelancer involved a toxic combination of excessive credulousness and hubris, and it involved this piece, and I can't really write about it right now. It was very embarrassing and I still feel very badly about it. But I've made other mistakes: I get little things factual wrong in the Daily Fix on occasion, and of course I can be strident and over-digressive and overlong and whatever else. These are all issues with Me the Person as well as Me the Writer, and so I can't say I was necessarily the most surprised to find them cropping up/fucking up in my work life. Plagiarism, honestly, is just not something I'd ever even considered as a potential issue.

What had happen was: a little joke in the Slate piece was, as commenters pointed out, fairly similar in structure to one made by Wired's Brian Raftery in this piece about The Asylum, the low-budget, knockoff-intensive movie studio I wrote about in Slate. I read Raftery's article in the print edition of Wired -- because I'm one of those (old) people that still gets magazines in the mail -- and probably should've read it again before doing the piece, if only so that whatever of Raftery's piece was latent in my unconscious would've been less latent and therefore would also have been less actually and embarrassingly present in the piece. I didn't, and I didn't, and I didn't, and the next thing you know: an embarrassing coda to a piece that felt, in just about every other regard, like something of a win. I know I didn't do wrong, here, and my editor believes that too, and so while it's embarrassing and frustrating to have screwed up, I'm not tearing myself up inside over it. Or not over just this.

But it's a part of something bigger that has been nagging at me for awhile. There's very little in the way of unambiguous victories, from my experience, in freelance writing. Write a great piece you're proud of? Terrific, send it to your friends and parents and don't spend all 300 of those dollars in one place/portion-of-rent-check. Write something for money you don't care as much about? How proud you must be. And so for the emotional sustenance a writer needs, from readers and from him/herself, I'm left with the things I don't get paid for. When it comes to satisfaction on my own terms, I have the novel, which might yet pay, and the stuff for CSTB and The Awl and here. That's not a living, obviously, but it's the stuff that makes me feel most creatively alive, and so I need it. I'd hoped, when I tried to make a career of this, that somehow all of the above could share the same space -- enough money coming in from the work I care about to make possible work I care even more about, with stuff I don't care about picking up the slack. It's not happening, and that's vexing. It'd probably be less vexing if the pieces I was proud of didn't come with corrections and semi-retractions on them, but that's on me. The whole deal kind of is, as is solving this problem. Anyway, yeah: enjoy the Slate piece. I did.

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