What is a Writer Worth?

What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than financial reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value. Ninety-nine cents has become a common price tag, and authors are often compelled to promote their books by giving them away for free.

What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, my short story collections, include stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of these two books. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.

Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair, the dreaded stasis of writer’s block. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, who are generally introverted, marketing is far more onerous than writing. It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.

Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.

I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they click into place. As I wrangle words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, struggling year after year to bring out his best.

You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. Most writers will never produce the stunning book they envisioned, nor will they reap the monetary rewards they have earned. As readers, we can at least offer them one dividend: the courtesy of a review. Reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads cost nothing and require scant effort. Just a couple sentences is all it takes to let a writer know her words have not vanished.

Perfect Polly


The other day, surfing Amazon, I came across Perfect Polly, a plastic bird that’s been around for a while. Polly is still selling well, rated #220 in Doll playsets. For $12.99 you can buy a pet that needs nothing from you but a pair of AAA batteries. No food or water, no fresh cage liners, no veterinary visits, no attention at all. Motion-activated, it will sing a small variety of songs when you come close, and its head will turn this way and that; even the tail twitches. Doubtless the next version of Perfect Polly—maybe they’ll call it Perfected Polly—will have additional pleasing features. Maybe the wings will flap; maybe the feet will move sideways an inch or two. Maybe it will sneeze, a symptom you can happily ignore.

I don’t know why this product dumbfounded me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags. Silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra, make-up, hair dye, plastic surgery, plastic fingernails–it’s as if we are trying to keep up with the androids we are building to take our places.

Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people into its fairy-tale casinos. We eat fake food, wear fake leather, play fake games, and we do these things without a thought. Artifice is so ingrained in our culture that the dividing line is losing significance.

Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are no different in molecular structure than the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make certain foods taste better, which is helpful considering how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the aged to eat properly. Fake plants are also useful. People who habitually kill their houseplants do less damage with facsimiles, while saving a lot of money. Fake fur preserves wildlife, and plastic surgery can be invaluable, particularly for those who, on account of tragedy, actually need it. As for electric fireplaces, they’re pretty nifty. I bought one years ago. No smoke to bother my lungs or the neighborhood, and after a hard day, that silent fire behind the glass is soothing. The flames leap up with a click of the remote. They look real, though I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you first have to forgive it.

From its packaging and appearance, one might assume that Perfect Polly is intended for children. It isn’t. Perfect Polly is not a toy, it is an alternative, a pet for people who don’t want pets.

There is a popular peanut butter with a label that boasts, No Stirring! How lazy have we become that stirring is so taxing? This is what came to mind when I saw the ad for Perfect Polly. Putting out pellets, a dish of water—that’s work? Pulling out the soiled cage liner and putting in a fresh one—that’s work? Shouldn’t there be at least some satisfaction in cleaning a bird cage, in bringing comfort to another creature? Practicalities aside, what about interaction? Don’t we acquire pets so that we can bond with them: look into their eyes, scratch their necks, stroke their feathers?

Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly and comedians have done some hilarious spoofs. Nonetheless, this bird has a large and earnest following. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, dutifully sharing Polly’s pros and cons with the rest of their ilk.

It’s a niche market for sure. I picture three groups. One, the novelty buyers, folks who will purchase anything for a laugh. Two, there must be people who buy it for their children, hoping their kids will be find some amusement in a bogus bird, that their interest will last longer than the time it takes them to open the box. Then there is a third category, the elderly or mentally challenged, whose limitations have rendered them quiescent, compliant, accepting. Impairments such as blurred vision can actually be a help here, making the bird appear real. These people can scarcely manage their own needs, let alone a parakeet’s, and so they must be happy to adopt one that comes without conditions. To them, Perfect Polly is a wonder, something small and pretty that sings when they come in the room and quiets down when they leave.

God knows the world does not need another piece of plastic junk, but as long as we’re churning out legions of Barbie dolls and Lego sets, we might as well leave room for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely and bewildered. Maybe the parakeet trade will subside. If we’re going to keep birds in cages, isn’t Perfect Polly the perfect choice?


“Now Where Did I Put My Sex Drive?”


“Hot flashes?” my friend said. “They don’t bother me. They’re mostly gone now anyway. And the other stuff—dry skin, weight gain. What can you do? No one stays pretty forever.” She paused, frowned at the drink in her hand. “But the thing that does bother me? Loss of libido. I resent that one.” She looked at me. “It’s excessive, don’t you think?”

I blinked at her. I knew what she meant. Of all the subtractions that come with menopause, loss of desire has to be the saddest. “Makes you realize what biological beings we really are.”

She nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?” She was a silent a moment, considering. “You know, I don’t think I miss the sex so much as I miss the need for it, the appetite. Why should that get taken away, too?”

“Maybe it’s a kindness,” I offered. “Maybe we lose our desire because we’re no longer desirable.”

“Well, that’s brutal,” she said. “But you’re probably right. Nature thinks of everything.” She looked up into the tree that shaded our table. “Damn men. All they lose is their hair. Bill (her husband) still wants sex—not as often of course, but it’s there. It’s retrievable. For women it’s like a door slamming shut.”

No, I thought, not slamming. More like closing, quietly, so quietly you don’t notice. One day it occurs to you that sex has not occurred to you.

You might chide yourself, resolve to put mundane matters aside and focus on love. The problem, you think, is fixable, laughable, temporary. There is the destination, clear as day—all you need to do is show up. Only you can’t. You’ve lost the map.

Most of us, that is. I know of one woman, 84 years old, who claims she is still interested, who would jump in the sack “in a hot minute” if she found an appropriate suitor. When she told me this, I laughed. “I’m not kidding,” she said, giving me a stern look. “Lucky you,” I said, wondering if having a sex drive in your eighties is a lucky thing. Finding a willing and able partner would certainly be lucky.

But like I said, this woman is exceptional. Most post-menopausal women have shed their amatory lives and moved on to other things. Charity seems to be the most popular pursuit. Whether they are donating, fund-raising or volunteering, older women like to keep themselves useful. Their vantage has changed and so their world.

Excess is the hallmark of youth, and those who feast, who plunge headlong, will have many thrilling memories to look back on. Not that they won’t have regrets—don’t believe anyone who tells you they have no regrets—but they will not have wasted what they were given. A cautious youth is a misspent youth.

Nature is all about balance. What is lost is replaced by something else. As I try to understand the compensations of aging, I keep this in mind. I wonder what nature has given me in exchange for taking away a portion of my appetite. If one area narrows, mustn’t another widen?

I think my focus has changed. I see the need in the world, the work to be done. I see a world far more beautiful and vulnerable than I ever knew. Nothing is without meaning now and everything is precious. I cannot take the life of an ant.

Do the senses make up for the sensual? Am I having a good time in this world suffused with meaning? Depends on the day. Which makes these days not so different from the old days and reminds me that now is the place to be.





The Spiritually Challenged Writer


Like many others, I admire the wisdom of our spiritual leaders: the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Thich Nhat Hanh. Each of these luminaries stress the importance of living in the now. When we mull over the past or envisage the future, we rob ourselves of the present moment. Another key teaching is the relinquishment of ego. Clinging to our opinions and desires creates suffering, and we will lead happier lives if we can manage to stop personalizing our existence. Judging and labeling are also serious afflictions, which must be avoided if we are to find peace.

Much as I agree with these teachings, as a writer I find them difficult, if not impossible, to implement. At the computer, living inside my stories, I am light years away from the present moment. And then there is all that time I spend mulling over scenes and characters while taking a shower, folding laundry, doing dishes or simply staring out a window.

A critical faculty is essential to writing. The author starts with a blank page and begins the harrowing process of elimination, discarding one option after another in an effort to pin down the right voice, the right setting, the right time, the right subject, all of which are entirely subjective. If we are to get anything done at all, we must rely on our judgments, ruling this better than that, and ruthlessly proceed.

Labels are words, the tools of our trade. We use them to identify thoughts, to assign meaning, to make sense of the world. We will spend hour after hour chasing down the words that best convey our ideas, and then we will endlessly arrange these words into sentences that are pleasing and precise. Words are prey. We must master them.

And how do we abandon our egos? Of all the art forms, writing is the most revealing, the most personal. We want to connect with others, and to that end we let the world in on our secrets and anxiously wait for a reaction. Maybe there are writers out there who don’t care about feedback, who are happy just to please themselves, but I haven’t met any.

And how do we take the ego out of marketing? How do we promote our work without promoting ourselves?  Facebook, Twitter, blogs—social media is how we distinguish ourselves, how we gain attention. How we sell books, or hope to.

Funny thing is, Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle are both prolific authors. Presumably they have found a way to reconcile their literary calling with their spiritual growth. I wonder how they do that.