Starving Artist

Life is hard when you’re addicted to story.

One of the absolute coolest things I’ve ever seen happened in the southbound lane of Route 40 in northern Maryland. As a friend and I were driving north, we saw a car across the median strip. It was traveling south with a large piece of wooden latticework strapped to its roof.

Just as the car was about to go by us, the giant, square piece of wood came undone, flying off the roof of the car and landing — for a split second only — upright in the road. It stayed vertical just long enough for the next car to go crashing through, exploding the lattice into splinters.

My friend and I agreed that it was pretty fuckin’ cool.

That story has absolutely nothing to do with this piece. Nothing. I just felt like telling it.

This essay is for all the writers in the audience. I know a few of you are reading this just by the fact that this site is created, nurtured, and tended by writers. And considering that it would take a rather conscientious reader to track down a little site like this, and that writers are often good readers, and that perhaps the reverse is true, maybe there are more of you out there in the ethers of cyberspace.

A little background first. It’s been three years since I graduated from a small, private college on the eastern shore of Maryland — the same institution where most of Crunchable’s regular contributors matriculated. And it’s been two years since I began work as a reporter for a weekly newspaper headquartered in the same tiny town as the college.

I learned rather quickly after graduation that while English majors make up a vast segment of college graduates, there are few relevant job opportunities that don’t involve typing in Web site content. So when the opportunity arose to get paid to write and be published on a weekly basis while having no professional experience in the field of journalism, I jumped at it.

Now, it’s a small paper in the smallest county in Maryland, so the breaking news here is a little on the dry side. Most of the articles I write are so boring it makes my spleen ache. But I do get to learn an enormous amount of information on topics I would never have bothered investigating on my own: state redistricting, aquaculture, zoning law, dredge spoils, and environmental reconstruction.

And occasionally I get to do something enjoyable, like interviewing Ray Bradbury over the phone. It happened like this: he was scheduled as the commencement speaker at the aforementioned small college, so I talked to the college’s public relations guy. He talked to the writer’s agent. The agent gave me the writer’s fax number. I faxed the writer. The next day, I had a message on my answering machine from Bradbury giving me his phone number and a good time to call — about five minutes from when I got the message.

I stumbled and bumbled through some softball questions and he was polite enough to answer them. One of his more interesting comments was that if mankind does not attempt a trip to Mars, then we’ve pretty much failed as a species.

I thanked him for his time, and the next day he sent a message saying that he wouldn’t be able to make it to commencement because of an eye infection.

I tell that story a lot. And I will continue to do so until a better story comes along.

But again, that story really has absolutely nothing to do with this piece. Nothing. I mean it.

The job is workable, but I’m looking to move on. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately. There’s even less of a job market for writers than there was two years ago. Even those content-writing jobs fizzled up when the Internet-based economic bubble popped.

Here I am again, searching, peering through want ads and scrolling down job search engines, looking for something that I can do for a living. And I’m a stubborn bastard. My high standards force me to limit my search to something fun — something I might actually enjoy.

I suppose I could settle for something that pays well and gives me the free time to write on my own. I write short stories and the occasional essay for this fine, fine site. But I’ve spent the last two years writing for a living, and I’m a little stuck on it. It’s kinda nice seeing your byline every week.

That doesn’t mean I’m not open to compromise, though. If someone offered me a gig putting spindles in boxes for a hundred grand a year, I think I could take it. I’ve got a price. But until that particular job opportunity comes along, I’ll be looking for some variation of putting words onto paper for others to read.

Does anyone else find this process a bit maddening? Whether you’re looking for the kind of job that would give you that feeling of challenge, accomplishment and satisfaction, or the right job to take on while you’re getting your real writing career started, it’s a little like pulling teeth with a broken string. It feels just enough like waiting for your life to start to be disheartening.

Maybe this would be a little easier if “writer” was considered by the general public as something akin to a real job. When people ask what you do for a living, saying “I’m a writer” will get you the same kind of look as when you say “I’m a philosopher” or “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.” Saying “reporter” or “journalist” makes it a bit easier for me.

When I tell people what I would like to spend my life doing, I don’t want to receive an “isn’t that cute” face. For Christ’s sake, there’s an ungodly amount of writers, wannabe writers, hopeful writers and trying-desperately-to-be writers out in the job market. You’d think we’d command a little more respect.

Oh well. I suppose it’s a pipe dream.

In consolation, there’s no lack of places to feature your writing as long as you don’t mind not getting paid for it. Whether you’re an essayist — those who constantly ask the question “Why?” or “Have you ever noticed?” — or a fiction writer who’d rather answer the question “What if?” there are places to turn to.

You’re staring at one of them right now.

And, if you suspect you have a little bit of talent, you can take a look at The Writers Market 2002, and maybe you’ll get published and possibly paid.

It’s pocket change, though, and being a starving artist isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. Eventually, you’ve got to find a job that doesn’t make you want to set fire to something electronic every hour on the hour.

Why is it that there are so few writers born into wealth, having the financial security that would allow them to write — successfully or not — full-time? Maybe those with money to burn don’t feel the need to ask the important questions, much less put them down to paper. Maybe it’s someone’s idea of a sick joke.

Maybe I should shut up now.

So, in conclusion, write. Write whatever you want, whenever you want, using whatever font, type or inappropriate fucking shitmonkey expletives you want.

Show those cocksuckers who told you that “maybe it would be a good idea to pick up a second major — maybe business” exactly where they can shove their shiny little Volvos.

Show ’em what it’s like to have a little integrity.

And if you hear about a decent job, possibly in journalism or small publishing, e-mail me, for fuck’s sake. Us writers gotta stick together.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood