The writer as commodity

When I was a young pup, many, many years ago, I wanted to be a writer.  I didn’t particularly want to write in any disciplined way, mind you.  What I was after was the identity of the fierce intellectual, scowling over my Smith-Corona, dimly visible through the clouds of pipe smoke curling around my august head.  I couldn’t pinpoint it, but somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I had not only to pound away at my typewriter to become the man of my dreams, but write well and often enough so that people would want to read my stuff enough to pay money for it.  Crass, but there it was:  I had to work, and I had to sell.

In spite of being a card-carrying old fart, I am reasonably cyber-literate, having worked with and on computers since about 1964 (not a typo).  I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the blogo-twittersphere: the writer as commodity; it comes with a cute bit of jargon as well: crowdfunding.  Its done sometimes through websites like SellaBand or Kickstarter, but as often as an independent project.  This typically involves a blog page with a link where you can send contributions; almost never is any actual piece of writing offered in exchange.  Throw in a twitter account where you can point to the page, and keep everybody abreast of how the donations are going, and Bob’s your uncle.

I am very skeptical of this development, which strikes me as just this side of holding out a cup on the street corner with a sign saying “Will write, but not for you.”

I am well aware of the long tradition of patronage in the arts.  It usually involved, however, wealthy members of the aristocracy, and was the norm mainly before copywrite laws and royalties.  Indeed, the word “royalties” derives from the practice of royal courts to patronize writers and other artists. But such arrangements almost always involved the commissioning of specific works, which had to meet the criteria of the patron.  If you held such a position, you had better write something pleasing to your angel, or you would soon find yourself on the street:

…writing for a patron typically meant avoiding the expression of ideas that would upset the established political order, on which the patron built his wealth and power.  —Gennady Stolyarov II

Today’s writers would be affronted by the very notion of such limits on their production, but they forget, or never knew, that this commitment to artistic integrity is a very modern thing, dating to the fairly recent phenomenon that writers could actually make money directly from the sale of their work.  You can have patronage, or you can have integrity; you can’t expect to have both.

Of course, it’s possible to get people to donate to your enterprise with no qualifications, on the basis of some romantic notion.  Gullible people are everywhere.  But do you want a living on those terms?  I’m asking; if you’re comfortable with it, none of my business, I suppose.

The long and short of it:  If you want integrity, sell what you write.  Go ahead and advertise online, include a donation link if you like, but give something in return, beyond your mere existence as a writer.

Born yesterday

I’m up in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, in a little gift shop near the great locks that pass ships between the high waters of Lake Superior and the lower Lake Huron, bypassing the St. Mary’s River rapids (sault in French).  A thousand-foot Great Lakes freighter is passing by, on her way to the locks.  A much smaller boat is ahead of her, looking for all the world like a leading dolphin, and someone asks, “Is that a pilot leading the freighter to the lock?”

“No, that’s your $10 million government boat,” answers the clerk, with a knowing smirk.  We’re supposed to smirk back in that knowing way we have when we don’t actually know, but suppose the speaker does.

“Coast guard?”

“Homeland Security.”  This with more of a smirk.  We’re all in the know here; the government can’t pull the wool over our eyes!

“I’ve heard,” the clerk continues, “that they can read your credit card from a mile away.”

That does it.  I’m all over it.  “Who told you that?” I ask.  “That’s ridiculous.  They would have to be within at least ten feet, and that’s only if your card has an RFID, which most don’t.”

That earns me an icy glare, and I just give up and leave.  The clerk’s ignorance of government snooping capabilities is apparently only surpassed by her smug certainty.  Never mind the “$10 million dollar boat” and whether Homeland Security had any business hanging around the Canadian border.

You see this sort of thing more and more these days, this smug rumor mongering, this assumption that we can see through the transparent lies of the government, or big business, or whatever dragons we’re onto.   Everyone’s a hipster these days.  But the skepticism of the hip has become the cynicism of the wannabe, a much easier posture, since it doesn’t require one to actually look into anything, to research it, to know it.  We’re engulfed in hipness, swept away by the deluge of the media we’re addicted to.  Music, film, even books all drone away on the exposure of Big Lies,  But in this anxiousness not to be duped, this obsessive non-rubeness, we are often fed only alternate lies, which, ironically, we accept without question.

By now, you may be thinking I’m in favor of government snooping.  You’re wrong.  I am concerned about it, and I believe we need to seriously consider laws curtailing it.  More to the point, we need to stop giving up all that information to the sacred Private Enterprise that is making it available in the first place.  But we need to get a grip on reality first.  Do you really believe all those loyalty cards are there to make life better for consumers?

Up here in the Soo, as it’s called, people love grousing about the government, which they are convinced exists only for the purpose of taking their money for no return.  Never mind that the wicked bogey-man government supplies virtually all of the employment here, what with the locks, the Air Force base, and the Lake Superior State University, just to name a few.

Well, sure, people say, but there used to be the carbide company, the coal company, shipping companies, all that glorious Private Enterprise, you know, that people worked for.

Well, those lovely businesses all left town, dear people, not because they weren’t making money, but because they weren’t making enough money.  The basic fact about business is that it is all about making the most money possible.  Those fabled mom-and-pop businesses that were run out of town by evil Walmart?  Before that, they had virtual monopolies on your bucks, and as often as not were  gouging you for them.  You knew that, of course, because you switched to Walmart quicker than a three card monte dealer as soon as you got the chance.  Essentially, you drove them out of business, not Walmart, which would dry up and blow away for lack of money if everybody who hated it would stop shopping there.

Same goes for big government.  We’re all for cutting spending, unless it’s something that benefits us personally.  A boondoggle is a project that benefits somebody else.  Let’s face it, we’re not deep thinkers on that account, either.

Similarly, we’re up in arms if the NSA misses a clue, and something gets blown up by terrorists, and then complain that they’re snooping too much when it turns out they’re tapping information we’ve happily provided to businesses, whose stated sacred charge is to get as much money from us as possible.

We cannot get reasonable government until we become reasonable ourselves, and we cannot become that by automatically believing or disbelieving anything.

I hate to spring this on you so late in your life, but you are going to have to work at democracy, if it’s going to make it.  Ignorance just won’t cut it.

An alien life

Call him Rick.  He carried a large knife and claimed to be able to see through boulders.  His body was covered with scars and tattoos in a day when such art was usually reserved for drunken sailors.  If you told him someone had “shredded” a guitar, he would have smiled quizzically at the image of strings and splinters strewn across the landscape.

We met on a boat from Barcelona to Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  I had been staying in a fifth floor walk up pension around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña, up the Rambla from the windy industrial port.  In those days Barcelona was leading a dangerous double life as a haven for hippies and a provincial capital and headquarters for the Guardia Civil.  It had been the last city to fall in the civil war, and bore the scars, both physical and social, to show for it.  The war had also begun there, in typical Spanish fashion, with neither side wanting to be the first to fire upon fellow Spaniards.  The Guardia somehow brought themselves to do it, and three years of hellish romanticism ensued.

This was years before the Great Dictator Die-Off between Franco and Marshal Tito, but the Generalissimo was getting on in years, and things were stirring.  The Guardia were not amused.  I had myself witnessed what can only be considered an early flash mob:  On the busy shopping street below, several young men began running with unfurled banners and shouting “Libertad!”  In seconds, the street was empty.  Utterly.  By the time the police had arrived and sealed off either end of the street, it looked like no one had ever been there.  The overall effect of this seemed to have been to make the already ill-humored Guardia Civil even touchier.  An acquaintance made a disparaging remark about their characteristic (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) hats, stupidly, within earshot.  He was taken into custody and not seen again.  Rumors were circulating that a crackdown on undesirables was imminent.  Then, I happened past a ticket agency, where I saw that passage to Tenerife could be had for the equivalent of about $25 US.  A one week passage on a cargo vessel, all meals included, ending up in the Canary Islands.  That was cheaper than staying put!

The first full day aboard, I learned, among other things, that turning “green” with sea-sickness was not metaphorical.  I’m still trying to figure out the biological logistics of raising that color on a normally reddish caucasian face.  That day I spent shuttling between the rack and the head; by morning, though, I was inexplicably much better, and ravenous to boot, and made my way to the dining room for breakfast.  I found myself sitting next to a wild-mannered, thoroughly engaging presence of a man of indiscriminate age.

He had a full beard and hair that looked as if it had been chewed off rather than cut, skin the color and texture of fine undyed leather, and a few scattered tattoos.  One of them consisted of a much scarred logo with the words “Barons” and “Earth” above and below.  He wore an old but well washed t-shirt of undefinable color, ancient jeans and a coarse belt upon which hung a sheathed hunting knife.  A waiter arrived with bread, and my companion drew his knife and stuck it into the wooden table, turned to face me and said, “Rick.”

In precisely the same way as one reflexively bows in response to a newly introduced Japanese person, I pulled out my own knife, stuck it next to his, and said, “Mike.”  Rick nodded, and we ate breakfast.  That no one on the ship’s crew seemed to find this odd boded well, I thought, for the journey.

I still have that knife, it’s edge still chipped where Rick and I settled an argument about whose knife was made of the harder steel.  I have rarely met a man of such imminent power who nevertheless had the charisma to evoke trust rather than fear.  I have no doubt that he was capable of brutal violence, but there always seemed clear parameters bounding that capability, and he seemed an excellent judge of exactly where those parameters were with regard to any situation.

Once, another passenger, a young, undisciplined toff of a lad had been caught stealing.  The crew had cornered him on the deck, and he had pulled a knife to fend them off.  At a certain point, Rick tired of the melodrama, and simply went up and took the knife away, shaking his head at the amateurism of it all.

As near as I could ascertain, he was originally in Europe on some dubious enterprise which fell through.  He had shrugged it off, and embarked on a purposely undefinable quest for fortune and sustenance. I imagined men and women like him piercing the uncharted wilderness down through the mangled trails of history.  We no doubt owe their kind much that is both joyous and horrific in our culture.

We parted ways somewhere near a goat cave we were using for shelter on Tenerife.  I like to think he still plies the waves of fate, somewhere in that great trackless frontier that is his personal adventure.  But I have a feeling he died long ago, blown away like the great gust of wind that was his life.

Me, in those gloriously sullen days

Me, in those gloriously sullen days


You stand before a gate.  It’s a good day, and the path leads forward.  Behind you lies the road you’ve traveled on to get here; it’s familiar and well worn.  In some ways, you know it better than you know yourself.  You’ve often retraced your steps to get a better look at some particularly odd stone, or a root pushing up through the pathway you almost stumbled on, or just to make sure you hadn’t made a wrong turn back there, where a smaller, overgrown branch held momentary appeal.

Every so often, broken twigs signal a point where you wandered off into the woods, following butterflies, snakes, or other demons.  It was wild and reckless in there; you didn’t stay long.  You wonder if it might be good to push a bit further in, before you leave the woods.  But it’s getting late in the year; some leaves have already turned, and some of the charm has already diminished.  It’s chilly, and your feet hurt.

Up ahead, the sun is out, beckoning like a lost lover.  You see traces of green, a clearing, a place to know where you are, precisely.  There are even more woods beyond that.  This old forest path is kind; adventures are kept to the edges, like handouts at a festival of life.  Some lie strewn at your feet, already discarded.   Hard to make out, though, exactly what’s up there, there’s so much light, and your poor eyes are accustomed to the shade.  There’s still time; what to do?