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.

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