Will Write for Merlot: The N.Y. Curse

A major magazine that I write for every month, and to which I am undyingly and contractually loyal, happened to be working up a business scandale piece on a company that I happened to have done some work for. Would I please, my dear editor entreated, talk to the reporter doing the story?

Well, O.K., I said, being a sport and generally in the service of truth. I don’t usually talk about my clients, but I had nothing bad to say about them and they were out of business anyway. So I said what nice people these e-commerce kids were, and how it was too bad that they had gone through such a huge fortune with nothing to show for it. When he asked pointed questions about my own experience, I answered the best I could. I did wince, however, when he asked about my salary. I just said, “Call my agent.”

So then the article appeared, all about how the Web fashion company Boo.com spectacularly went through more than $130 million in a year and a half. No mention was made of the fact that they ran a huge advertising campaign in nearly every major magazine, plus television, approximately six months before their site was up and running. There were suggestions of overstaffing, overreaching, poor planning, profligacy and partying, but the real climax of the story seemed to be the fact that Boo employed me for one week at £3,000 per day to work at their London offices, putting me up in the decadently posh St. Martin’s Lane Hotel. I was, it seemed, the straw that broke the cartel’s back. I was cited as an example of their extreme profligacy. At the time, I tried to put some positive spin on this. “At least it shows I seem successful,” I whispered to myself.

Then, a month or so later, The New York Times also mentioned my astonishing fee in a similar story on the same corporate tragedy. I was the writer made who made £15,000 in one week! Insane!

Never mind that I actually wrote everything on the site during that week, edited all the automated responses, gave a charming voice to their animated “personal shopper,” Miss Boo (who, by the way, had several top hairdressers flown in to redesign her cartoon hair). Never mind that the company had filled warehouses with time-critical merchandise for inventory. I don’t think it was mentioned that even after their way-delayed launch, Boo.com was not accessible by Macintoshes. No, aside from general suggestions of mad expense accounts, office bubbly-swilling and staffers horning up lines of illicit anesthetics, the real shocker was a writer making a decent living. I finally realized: This is really bad for me and inspired typists everywhere.

In 1981, The Times reported that the average professional writer was making $5,000 per year. That was for published writers; it didn’t even include the wannabes. For years, I had a New Yorker cartoon in my desk drawer of two people, drinks in hand at a cocktail party: “You’re a writer? Oh, I write, too.” The story of my life-our lives. I think the poet Michael Brownstein nailed it when he wrote, “A writer is a guy who sticks it in the mailbox.”

If a college-dropout basketball player gets a contract for a quarter of a billion dollars-or about $200,000 a game-this is not even slightly shocking (unless he has felony convictions). But a writer making five large in about 10 hours? Stop the presses, Mary, the sky is falling!

Artists are expected to make some money, even if they’re not dead, because they manufacture precious objects that can be speculated on. Just hold on to some of that early work, kid, because it could be that the stuff you gave away is what brings down the real cake. What have you done since you paid off the loft?

But a writer? Gore Vidal once wondered, “How can you sell so little of anything as a novel?” The irony is, of course, that the worse your novel is, the more it may sell, but that’s another jeremiad. For me, the scandal is that one day spent writing dialogue for a cartoon character on a Web site would earn me as much as the royalties for the first six months of my last book-and my book was considered to be doing well!

Writers are supposed to be starving. This builds character. It gives them ideas. They are supposed to live in a garret, except that there are no more garrets; they’ve been converted into penthouses. They are supposed to work hunched over a typewriter or a legal pad, under a blanket, in the middle of the night. Well, I’m writing this on a G3 Powerbook in a luxurious loft fit for a lawyer. I did manage to get it a bit cheap: I qualified for an Artist in Residence certification from the City of New York because I am a poet. And poets need a lot of space, because dreams can be big. But I’m not starving. I’m pulling it down like a divorce lawyer. I’m keeping up with the Joneses and the Clintons. Wealth wasn’t my goal. But now it’s personal.

See, my friends and I, we came here to be artists and poets and musicians of the New York School, and back in the day we used to be able to live in nice tenements on the Lower East Side and maybe drive a cab or tend bar one or two days (or nights) and make out and be happy. Maybe we’d get lucky and get to be a curator at MoMA, like Frank O’Hara, or teach a class at the New School. But in New York today, you’ve got to be a millionaire to be middle class. So we’re no dummies. We’ve got to hustle.

Maybe people are never going to understand that writers work hard and deserve rewards, because they never see us doing anything but eating and drinking in cafés or taking our children to mid-level private schools. When we write, we’re just sitting there, staring off into space. And we’re getting paid for it! But perhaps the worst indignity for someone like myself, who writes the occasional side of a bus, is when someone says, with all good intentions, “So, are you getting to do any writing for yourself?”

What is the answer? “I only write for the others”? “I’m writing for Christ”? I wonder if that’s what got to Andy Warhol when he was drawing shoes for I. Magnin. “Doing any drawing for yourself, Andy?” The genius was that Warhol did every ad like it was a painting for the Met (and maybe vice versa).

We have to find a way to make people accept that working for food, even if it’s Beluga, does not invalidate one’s Parnassian credentials, that writers deserve luxuries, too. Writing taglines or care instructions or e-commerce caveats does not detract from my sonnets or essays. In fact, commercial practice frees my mind from the fact that my gardener’s bill last year was $17,000. But it’s still a struggle. Last week, in the middle of the night, I woke up and said to my wife (who didn’t hear me), “I have become a slave to my freedom!”

But I’m going to write my way out of this. Like Spartacus, I’m going to make somebody pay or die trying. This spring, my new book of poems comes out. It was beautifully printed in Germany. It comes in a box. It has silk-screened illustrations by a great artist, who drives an AC Cobra and has Callaway golf clubs. The cheap edition is $85. I’m working on the hang tag and care instructions for it now. So how’s Seattle, Patrick Ewing? Have another doughnut, Julian Schnabel. I wrote this in eight minutes.