Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mad About Money

There was a little email thread that shot through the Grubbie community a few weeks (or was it months?) ago. In it, one writer tore off on a riff about how he didn't quite understand this business of writing for literary journals that don't pay. He confessed, or perhaps boasted, that he had never published any piece of writing without getting paid for it, and that he considered those who did such a thing were giving their talents away, and encouraging the entire publishing world to devalue writers. He went on and on about it, and I may be exaggerating his arguments in my memory. 

Someone wrote back to say, "Hey, you're channeling my mother." And we all had a laugh (I hope) and went back to our desks and our private neuroses. 

I remember feeling annoyed and implicated in this, and on both sides. I do write for money. I have written for glossy magazines for $1 a word and $1.25 a word, and for $1.50 a word. No more than that. (And I spent years and years writing for much less.) And yet I've never felt honored by the publishing world, or even noticed. In fact, I've felt held back because I don't like and can't quite get the hang of the hustling part of magazine writing. I'm not very good at coming up with ideas for stories or pitching them. I may have already taken advantage of all the lucky bounces I'm going to get in the magazine world, and that doesn't disappoint me. 

On the other hand, I took a couple of writing classes last year to do some experimenting on my own. In one of them, I wrote an essay about one incident in my time as a sportswriter. I sent it out to lots of little literary magazines, none of whom pay writers, and one of them took it. It should be out this fall. So on that side, I've given away, if that's the phrase, one of my best and most personal stories. So, I was a little annoyed by the notion that this might make me a loser of some sort.

Why is money the thing that most validates work?

This would be a silly question except that my son spent the better part of yesterday taping coins to a piece of paper. Some other kid at school had given him a dollar. No matter how many times I asked, he wouldn't give me the full story on why this other kid had given him a dollar. But he put the dollar in the center of the page and taped it down. Then he taped down a bunch of other coins he'd found or been given. He made a huge piece of art about money and he wanted to keep it with him all the time. We went to grandma's house for dinner last night and the G-man brought his artwork. He showed it to grandma and she fussed over it, telling him it was beautiful. He said to her, "It's for you." And we all sat up in alarm.

Grandma said, "No, honey. I can't keep this. It's your money."

But it wasn't money to him. The coins and paper were just that. They were cool, decorative objects to tape to a piece of paper. Grandma offered to count it for him. She counted the coins and said, "You've got seven dollars here." 

Larry and I looked over and said in unison, "What?" 

"Seven dollars," she said. "That's right." At this point G was insisting that grandma keep the moneyed paper and she was thanking him and hugging him and telling him what a good boy he is, and at the same time, saying, "You keep it."

And then I realized that G was measuring our reactions. He was taking it all in, noticing our shock and alarm over $7 in change. He was storing up all this information about how coins make people feel. 

We didn't leave that piece of paper at grandma's house. G brought it home with him. I suspect it means something different to him today than it did yesterday. It does to me, too.


Pam5 said...

I hate it when my kids play with money. But maybe they will make furniture with it:

Grace T said...

I enjoyed this post a lot. It went one way and then another and yet another--and each place the writing took me was interesting and made me ask some questions of myself.

I was thinking about the money thing and kids. My first instinct would be to compare the money to a consumer product--you could buy 7 candy bars with that money--but that makes me think that we're encouraging money as a tool for consumption.

And you're SO not a loser. But you know, I read that Grubbie email also, and it made me feel like bad about myself and I didn't really know why until you articulated it.