Last Saturday, I went to an AWP session on when we should write for free. The discussion was dominated by all sorts of writers, but no poets (except for some quick comments during the discussion time), whom I imagine would have had a different take than the variety of opinions offered by the panel.
A more pertinent question might be when should we write for very little money? For me, that's a harder one to figure out. If we know that the press is struggling, should that influence our decision? If it's something we want to write, but there's very little money, how should that impact our decisions?
And of course, we all have to work these issues out for ourselves. It's only been in the last year that I've been offered any money for my writing, so I'm still at the stage where I'm thrilled to get a check, no matter how small.
At some point, I can imagine that I'll have to try to determine how many of these small jobs I can do for love and/or little money, but I'm not at that point now. And I'm lucky to have a full-time job that pays all of my bills, so I have the luxury to consider these angles.
Yesterday I thought of that panel because I had gotten an e-mail with an offer to write for a Lutheran prayer manual that's published each year, with different content each year. The deal offered was that I'd write a month's worth of prayers, excluding Sundays. Each prayer would be 35-40 words. It's due March 11, and I'd be paid $100, plus 2 copies, plus credit as one of the writers.
At first I thought I'd missed the opportunity completely. The e-mail was dated Tuesday, and the editor requested an answer in the next day or two. I didn't actually see it until Saturday. I decided to respond anyway. Perhaps he still needed writers. I figured it was worth it to write a polite e-mail inquiring and thanking him for thinking of me, even if he didn't need me anymore.
I'm glad I wrote. He did still need writers. I hadn't missed my chance. Hurrah!
I thought back to that panel and the ensuing discussion. I know that some of those people would say I had gotten suckered. But it's the kind of writing that I love to do and hope that others will find valuable. I can do it in the time available. It will get my name out there, and who knows where that will lead. I do worry about the future of the press, Augsburg Fortress, which has faced sobering financial issues, but not enough to worry about whether or not I'll be paid. I know the press has faced financial struggle, so I don't have to wrestle with whether or not there's an executive somewhere pocketing all the profits that should be going to writers.
It did occur to me to wonder how the worship editor at Augsburg Fortress knew my name to give to the editor of the book. Several years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book of meditations on the weekly Gospel lesson. I received a very nice reply back, even as they rejected my idea. And now, here I am, years later, about to work with them on a different project.
I heard this same kind of story again and again, the project that leads to a different project that leads to an opportunity that one wouldn't have had if one hadn't done one of the earlier projects. Some of us in the room that Saturday morning tried to say such things (most eloquently, the poet Kelli Russell Agodon, but I didn't take close enough notes to quote her directly).
Some of the people at the When Should We Write for Free might do the math, might figure out how much I'm being paid for each prayer. Would they feel I had been swindled?
What really matters, of course, is that I don't feel like I'm being swindled. I'm not some Victorian seamstress, doing piecework, going blind as I stitch the shirt that is also a shroud (thank you Victorian poet Thomas Hood, for that image). Some of the writers I heard during the AWP convention really do feel like they're doing literary piecework, being oppressed by a variety of forces. In some ways, I understand. In many ways, I don't, since I'm a writer doing much of what I do simply because I love it. Early on, I did dream of writing a best seller which would mean I would never have to teach again. But as it became apparent that I'm not going to write my way out of a need for a day job, I've made my peace with that. And being paid to do what I love and would be doing anyway gives a pleasure that I imagine writing to pay the light bill might not give me.
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