Some times I’m slow to recognize an insult when I hear one. Not so long ago I was shopping for holiday gifts and the woman in front of me at the register, whom I know casually, asked me if I make much money from my writing. I grinned and answered her. I answered her! Robotic courtesy. Well, damn, would you ask anyone else whom you know casually what they earn at whatever they do? Do you question the clerk at the register or the server in the diner, the barista? How about the FedEx or UPS driver? Of course not, it’s no one’s business what they make. It did not occur to me at the time to be offended, but I should have been. My income is no one’s business but mine, my banks, and my creditors.
This time of the year I get cranky about money because of the constant pressure to buy things, the sale junk that clogs my email, Face Book, Twitter, mailbox. No, I don’t resent giving gifts to people I love, taking the time to discover what will please them, anticipating their joy with just the right present. But I’m so numbed by the endless ads for things I don’t want to buy that I didn’t even feel that rude question when it came at me like an arrow right in the wallet.
Writing is my work; I expect to be honored as an honest worker, but I don’t expect people to pry and judge my worth by the numbers. Some of the best writers we have ever known earned little, some nothing; some of the worst have made millions. The gauge of good writing in not monetary; it’s the freshness and precision of language and imagery, the surprise in the story or the depth of the poem; it’s the humor or the passion or the grief. An insight. It’s the making something new out of our tiny alphabet, our only raw material. It’s a gift beyond price and money is not the reason for the season. Nor is it the reason I write.
To become a writer is again to pick up the pen, open the laptop, open the mind. That’s the difference between writing and propaganda. Daily choices are the molecules of a calling, a career, a self.
Since my first year in grad school I have read John Fowles’ The Magus repeatedly. I’ve read the original version and I’ve read the revised version he published twelve years later. There’s no counting the copies I’ve owned, including at one time a first edition and a signed paperback. They have all gone away, sold or donated or lost. I think with each reading that I’ve sucked out all the juice and don’t need the book anymore. And I’m always wrong. After a year or two, I drift back and realize that I want to read it again. That happened within the past couple of months, so I picked up a used paperback with ugly, forbidding cover art and opened it. Immediately I realized that the font was too small and that I had to hold it at arms length or suffer the consequences.
Because here’s the rub: pulp paper in newspapers and cheap paperbacks triggers asthma-like attacks where I cough uncontrollably. I got about ten pages into the book and had to give up, wrap it in a plastic bag and vow never again to be careless about buying a book. But I needed to read The Magus again, so I ordered a hardback, used but in very good condition. It’s on my coffee table with a book mark at Chapter 16. I’m going slow, savoring it. And making this copy uniquely my own. And finding new things to ponder and admire.
Back in love with the story and the style, I have penciled in an asterisk where Fowles quotes a brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That bit of poetry is crucial to the arc of the story. I’ve adding underlinings, squiggles in the margins, and dots to mark phrases I like. No one else will want this book. There’s a stain on the first page of the introduction where I dropped salad dressing. I think I’ll keep this copy. It’s still juicy and feeds the reader/writer in me.
Please, Read for Equality: catalog of unabashed gratitude by Ross Gay