Monday, February 29, 2016

More Thoughts, Connected ...

I was raised to follow the rules.

I never cut a class in high school. By the time I arrived in my senior year, I no longer knew the name of my dean. New administrators were assigned to the alpha slices from time to time and I never bothered to keep up.

I did exactly zero underage drinking – beer disgusts me – and while I have earned a few speeding tickets in my lifetime, that's the extent of my moving violations.

I went to college because attendance was expected.

The only time I've set foot inside a police station was to pick up a copy of a report after a minor incident outside my home that I wanted on the record, just in case.

On the rare occasions when I find myself on an airplane, I watch the flight attendant perform the pre-flight safety demonstration, though, in that case, my attention isn't based in expectation but rather feeling bad that he or she is standing up there and almost no one bothers to look up. The infrequent performer in me cringes at the thought of standing up in front of a group of people who couldn't be bothered to look at me. I'm sure flight attendants are accustomed to the snub, but still, I watch.

Which isn't to say I haven't done some spur-of-the-moment or downright ballsy things in my life. I've trekked to New York City for less than 24 hours to see a friend's play. I've headed to London for a few days when I found an airfare that was too low to pass by. I've traveled to Long Island to interview Kurt Vonnegut for a paper I was writing in college.

But I realized the other day that a lot of my life has been about permission and playing by the book. Specifically where writing is involved.

I've written for most of my life for myself. For free. When I was a kid, I'd write and illustrate little books. This blog is almost 11 years old. I have composition books and binders of loose-leaf pages filled with thoughts that range from musings to inane recountings.

I've written for a good part of my life for others. For money. Once upon a time, a check arrived in my mailbox from Chicago magazine. I was an intern. It never occurred to me that any money would be forthcoming. But there it was: a check for $100. I still have the photocopy of it, the first money I ever earned for anything having to do with words.

When I worked at the Chicago Tribune, I wrote from time to time. My paychecks did not reflect that extra effort – almost everything in my Tribune experience was branded as "opportunity" (that's Tribspeak for "uncompensated") – but the bylines were nice to see.

Post-Trib, I've written for other clients. For money.

The place at which my mind still stalls is at the intersection of writing for myself for money. But which I mean writing a book or a movie or a play and selling it. As a commodity.

I barely dabbled with the idea when I published
my cookie e-book – my wee-book, as I refer to it, as it's rather short – but that effort was really about starting a project and finishing it, as I tend to get interested in something and then not follow through.

But the idea of writing something of length and maybe even of note and receiving, in return, compensation that would support me to some degree?

That notion has long been blocked by the voice that asks, "Who am I?"

As in "Who am I to think that someone would want to read what I'd have to write?"

The only person to grant the permission to write something salable is myself.

That was a big – if seemingly obvious – realization.

Granted, someone else will need to be a part of the "support me" equation. Someone will have to buy what I am selling.

But the idea of writing something first and selling it later, even if that "something" is a pitch or proposal, not a finished product, is the antithesis of everything I've ever done where writing and money are concerned. I've received assignments – permission, if you will – and then written. Some projects were pitches, come to think of it, but most were of the "Hey, we need a piece on X. Can you take that on?" variety.

Being a writer isn't like being an accountant or a psychologist or a doctor. While there are degree programs in writing, most writers learn writing by writing. Because most of us were taught to write at some point. It's a skill set most people possess.

Granted, not everyone can write well. But commodifying something most everyone does is a notion that has had my brain spinning for a long, long time.

Perhaps process is part of the problem. I don't think in terms of writing proposals or treatments and selling ideas before writing. I think of writing and then selling. And then my brain says, "Really? I can do this? I can just sit here, clicking and clacking on my keyboard, and put something out into the world and people might buy it?"

I know it makes me seem dim, but truly, that blows my mind.

If I were creating paintings and selling them, that wouldn't surprise me. That people want me to bake for them doesn't surprise me. That editors call up from time to time and ask me to write a feature for them doesn't surprise me.

But the notion of clacking out all the stuff in my head onto a page and selling it? Whoa. Even though my cookie e-book has demonstrated that to me, albeit on a very, very, very, very, very small scale.

Remember bookstores? (I'm glad they're making a bit of a comeback, by the way.) I used to walk through Borders and look at all those books and marvel that that many people had accomplished such a feat.

There's truly no reason why I shouldn't be one of them. I'd do well to get out of my own way.


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