A periodic column written by award-winnning New York editor Michael Seidman

Stet #4

Occasional Thoughts from the Editorial Side

by Michael Seidman

March 2004

I was listening to Melissa Gilbert on The Today Show this morning; she was appearing in her capacity as President of the Screen Actors Guild, speaking about the upcoming SAG Awards, voted on only by actors and presented only to actors.

One of the questions she had to field was: “Do you think that people react to the results of, for instance, the Golden Globes and say, ‘OK, I’ll vote for her because everyone is saying she was great?”

The answer was no. The reason was telling.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had writers complain to me that they couldn’t live on what they were earning from their writing; how many writers have turned down advances because someone else in their group had gotten more (for something not as good, of course. Never turn your back on a writing buddy) or because they “can’t afford to sell it for that.” One writer—an award-winner with very nice numbers—in a dry patch now, unable to sell her work after her publisher went out of business, was whining about having to take a job as a secretary.

There are politicians who complain about America being populated by folks who are demanding entitlement programs. Writers seem to think that they’re entitled to be able to write a book a year and live off the earnings. They’re not. The key word is earnings. One doesn’t earn a living through the writing, but through the sales or potential sales (one of the reasons, as you know, that publishers pay royalties).

Gilbert said the actors voted honestly, voted for what they saw as best performance because they understood acting in a way that a critic for the foreign press or someone from another aspect of the industry couldn’t. They also voted for the best because most of the 150,000+ members of SAG didn’t earn a living through acting. They were honoring people who did the best job, based on the job, not on their press.

I don’t know if it still holds true, but once upon a time in America, writers, as a class, as an economic demographic, were said to earn more than only migrant farm workers. The farm workers may have passed us by since then.

The actors act for the same reason you should be writing: because you love it, because it means something to you. If the big bucks come, fine and dandy. If they don’t, do you stop writing? Or do you keep at it, doing something else to support yourself? Joyce Carol Oates still teaches at Princeton, most of the honest writers I know, if they haven’t broken through or invested wisely on the way up, have day jobs. Some may even be waiters. Others flip burgers. Or work as secretaries. One man of my acquaintance, a glutton for punishment, works as a jazz musician….

Over the last seven or eight months, I’ve been reinventing myself, concentrating on something I left behind back in 1966 when I opted to stay in publishing rather than study photography. A career as a photo-illustrator is beginning to take shape (some of the work may be seen on my web site at http://uncw.edu/hst/MSeidman.html). As a result of showing some of my work at a site devoted to photography, I’ve had the good fortune to make contact with a man who worked, once, as the head of design for Random House. He’s also written several books. He’s also been in advertising. He’s trained as a painter; he’s beginning to paint with pixels. He also teaches. And the people he teaches, photographers and painters, want to write, want to do books—the kind of books that are very hard to sell because they’re going to be expensive in a difficult economy: Coffee table books. And I’ve started working with his students, teaching them what they need to learn about another business that isn’t going to pay enough.

That’s something we find at the heart of the heart of creativity: the ideas nag at us, keep us sleepless, provide adrenline rushes. We’re junkies for that (I think it may be from whence the “I have to ________” comes; fill in the blank with the creative choice of your desire). Just as the destination is secondary to the journey, the income, while nice, is secondary to the act, to the acceptance, to being read or seen or heard.

Most creative people don’t earn a living being creative. Maybe that’s where our greatest act of creativity lies: in earning enough to support the habit and so to provide pleasure for those who don’t support us.

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About Michael Seidman

MICHAEL SEIDMAN is an editorial consultant working with individuals and publishers. He can be reached at mseidman@aol.com.