In Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, 33 working writers share their thoughts on the taboo topic of getting paid.

Editor Manjula Martin orients this collection with the definition of scratch.

Amy Deneson Scratch log

There are countless pearls of wisdom strung throughout this book.

Austin Kleon, in his conversation with Manjula, suggests that writers keep a reading log online. “And every book you read, post some quote from it or say something about it that’s interesting and just, like, become a good citizen.”

On that note, here are quotes from many of the contributors to Scratch that are total treasure to me. I’m sharing them in a log of three parts following the book sections: I Early Days; II The Daily Grind; and III Someday.

Log I: EARLY DAYS

“Owning This” Julia Fierro

Through their immigrant and working class-bred eyes, books were books—to be admired, collected, and displayed in the hope that their sophisticated light would reflect back on you. I imagine this practice of imbuing objects with transformative power is common in people with immigrant and blue-collar roots. Isn’t it a pillar of the American Dream? Money, spent in the right way, can allow you to reinvent your identity. Rewrite your story—past, present, and future drafts.”

 

“With Compliments” Nina MacLaughlin

“But writing is work as well, and when we agree to volunteer, to have our time and effort go uncompensated, when we buy into the lie on the hope that maybe something, someday will come of this, we perpetuate a corrupt and broken system. I am guilty of it.”

 

“Faith, Hope, and Credit” Cheryl Strayed

“I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money.”

 

 

“Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist” Porochista Khakpour

By now, I have learned never to answer when my agent calls. I let her leave messages and then I throw my depressed fits in private. Before I call her back, versions of myself in jobs I’ve held since beginning to work on my novel catwalk through my head with forced smiles and exhausted stomps: now, hostess; now, adjunct; now, tutor; now, hair model; now, bar reviewer; now, babysitter; now, nanny; now, shopgirl!

Yet here it is: good news, a book deal. There it is: everything ever, answered!

…a story so joyous I would have never written it.”

 

“The Mercenary Muse” Colin Dickey

“Money taints everything, why not writing too? Once its value is determined by the marketplace rather than the writer or the reader, our relationship to literature becomes estranged.”

 

“Running the Widget Factory” Susan Orlean

“The reality is, more and more and more, being a writer is running your own business.”

 

“The Wizard” Alexander Chee

“Most of what I have to endure as a writer is the asymmetry between effort and reward: the travel piece that flies me to have dinner in Shanghai at an avant-garde French restaurant with ten seats, paying three dollars a word for three thousand words alongside the memoir of teaching myself to use the tarot, written at the same length, for which I was paid $250, a flat fee.

The most mysterious arrangement: the op-ed I wrote for free in an hour, for which I later received a $1,400 check because it had been republished.”

 

“You are the Second Person” Kiese Laymon

You’re wearing a XXL T-shirt you plan on wearing the day your novel comes out. The front of the T-shirt says, WHAT’S A REAL BLACK WRITER? The back reads, FUCK YOU. PAY ME.”

 

“Word Hard, Read Dead” Yiyun Li

“First, one has to get solid work done rather than looking around to see what others are doing, what others are getting as rewards; in a sense, one has to avoid comparing oneself to others. Second, hard work does not always pay off, which seems inevitable in life, so one has to avoid measuring outcome against effort.”

 

“Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve” J. Robert Lennon

“Besides, commerce is more than money. It was fine for Nabokov to tell his publisher that he published for money, for it was money Nabokov was trying to secure. But money isn’t the only reason he published, or that anyone publishes.

We publish because we are exhibitionists. We publish to be admired. We publish to be part of something that excites us. We publish to feel special, to feel real, to feel brave, to feel afraid. We publish to evoke emotion in others, to prove Mom wrong. We publish because other people publish, and that’s what is done. We publish so that we can talk about publishing to other people who publish. We publish so that we can get contributor’s copies, so that we can get a job, so that we can get laid. We publish for an excuse to go to New York, to have something to flog at conferences, to have something to brag about on airplanes. This is all commerce. Our cocktail party banter with other writers is commerce. Our blog posts about books we like, or loathe, are commerce. Our barroom readings and subtweets are commerce. We parlay our genetic predisposition to language, our hard work developing it, into companionship, attention, admiration, criticism. This is normal, and we all do it.”

 

Next up: Log II THE DAILY GRIND

During our conversation for The Rail about her current exhibition, Kay and I swerved onto the topic of art as activism.

Kay has used her artwork as a platform for advocacy for decades. In the current collection, Kay pointed to Trickle Down (2015) being a sharp criticism of the erroneous economic theory.

I brought up a few personal favorites, including a piece outside of the collection, “I Owe You” (2007).

“I Owe You” (2007) colored pencil on paper by Kay Rosen

 

Kay brightened and mentioned that she revived this work for a retrospective of her letterpress work for the Barbara Krakow Gallery, Kay Rosen: The Complete Letterpress Works, 1984-2017.

Originally, Kay created “I Owe You” to express resistance to the Energy Transfer Partners’ efforts to build the Dakota Access Pipeline less than one mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

“Standing Rock really got to me,” she said. “Mistreatment of Native Americans goes back so far, and it is ongoing with other tribes.”

We marveled at the coincidence that IOU is in the middle of Sioux.

“Right in the heart of the word!” Kay exclaimed. “It is so amazing to me when this happens,” she continued. “The message is embedded in the name.”

‘“IOU’ is a found textual treasure,” she noted in the work’s description for her letterpress exhibition, which “required minor adjustments to color to address major historical wrongs.”

The message of the piece, Kay wrote was “both a promise and an apology to that tribe, and by extension, to the many other indigenous peoples whose rights and treaties have been trampled over the years.”

“I would love to do it large, billboard-size,” she told me, her hands outstretched. “This is a work that I would still like to get out in the world, as a message,” Kay said.

Me too.

 

For the June issue of Curve magazine, I connected with Ariel Levy to discuss “too much” women and her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply. The interview and book review are in the Pride issue and on newsstands now.

 

 

During our interview, I asked Ariel why she published this memoir about losing the life she was authoring for herself, which included being a reporter, wife, and mother. She did not spare herself. Ariel went well beyond the writer’s call to sit down with the page and open a vein.

Yet writing is one thing, publishing another.

“These extraordinarily intense things happen to the human female animal around the reproductive system,” she responded. “If you’re female, you will have some kind of drama around menstruation or pregnancy or birth or menopause.”

Ariel continued; noting that as a feminist, she believed:

“The whole world of human reproduction in the human female animal—that affects half the human population—is not something that is a subject for literature much. So I felt strongly that this was a legitimate subject to write about and that it was worthwhile.”

Through Ariel’s willingness to put her life on the page, to lay her mind and body bare, we can become better acquainted with our own thoughts, discover shared experiences, and challenge our perceptions as we keep evolving, generation after generation.

This is the revolutionary Mother Nature of memoir.

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