I am having an attack of a recurring illness that, for want of a better term, I will call “real job envy.” As in, envy of people who have regular or real jobs. For most writers, this is a sporadic, but all too familiar, low-grade fever.
I just got back from a fancy wine-tasting, organized by my college alumni club. There, I was surrounded by successful lawyers, doctors, architects, university professors. All of them have good jobs that come with all the lovely trappings, such as health insurance, paid vacations, and — be still my heart — weekly paychecks. They go in on Monday, they leave on Friday, and they actually get money to do so! On a regular basis! No bowing and scraping, no pitching, no wheedling. No empty threats to take someone to small claims court if they don’t ante up for that profile of an obscure television actor, or for that stellar review of a show that has long since closed.
If you’re a writer, and you’re not in the big leagues, your life is one of feast or famine. I get a nice check from the publishers now and then, but it has to be parceled out over a very long time, made to last until the book is done, and the next one can be sold. It even used to be possible to survive, and do reasonably well, writing magazine and newspaper pieces, but the internet, where thousands of writers are willing to work for a pittance, has made that almost impossible. In fact, Arianna Huffington has plainly established that writers, even very good ones, are so eager to see their work in print that they will labor for absolutely nothing at all. One of them happens to be a friend of mine who recently wrote a thoroughly reported and brilliantly composed piece on the wild fires out West, and when I asked him why he’d done it for no pay, all he could really do was mumble something about how important a subject it was, and how he wanted to do whatever he could to bring it to broader national attention. And of course he’s right! Writers, damn us all, will write about what we care about, whether we’re paid for it or not, but now that the word is out, we’re doomed!
It’s hard to underbid your competition when they’re charging nothing.
What I envied those folks back at the wine-tasting wasn’t really their grand houses, or their BMWs, or their Mediterranean cruises. (Even the profs had tenure to fall back on.) What I envied them was the relaxed way in which they discussed such things, the comfortable position they had assured themselves in the world, the professional status they had achieved in life, along with their expertise, that no one could take away from them. The anesthesiologist could always find new people to knock out, the lawyer could always find someone to sue, the businessman could sell some more widgets. I even talked to someone who owned a chain of funeral homes. Wow, I thought, as long as people keep dying, this guy is set!
When you find yourself envying morticians, something is wrong.
And no, I’m not confusing material prosperity with happiness. These folks are no more immune to the natural shocks that flesh is heir to than I am; it’s just that when the shocks come, they land on a nicer, more secure doorstep.
Nor am I forgetting the festering resentment and ennui I felt on those rare and brief occasions in my life when I did work a regular job. Oh, how I dreaded sitting in endless story meetings discussing Shannon Doherty’s motivation in an upcoming episode of “Charmed,” or having to sit at my desk in the offices of Esquire, even if there was nothing to do, until I could officially leave at 5 or 6 o’clock. The best comment I ever heard on this quandary came from the screenwriter Robert Towne, who said something to the effect that writers have no more interest in telling someone else what to do than they do in being told what to do. We don’t want to be bosses, and we really hate being bossed.
And though I thought Towne was spot on — writers are an ornery, independent lot by nature, which is how we got ourselves into this fix in the first place — that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel that fever from time to time, that longing for a nice, cozy sinecure, a 401K, and a paycheck on Friday afternoon.