Sunday, October 31, 2010

World B. Free: On Writing For No Money

In terms of fancy-person attention, it has been a good couple of weeks for The Awl. One of their groundbreaking and reliably amusing and very handsomely written columns found itself on New York Magazine's Approval Matrix, which is apparently a much bigger deal than I'd previously understood. But more than that, there was a B1 feature on The Awl in The New York Times -- a very important dinosaur that I like despite the fact that it employs Matt Bai -- by the very excellent David Carr. (Whose retweet of my most recent Awl NFL column was honestly a much bigger deal to me than the New York Magazine thing, although that is only because I'm a doofus and not because it's objectively a bigger deal) All of this was good news in a bunch of different ways, from proving to my parents that writing for a website (on the Internet) is actually a real thing that people do to blessing the very deserving people behind The Awl with some positive attention. It's a great site, and I'm proud to be a part of it. All of that, I imagine, goes without saying. But that article also introduced a fairly complicated new element to my relationship with the site.

It started with this sentence, which different people will read in different ways, but which refers to The Awl itself: "Revenue for the year will surpass $200,000." Which, I know, is almost Pooh Jeter-caliber chip-stacking, just in terms of the number of digits/ducats involved. That's revenue for the entire site, presumably, before bandwith and tech stuff and snacks and other not-so-incidentals are taken out. So it's a decent chunk of money -- a big enough figure to inspire phone conversations with my parents and emails from friends wondering if/when that site is going to pay me -- but it's also fundamentally not when it's put in context. But about that parenthetical, back there.

So, as I wrote in an earlier me-on-me post that further marked the continued descent of this space into a spammier-than-usual LiveJournal, I am not getting paid by The Awl for the few thousand words of copy of mine that appear on the site every week. The arithmetic of it is simple and -- in the plain sense of how easy or difficult it makes it for me to buy groceries/scotch -- obviously unsatisfying: zero dollars and zero cents. But the calculus of it, which doesn't necessarily make much more sense but is at least a little less stark in its disappointing aspects, is worth going over.

This, as America has been requesting for generations, is at long last the calculus that is also gymnastics. (This is why my "street name" is Calc-Nasty) I've never been on the inside enough, writing-wise, to ever really come close to making a living at it -- I haven't gotten the apparently-still-industry-standard dollar per word rate since my trade magazine days some years ago. This is, in part, by choice -- I went out of my way to try to write for venues I enjoyed reading, and that's a narrow and generally unprofitable niche. So I did a lot of writing for $300 or $400 per piece, and there's no real way that adds up. The Wall Street Journal stuff -- now serving on Sundays! -- does something to even things out, but not a lot. I've got a part-time day gig. But I never really made notable inroads on the profitability thing. I have lived very luckily, and very cheaply, for years. Which is okay -- it's not that okay, but it's more or less okay -- because of... well, here are the gymnastics, before the calculus.

It's okay because why would I really WANT to write some feature for, like, Fast Company or some (any) Conde Nast magazine or whatever when I don't read those magazines and don't really have ideas for that sort of piece anyway? The answer, which I actually know, is that I would want to do that so that I could go out to dinner every now and then, or buy lunch without some gnawing pang in the gut, or any number of other things that I was last able to do when I had a steady and stable paycheck and a good deal less debt on my personal ledger. Honestly, I don't know people at enough magazines -- enough editors, or even enough writers who have been in those venues -- to have a shot at getting in. But also I don't try. This is circular. The point being that, as I'm 32 and persnickety and only inclined towards doing a few things, I am almost willing to do with less in the way of lunch rather than have to hustle my ass off to write a $300 feature (again, the only kind I can get into print -- the kind working writers do for yuks after cashing a check from, like, Esquire or Allure or someplace) that I kinda-sorta care about. And by almost I mean that I am willing to do that. I don't necessarily agree with myself, but here I am, doing it.

Of course, this isn't just -- or isn't entirely -- self-defeating behavior from a guy with some issues. The fact is that I am happier when I'm writing stuff that I'm proud of, when I feel like I'm writing at my best and doing great work. It's vain, maybe, but I imagine most any writer would tell you that. No one goes into this particular line of work for the money or perks or furs or VIP Room shit. And the way out, the only writing endgame that really works for me even in the abstract, is an opportunity to get paid to write the stuff I do best. I wish, or a part of me wishes, that said stuff was world-changing journalistic stuff, instead of dense, allusive football columns that are 80% jokes about lunchmeat. It'd be easier to explain than, "Oh, I'm the guy who compares quarterbacks to different types of ham."

But if I'm going to get to do the writing that I'm good at -- which is the lunchmeat thing, sadly, and which I think I'm pretty good at -- then I have to do it. I don't know that anyone could get paid for that, be it me or someone better organized or more focused or taller or whatever. It's not quite inventing a genre -- people have been comparing Ben Roethlisberger to olive loaf since long before olive loaf was invented -- but it's not an exercise in playing the standards, either. But if I'm going to write and be okay -- not feel badly, choose badly, act like a jerk or a layabout or some other lousy thing -- then I'll need to be writing my stuff. Would I love it if The Awl were paying me a dollar a word, or if someone wanted to turn my goofy chats with Jeff Johnson into a popular series of young adult novels? Fuck yes, because I'd have new shirts. But because I love it, and because I'm a happier and better dude when I do it, and because The Awl is a brilliant and generous platform for it, I do it for free. And they're doing the same thing, honestly -- going pretty broke (note the first graf of Carr's piece for the arrival of Choire's first Awl paycheck) running only the stuff they like. Some of that is tough-to-categorize, webby serial stuff -- Sean McTiernan's month-long dance with the devil in his 31-horror-movies-in-October series, for instance. Some of that comes in the form of delightful, literary essays about pop stuff written in a way that wouldn't fit at most sites. Some of it, thankfully for me, is long-form joke-riffage about NFL coaches and hate letters to Chris Berman.

It'll either earn me money someday or it won't, but it is really the stuff I'm best at right now. And earning money the other way -- a few more dribs and a few more drabs, with a lot more agita and notably less satisfaction -- wasn't working for me, either. This way, with this place and even at this rate, is working for me -- I'm doing the work I want to do. In a market that made sense or worked or valued what I do more highly, I'd of course not give it away so cheap. That's not this market, though, and I wasn't nearly as proud of my work (or, barf-alert, myself) when I was hustling bylines for three-digit paychecks at various other venues. If I'd ever had better-paying work at other places, I might feel differently. I never knew anything that much better than this, though, money-wise. And I've never known anything better in terms of my satisfaction with my work, affection for my editors, or positive response from an audience. Some things are more important than money. Like shirts. You would not believe my shirts. I look like a homeless Stephen Malkmus.

Anyway, there's all that. I'm sure this decision will look amazing when the platinum edition of "My Chris Berman Problem And Ours, A NFL Journey" hits stores. I'll be sitting pretty signing copies at Del Posto for secretaries of state and generally looking wise as fuck, steady wearing a shirt without even smallish olive oil stains on it. Or anyway, not the shirt I'm wearing now. I look like a batik made of everything I've cooked in the last few months. That's the other side of this: self-batik. I never said it was easy, or smart. But it's the only thing I can imagine even working this well.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sonned By Willow Smith, or A Career Highlight?

I don't usually put pictures of myself on this website -- I'm above trading on my looks at this point in my career, frankly -- but I'm making an exception at left to show my expression when I heard that Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" was closer to the "Brilliant" axis on this week's New York Magazine Approval Matrix than were my Yakkin' About Football conversations with Jeff Johnson at The Awl. But then I realized that my goofy Yakkin' About Football conversations with Jeff Johnson at The Awl were even on the Approval Matrix, and I was happier. And kind of startled. Now that I know someone's reading these things, they're going to get a lot tougher. You'll see a lot more /anxious silence in my responses and a lot less stuff about Freezie Freakies.

I really hope someone in the NFL says or does something ridiculous, and bails me out on this anxiety thing. Hold on... and, thank you, Brett. Obliged. Also, even by New York Post standards, that is basically the most ridiculous URL head-text I've ever seen. (Words rhymed: "ringee" and "thingee") Stop hiring 8-year-olds to write those, you guys! Stop it right now. (They'll never stop, I know)

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tired Sounds Of...

When I write, I write a lot. This is also true of when I talk or eat, but it's especially pronounced when it comes to This Writing Shit. I'm a really fast typist, and if I'm going to be honest also pretty well enamored by the sound of my own voice, and so writing 1,000 words to me doesn't always feel like a big deal. (Doing the Daily Fix -- which used to be an inexplicable 1300 words, and is still over a thousand most days -- on the regular has also conditioned me to think of 1,000 words as an hour-and-change/no-big-deal deal)

Obviously this isn't always the case -- when I'm trying to write in my inside/professional voice, for instance, it's obviously more difficult. But I don't need to tell you that this, say, is different from this. All you have to do is read them to see as much. The former's a third as long as the latter, but took several more drafts and several more hours to do. Some of that is the nature of working with newspaper editors -- good ones, in this case, but still people who most definitely will redline a draft and send it back to you -- but a lot of it is just me working the way I work. When it's happening for me, it happens in these big loud tumults of words and long, parenthetical-rich sentences -- for instance, there'd be a parenthetical here, were I making this sentence an example -- and things of that nature. You get some alliteration and some jokes and whatever, but it's basically an exploded drawing of my brain, hopefully with some connection to whatever the topic in question is. The struggle is to give it some shape, or to edit out the more egregious jokes or -- and I have some work to do on this part, I know -- limiting the parentheticals and finding some focus.

And maybe that's all that went on this week with my two pieces for The Awl, and I'm reading too much into it. So, as per usual, I did two football-related pieces for The Awl this week. The first one was this chat with Jeff Johnson which, once again, was fun as hell and -- because making jokes about Brett Favre's fantastically wise cock-shot gambit comes almost as easily to me as does writing long parentheticals -- about as easy as could be. It came out pretty funny, got a nice response, and I hope you'll read it. It's also almost 2,000 words and took about an hour or so to do. As long as NFL people keep doing silly/objectionable/easily-riffed-upon things, we could continue doing these every week, and it'll never be difficult or less fun. That's not the problem.

The problem was the weekly Kicked Off column, which -- and this is the doesn't-usually-happen part -- wound up being an intense struggle for me. Part of the problem was that I didn't totally know what I was going to be writing about. I was going to write about Favre and his photogenic peen, before realizing that it had actually apparently been covered fairly well in the sports press. Then I was going to write about embattled 49ers head coach, crucifix aficionado and objectively crazy human Mike Singletary, and coaches in general. And then, finally, I settled on the eventual topic -- Ben Roethlisberger and the dual, duelling uglinesses of his personal behavior and the NFL's institutional arbitrariness.

It wasn't that easy, though. For most of Thursday, I sat in front of my computer (yes, I do write on a computer, ladies) with nothing happening at all. I wrote a paragraph and tweaked it, then deleted it. I wrote some jokes about what Andy Reid's office must smell like, which is obviously kind of evergreen (the writing, not the smell of the office -- I'm getting a pretty strong "old fried" vibe, there). But the engine wasn't really turning over. I don't know what the cause of this was, and still kind of don't -- I think there was probably some anxiety about writing something too serious and not having people enjoy it as much as my cavalcade of dick jokes, and definitely some anxiety over wanting to have each Awl NFL column be the best thing written about football in that, or any, week. Which sounds okay, I guess, in a hard-driving perfectionist sense (and another way in which I'm like Tom Coughlin, I suppose), but which is also a pretty goofy way to address an unpaid online column I'm doing for yuks, even if I hope that the column could become a book or something someday. So I'm doubly proud of the mini-essay that resulted, both because I think it's pretty good in its own right and because it was something I did under duress late at night on Thursday and then in double-time on Friday. Mostly, though, I'm happy that it got done.

Which, you know, probably isn't the highest standard, necessarily. But while I've stressed over stuff like this before, this was the first time I'd really been in doubt about whether something was going to get done in time in a long while. With a lot of what I write for money, I simply don't worry about it enough to experience this sort of anxiety. I'm not tearing the Daily Fix out of my soul, and the Four Lessons things I'm writing for the WSJ's Metropolis section (and am supposed to be writing right now) aren't things I agonize over. (Although I did work hard on my Dan Dierdorf imitation in this one) The Awl columns mean a bit more to me, which makes a perverse type of sense given that I'm doing them for free. The relative editorial latitude, the ability to pick my subjects and write in my own voice and with the words I like best -- that should make it more fun. Ditto the reliable ego-feedback of a couple of weekly bylines and a generally kind response from the Awl's commenters (the rare internet commenters whose opinion I actually value). As usual with me, though, I tend to forget that having fun is even an option -- writing's my favorite thing, more or less, but because it's also my work, I kind of fall back on my default mood, which is self-lacerating anxiety/scotch-wanting. File that under the Mental Beatdown of Freelancing, I guess. Anyway, the good news: I still enjoy this stuff. The unsurprising news: I need to remind myself of that, sometimes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Talking About What Matters

So, Jeff Johnson wrote a series of amazingly joke-dense and strange NFL previews for McSweeney's years ago -- back when I was just a young pup working at AOL and somehow making more money than I've ever made since -- that pretty much changed the way I thought about sportswriting. Which is to say that I hadn't previously known that you could compare a Jacksonville Jaguars game to the experience of getting a nosebleed in a rental car, although that was obviously what most Jags games are like and also is way better than, like, talking about match-up problems in the secondary. So obviously I was excited to get the opportunity to talk Randy Moss -- and high-altitude intercourse, and Ryan Fitzpatrick's ultimate frisbee chops, and et cetera -- with him at The Awl today. It went a little something like this:

Jeff: You go out and get Randy Moss because…

David: Tall, great at football, future Hall of Famer, knows lots of trivia about Robert Byrd, is as defiantly country as any multi-millionaire in the world. What the Vikings are doing seems unlike anything I can think of another NFL team ever doing, though.

Jeff: Building by getting older.

David: Just stacking the olds and giving it One Last Try. Totally not the move in the NFL.

Jeff: Maybe Jan Stenerud will come out of retirement.

David: You know he’s keeping fit.

Jeff: Skiing.

David: Doing decathlons in Bemidji or whatever.

Jeff: Having sex in the Alps.

David: High-altitude sex: that was P90X before P90X was.

Jeff: I don’t want to live in a world where he can’t.

And so on. Good times. Read it, if you have five minutes to spare on things that really don't matter and might not amuse you.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wit Or Wit-Out: On Michael Vick, Ethical Hurdles and Barf Monsters In Brian Dawkins Jerseys

Ordinarily I'm happy to tuck the links to Kicked Off, my NFL column at The Awl, over into the right hand corner. And while I've done that with this week's column, which deals with Michael Vick, Philadelphia monsterfans and the moral and (as usual) ethical quandaries of NFL fandom -- assiduous site maintenance being my hallmark, here -- I thought it worthy of a miniature post, as well. Not just because I'm kind of proud of it (I am, but I love all my adjectivally unbalanced creations equally) (Not really), but because... well, because I had that great picture of a dog in a Redskins jersey gnawing on a Michael Vick figurine, and wanted to use it.

But mostly I'm proud of the piece. It's not perfect, obviously, but I really did want to get it right, and I think hours of fussing over it helped me come pretty close to that. (Also helpful were the near-invisible edits of The Awl's Alex Balk, who manages to cut down the shag on these columns with real grace; I barely notice, and it doesn't hurt at all) There's a tendency for me to fall back into the same harangue every week with these -- said harangue being, in short, that the NFL demands an unseemly ethical quiescence from its fans because of its singular brutality and exploitiveness. While I didn't feel that any less acutely this week than I did last, or the week before that, or back in like 2008 when I was moaning about the Patriots and the end of everything good in the universe. The tough part to remember, and the thing I can't forget if I actually want these pieces to be any fun to read, is that I actually do kind of enjoy watching football. This means that, because players like Michael Vick are so transcendently gifted and what they can do so unique and remarkable, I need to kind of re-examine the NFL fan's ethical bargain every week knowing that 1) I'm going to come down on the "buy" side every week and 2) my livelihood at WSJ (and elsewhere) depends to a great degree on sucking it up and dealing with the squeamishness.

It helps that Vick is fascinating, and a beautiful player and vexingly complex subject. But while I can't write this particular column every week, I'm feeling pretty good, at the moment, about the challenge of writing something like it for another few months. I'm sure it won't be easy, because if past experience holds I'm going to be sick to death of the whole dumb thing by Week 13. But I imagine it will be interesting, and there's always room in my workday for something like that. Or... well, there's not actually room in my workday. But I look forward to trying to fit it in anyway, is what I'm saying.