The Writing Life: Sublime Transports and Ethical Pitfalls

Mark Twain
“There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”          Mark Twain

Ah the writing life, the pure enjoyment of words and language, the sense that we have set out on some hallowed road trodden before us by our greatest literary precursors. My small efforts pale in the brilliance of those luminaries, and yet, I too can aspire to strike against a small truth, brush against what the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom, in his new book, The Daemon Knows,  calls “the strong ­transports of sublimity.” After all, as Hemingway said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. “

So I gather up my journals, written over the course of three decades, scan them for gems that may still glow. I delve into nesting folders on old flash drives for half-finished stories and books in the hopes that one or two may call out to be made whole. I take satisfaction in having written a book for someone else. I blog, explore flash fiction and mini memoirs; pen book reviews; pass on my own hard-won writing tips. I count myself a fringe member of a noble literary fraternity (or, as Virginia would have it, sorority).

Then I come up against harsh Necessity. Most of my writing tasks do not pay the bills.

That makes writing a brilliant late career choice, since one of my favorite things to worry about is money. I don’t blame the wagons to which I have hitched myself; what does one expect from artists, musicians and philosophers? Even the one money man I married denied me the security I sought, playing the markets as he did with a reckless alacrity. I blame myself. Money and I have always been in an on-again off-again relationship. Maybe it’s the frisson of unease I crave.

This week, a client’s late payment sent me into a fit of money angst. Words like “insolvency” and “penury” knocked against my rattled brain (ridiculous, I know, for a rather firmly entrenched bourgeoise.) Feeling impotent, I importuned the oracle of the Internet for wise counsel. I googled and yahooed the magic SEO tags, “writing jobs”; “freelance writing”; etc. One article on Careers in Writing from Britain’s the Guardian gave me hope that I might at least fashion a small career as a hack. Two others I found at Freelance Writing Jobs invited submission of a cover letter and resume. Desperate for some sort of action, I spent a precious couple of hours conjuring up the dead language of old job applications.

The next morning I got a reply and a link from a site named “Writers Careers” inviting me to interview over Skype. I should have known from the labels that had attracted me—”scholarly,” “academic”—”that it was a paper mill disguised as a freelance writing resource. Why I should find such deception shocking eludes me, since getting round the rules—”cheating—”has become the modus operandi of our age. Still, as an educator, life-long student and writer, I consider such “services” an egregious affront not just to the clients who so easily barter the development of their mental faculties for a passing grade, and their teachers, who are being swindled out of precious time and effort, but to anyone who cares about writing as a vocation and a profession.

So, I tip my hat to the struggle that is eking out an essay or story or blog post one word and one line at a time. I may scrape along financially; I may in the long run harvest a negative return on my efforts. But at least I won’t sell my hard-won research and writing skills as so much pulp for the mill. Hell, I’ll even look beyond the small securities of business writing and editing. After all, as Edmund White quipped, “It always seemed much better to be a writer—a Real Writer—than a successful hack.”

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