How We Measure

Crack Den:

The script is something like this:

Them: So, what do you do?

Me: I, er, write about politics and media on the internet.

Them: [quizzical look]

Me: I’m a blogger.

Them: [facial expression reflecting the thought “this guy must be a Total Fucking Loser”]

Them: Oh, uh… that’s interesting… Umm… you do that for a living?

Me: Yes, mostly.

Them: So, uh… how do you make money doing that?

Me: Advertising, mostly

Them: Oh, so, uh, that actually makes money?

Me: Yes, it isn’t bad.

Them: Oh. I see. [backs away slowly]

I’ve had dozens of these conversations and they almost always turn to money very quickly. People want to know if I’m as much of a loser as they think I am, and they only way I can convince them I’m not is if I convincingly claim that I actually make money doing what I do.

I get this all the time, especially from folks slightly older, to whom I must give off the impression I am subordinate in some way. I need to wear more metal spikes and finally get that forehead tattoo, I guess. Anything to stave off smugness and condescension, both of which inspire me to physical violence. (What IS that, incidentally, the idea that just because you knew someone when she was three, you can talk to her like she still is forever? My grandmother doesn’t talk to me that way and she changed my diapers, for God’s sakes.)


What I mean to say is it’s not just about, as Atrios says, them assuming you’re a loser. It’s that the only way we can assign value to an occupation of which we’ve not heard before, the only way we can understand it, is to find out how much it pays. I get this all the time, with varying levels of nastiness depending on who I’m talking to, when I say I’m a writer. “Oh, you can make money at that?” You’d never ask a teacher that, because you know what he does, why what he does matters. You’d never ask a stay at home mother that, either, though of course they’re in for their own load of Special with the “what do you do all day?” and other ignorant questions. You’d never ask a lawyer that, because everyone KNOWS why what they do matters, because Law and Order is on approximately 300 hours a day.

And depending on the level of nastiness, it’s also a subtle way of putting you in your place, youarty farty type with your glasses and your scarves. “Oh, you can make money at that?” meaning wow, I thought it was useless. I thought it was something people did for fun. It’s also just basic rudeness and people not knowing how to ask questions at parties, how to have conversations like grownups with strangers. One of the writer forums I frequent had a list once of the rude shit people say to you when you tell them you’re a writer, and a lot of them were things I’d heard:

“So when are you going to get a real job?”

“You know what you should write? Something like the DaVinci Code. Then you’ll be rich!”

“Have you written anything I’ve heard of?”

Lately there’s been a lot of “what’s your next project?” and people seem dissatisfied with the response, “I have no idea.”

Thing is, though, for every boorish dope out there who doesn’t know how to speak to anybody, there are geniunely interested and curious human beings who are only trying to be nice. It’s usually only around the holidays that the patience with even the latter starts to wear thin. That, and I really don’t like to talk about work itself. About what I’m working on, sure, about the subject, about politics or journalism or the story of the moment or the story I worked on last, sure, but the actual mechanics of writing? Whether I write about everything all at once or stop and start, how long it takes, if I smoke or drink during work, where the ideas come from? Nobody really wants to hear that stuff, not even other writers. The process isn’t the point. Neither is the paycheck. If it was, I’d have long ago been doing something socially redeeming, like working in a toll booth.


22 thoughts on “How We Measure

  1. The lack of appreciation for writing is huge – especially given that your writing, in particular, can stop time, start forest fires, derail trains, reduce burly men to tears, and is otherwise awesome, and something not one of your detractors could ever do.
    That piece is huge. Add to it that you also write on the interwebs, and there you go. There is still an alarming number of people who don’t really understand what’s happening out here, beyond their Ebay and their AOL and their Texas Hold Em game lounges.
    They simply do not grasp the legitimacy, not to mention the immediacy.
    It’s a very very pale comparison, I know, but related: at work a few weeks back, I was talking about our modest success over at the NuPac, and how validating it was that DS had commented on several posts. More than a few people said things to the effect of “too bad you’re not going to make any money off of that” and one of the higher ups said in this sympathetic condescending way, “you realize there’s a very good chance that it wasn’t really this television producer person that visited your site, don’t you? I mean, really, it’s probably just somebody playing a prank.”
    I felt like answering, “You realize that I’m not the one who sounds like the naive idiot here, don’t you?”

  2. A college sociology prof of mine would frequently mention his understanding of the true American essence embodied in the question, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” It sure does explain how many people look at things.
    I’d like to think that (at least some of) the quizzical and bad responses come from the questioners being envious of someone creating, being good at it, and making a living doing something they love. Their responses merely expose the majority of workers who dislike their jobs but, hey, “It pays the bills, you know? How about another round?”

  3. I get the same crap as a photographer. Indeed, every artist (and that certainly includes writers) I know gets the same questions. Unless you’re doing something broadly “acceptable” (toll-booth worker, bond trader) you’re merely engaged in childish finger-painting.

  4. Great post! And clearly written after a “Christmas with the Relatives” or a “Party with Strangers”.
    “When you’re rich people think you really KNOOOOOOWW!”
    – Tevye
    Arch: Nice analysis by you and your professor. My good friend in high school has a response to that, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”.“If you’re so rich, why aren’t you nice?”
    Going home to the mid-west for Christmas always makes the money issue bubble to the surface, especially when relatives have very different economic world views.
    I was famous nationally and on the internets for 15 minutes last year because of what I and a bunch of bloggers did to alert advertisers to the violent rhetoric on Talk Radio. But I didn’t “monetize” it, so it doesn’t really count in their eyes. Showing them the clips from the New York Times and the SF Chronicle made them ask, “How much money did you make from this?” “How is this impacting your real job?”
    What does that say about what they really value? Yes they are showing their concern for my financial well being, but they also don’t want to acknowledge that doing bad things and working for companies that do bad things is also a moral choice that lots of people make and THAT isn’t really pointed out to them because it isn’t considered “in good taste”. (Just as long as they make “A ton of money” )
    I have a relative who work in one of the death industries. And he makes lots of money doing it.
    “How’s the job going creating that death goo?”
    “Great! We constructed 2 new plants and we are the leading death goo manufacturer in the country.”
    “You making any money doing that?”
    “I do okay.” (New BMW in the parking lot is his, along with his Mcmansion)
    When talking to other relatives it’s clear that he is “making a TON of money” doing it.
    Is there any question about his creation of death goo for a living? No. Why? Because it pays well. And they do all the rationalization for that job, because it pays well. Do any of them give him grief for working in the death goo business? No. (BTW, see “Thank you for Smoking” for a hilarious take on this, both the book and movie.)
    I’ve said to a few people that if I ever figured out how to monetize my fame I would do like my good friend George Soros and become the sugar daddy for the left. (Hey George my paycheck was late this week! Tell NTodd to get his ass in gear and mail out all the checks to us Atriots!)
    Wouldn’t it be cool to answer the jackasses with, “I’m working for the Spocko Think Tank as one of their in-house Fellows. You’ve heard of the Macarthur genius grants? That’s where I get my money and we kick the ass of people at the AEI, Hoover and Heritage.”
    And if people ask you if you make a living doing that you can then say. ‘I do okay’ and then ask them “How’s the death goo business? How can you work for a company that creates death goo? Because if it’s just for the money, that’s sick. I mean you don’t have to work for the death goo industry. I don’t and I make good money and now with our new national health care and transferable pensions I can go where I want and help people rather than work for a company like yours that makes death goo just so you can have a health care plan. You don’t have to have the excuse of “I do it for the health care” anymore.
    Why is it okay for them to taunt me about Bill Clinton? I didn’t taunt them about Bush. I bought into the it’s “Serious national security” stuff for too long. Why is it okay for them to question my work and give me grief because of my lack of making money doing it? I don’t question their careers and them making money creating death goo. Maybe I should. If they are going to be impolite and question me, I’ll question them and what they do for a living. And then I’ll ask them a question:
    “If you are so rich why aren’t you nice?”

  5. Spoc_ko,
    if you don’t already have a lesbian wife, allow me to volunteer.
    also, do let us know the rules for application to be a fellowship to the Spocko Think Tank. Can I use my First Draft Crack Van experience as qualification? Is there an honorarium?
    you rock, bro.

  6. Ahem, please allow me to offer a slightly contrary view.
    1. Writing is something that many people IMAGINE they could do. You can see this tendencity on display if you ever do a craft show. Loads of people will handle your stuff and comment within earshot “I could do that”, even though they never would.
    2. This is a question that I could see myself asking. Partly because of #1, but also because of my own perilous economic situation. Because having enough money to take care of all my obligations is always at the front of my mind, I tend to project a bit. And I’m always trying to find a better way for myself.
    So please let me apoligize for all dimbulbs who ask stupid questions in social settings. Except for those truly meanspirited jerks. Just Fuck THEM.

  7. Hey, Spock-o, ole buddy, I may just have an embryonic Spocko Think Tank forya. Lemme see what I can work out.
    I have heard variations on that “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” question quite a lot, and the actual answer seems to be that if you’re not smart in a particular, socially-acceptable sort of way, you’re not going to get rich because you’re smart. My answer to “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” is usually to say something like, “A former C student is President of the United States right now — you have to ask? The dumb jocks took over the world, and theynever liked us nerds.”
    I’m fortunately pretty lucky in terms of telling people what I do for a living. I tell them I write the stuff that appears when they click on the help menu in their computer programs, or, if that doesn’t work, I tell them I test software, and I also write articles and I run my own business. I’m a busy person. If people ask me why I’m not makinglots of money, I tell them my business is less than three years old, and I’m damned lucky to still be in business.
    I interviewed twice with General Dynamics. If they’d offered me the job I would have had to take it, because of some esoteric complications in my life, but I wouldn’t have felt good about it. Now I write documentation and test software used by (among other things) lumber companies. Does that make my hands clean, or not?

  8. Pansypoo. Hey yes you can be in it. In the Spocko think tank you don’t have to be like Donald Rumsfeld or Doug Feith to get a job. We will give jobs to actual human beings!
    Now all I need is my first 75 million in seed money.

  9. the great thing about me is, it doesn’t matter how much of a loser i am, or how much of a loser my boss or my wife think i am – when people ask me what i “do”, and i say either “well, i’m a rock and roll singer” or “well, actually, i’m a poet” or if i decide to blast with both barrels and say “i’m a songwriter” – even though i haven’t made more than a bag of groceries off of it in the past five years – people go “whoa! that’s like so cool!” i’ll never forget the look of awe on this one CEO’s face – a dude in his early 30’s who was wearing a five thousand dollar suit and looked like his haircuts were more expensive than john edwards’ – when i told him i did this and that for money but defined myself as a poet, he said, wonderingly, “wow, what’s that like, man?”
    i try to remember those moments any time i get worried about what the hell i’m doing with my life, or what people might think.
    i’m just worried i’m not cool enough to be in spocko’s think tank. would it help if i offered to buy you that star trek cremation urn?

  10. r@d@r: You are totally cool enough. I know how to define cool vs. the “kool kids”. The quick way the Kool kids do it is excluding others. We can do that, we have LOTS of others we can exclude. But it is defined by what we share and care about.
    We care about what we care about. We have our own favorite hang outs. We have a special hand sign. We have our have a sense of humor. We know who are the bad people and who are our heroes. We have an agenda. We can define our selves as the anti- Heritage anti-Hoover. We have goals. And we have actually already made an impact on the national scene. It’s like we have already won we just haven’t gotten the money.
    To paraphrase Bring it On:
    “We’re wanted, we’re hot, we’re everything they’re not!”
    The one tiny weakness in the scheme? No money. Yet. Hmmm. In the 23rd century we didn’t have to worry about money. The replicator economy has it’s advantages. I’ll have to noodle on it.

  11. I think ‘writer’ is too broad for most people to wrap their minds around. To Joe or Jane Blow it sounds like you get paid for thinking and since most Americans do their best thinking on the bowl it doesn’t sound like anything they couldn’t do for a living.
    Writer = superior SOB w/grammar skills to most people.
    If I were you and wanted to avoid this discussion with people I’d tell them I was a columnist. People know what a columnist is or at least they think they do. You stand up for the little guy, give advice, make funny observations — that seems intuitively like something that needs doing. Writing does not, especially since fewer than 1/2 of all adult Americans read books.
    The ‘online’ part isn’t particularly relevant IMHO. It’s like saying you write in pen or on a typewriter. What matters as a writer is that you have readers, not how they find you.

  12. mrstrailerco hit on something I’d like to elaborate on–it seems to me that people who ask questions like, “How do you get your ideas?” aren’t asking because they find your thought processes fascinating. They’re asking because they think if they knew the trick, they could do it, too. It’s like asking the magician if he palmed the bunny. And spork’s right, it happens to every artist I know, regardless of genre. (It’s painfully true for photographers–the digital revolution made *everybody* a button-pushing photo-taker. Too bad it didn’t make everybody a photographer…)
    That said, I realize how smug and snotty I sound, so let me make it clear. I have none of the talents I was just writing about. I just happen to work for a writer and be married to a photographer. And I’m very protective of both of them. I know how very hard they work (now more than ever). And I also know how painfully little they are paid for that work. Writing (and photography, frankly) is nearly a 24-7 job, because it involves complex thought processes that take time to work through. So even the writers who get the huge advances don’t annoy me (except for Stephen King)–I figure it’s good that at least one or two end up getting paid for the thousands of hours they spent getting where they got.

  13. You are an excellent writer, A. My (unsolicited) advice is to counter those types of questions with another questions such as “So, you can be this stupid and still breathe?” or something similar. Keep up the good work.

  14. I feel so proud! But somehow I don’t think my mother would feel quite the same way…

  15. When I write something which I think I’ve done well (comment posts, letters to the editor, & c.), I reread it the next day, and just cringe. Writing well is hard, and I really admire the people in the blogosphere who write well day after day. Your writing brings me here every day. Anyone who doesn’t understand doesn’t deserve to read your work.

  16. I have close friends in the theater who deal with this all the time. I admire writers and agree that the whole “do you get paid to write?” bit is rude, I must admit that some of the questions that pissed you off seemed perfectly harmless to me, i.e. “What is your next project?” It seems to show a respect for what you do and an invitation for you to share what you think is important and interesting. To me The response “I have no idea” is really saying F-you and reflects your adversion to talking about your work. While anything can be asked in an obnoxious manner, it is not an obnoxious question.
    Since I obviously don’t get it, could you give an example of an appropriate response?

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