For almost a month now I’ve been trying to collect the fifty-five dollars that a national environmental magazine owes me for a four-hundred-word book review. That’s two twenties, a ten, and a five. Three polite e-mails have yielded the following responses: “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll look into it.” And “Great to hear from you and thanks for reminding me. For some reason I forgot about your earlier note. By the way, could you write another review for us? Deadline October 1. Same terms.”
This proves freelance-writing rule number one: The smallest checks are always the hardest to collect. Rule number two: All checks for writing are small. Rule number three: Never phone editors to inquire about outstanding checks. Always use e-mail — if it’s free — or, as a last resort, leave brief phone messages during the editors’ lunch hours, so they’ll have to return your calls on their nickel.
Today, two weeks after my last e-mail to the environmental magazine, and a Tuesday after a national holiday (a writer’s day of mourning: no mail), I rush outside to the mailbox. Bringing the stack of mail inside, I find a Betty Crocker catalog, some free samples of skin-care products (including a viscous substance labeled “balancing lotion”), the third Wal-Mart flyer of the month, and an envelope from the Social Security Administration. Its contents are titled “Your Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement,” which spells out the dismal details of my economic biography in column form, year by year, from 1968 to the present. In my entire working life of twenty-five years, from my eighth-grade job delivering drugs for Rosen’s Pharmacy in Chicago to my current writing-and-editing career, I have made a grand total of $254,481. This works out to a yearly average of $10,179. In 1986, at the age of thirty-one, I made my first annual salary of more than $10,000. Two years later, I broke $20,000. I peaked in 1991, at $26,659. Then I turned to writing full time. In 1993 I brought home $9,810 — or, in more depressing terms, the amount Michael Jordan received last year for one minute of basketball.
At the end of his letter, Kenneth S. Apfel, commissioner of social security, says that I will collect six hundred dollars a month when I retire. In small print, as if it were an afterthought, he writes, “We may also be able to pay your spouse or eligible children a one-time death benefit of $255.” It’s not going to be a good day.
As if to confirm this, on the bottom of my stack of mail is a rejection letter from National Public Radio. (At least, I think the letter is from NPR. There is no letterhead, and the word impossible is spelled “impossiable.” I jump on the misspelling as yet another excuse not to pledge money this year.)
Some rejection letters simply say, “Sorry,” and I never know whether the editor is feeling bad for me, or commenting on the work, as in “This is the most sorry piece we’ve ever received, and I’m certainly sorry I had to read it.” Once, I received a rejection letter from Chicago in two days. I mailed the submission on Monday morning in Moscow, Idaho, and it was returned Wednesday morning. Here’s how I imagine it happened: an editor met the mail truck as it arrived at the main post office in Chicago, tore open my letter, skimmed my submission, stuffed it back into my self-addressed, stamped envelope along with a form letter, and handed it back to the truck driver, who then sped to O’Hare, careened onto the tarmac, scattering baggage carts and trays of lukewarm airplane food, and handed off the letter to the pilot of an idling jet.
There is no check in the mail today for the $150 I’m owed by another magazine for another review. The same magazine has also assigned me a new book review due in eight days. Nor is there a check from my ex-wife, who owes me $369 for her share of our daughter’s monthly college expenses.
Rule number four: Never marry the wrong person. (This could actually be rule number one.)
Not all my recent news is bad. Last week, I did receive two hundred dollars for a syndicated column on population control, but not until seventeen days past the date of publication, and after I sent a sarcastic e-mail to the editor. (I was never even told the piece had been accepted.) “The column on population,” I wrote, “appeared in several newspapers. What hasn’t appeared is a check. Is it forthcoming?”
A day later, the editor responded that the check was in the mail, that he was sorry it was late, but his bookkeeper was in the process of moving, and, by the way, the column I sent him three months ago “just didn’t do anything” for him; could I send him something fresh? Something “nasty and cynical — because you are so good at it.” I certainly felt nasty and cynical just then.
I walk back outside and reach into the mailbox again to see if I missed an envelope, even though this has never happened. To anybody. Ever. The box is empty, of course, and the postal worker waves cheerfully as she drives by on her way to the next neighborhood, which, I’m convinced, is filled with the tidy homes of successful writers who always receive their checks on time.
Reality sets in. It’s one o’clock, the mail has come and gone, no editor has called with an exciting overseas assignment, and I haven’t yet written a line of an essay or read a page of any of the books I’m supposed to review. In an hour, it will be five o’clock on the East Coast, and David Remnick and Lewis Lapham — the editors of the New Yorker and Harper’s, respectively — will be leaving their offices without having had the sense to answer any of my weekly queries. Is it possible they accidentally spilled their espressos on my letters, making the writing illegible and, in the process, soiling their six-hundred-dollar loafers?
Not likely. When you live out west, those query letters just never make it to Manhattan. The New Jersey entrance to the George Washington Bridge is manned by smirking editorial assistants dressed in black whose job it is to screen all mail. They are smoking an unknown but fashionable brand of foreign cigarette and laughing at inside jokes that seem cruel and humiliating. They will live forever. If a zip code appears from an area outside of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, New York, or Ireland, they toss the letter into the Hudson River — but not before sufficiently ridiculing its contents. The only exception to the rule is 59807 — the zip code for Missoula, Montana. (Someone once suggested I could increase my acceptances by renting a postal box in Missoula. Then I could be one of “those Montana writers.”)
Instead of writing a new essay, researching an article, or throwing myself under the wheels of a logging truck, I go online and check to see if anyone has written a review of my book, Landscape of the Heart, on Amazon.com. I also check my e-mail for the fourteenth time in the last hour. No e-mails or review, but I see that my book is ranked number 847,745 in sales at Amazon. There are supposedly 3 million books in Amazon’s electronic coffers, but I have yet to find one ranked lower than mine, even in the auto-mechanics and Cajun-cooking categories.
In the first eight months of this year, my byline has appeared fifty times in magazines and newspapers. Some of these publications have large circulations and actually appear on newsstands. Others have fewer readers than the average football team. A couple I’m not sure actually exist. When I add up the checks that have so far arrived and cleared, I find I have made just under seven thousand dollars. This includes my annual royalty check of $29.83 for Landscape and forty dollars my church paid me for playing guitar during an outdoor service. Seven thousand dollars may seem like a small amount, but freelance-writing dollars are like dog years: each one is equivalent to seven dollars earned from a more reliable career, like small-appliance repair.
Last year, I appeared in print only twenty-six times, but made eleven thousand dollars. It was the first year of freelancing in which I broke the magical five-figure barrier. This is the writing equivalent of Mark McGwire surpassing Roger Maris’s home-run record. And I did it without an MFA or threatening anyone with physical harm.
I watch enough morning TV shows to believe that being “discovered” overnight is still a strong possibility. I imagine a multicity reading tour, lines of adoring fans at the bookstores, and an appearance on the Today show, where Matt Lauer or Katie Couric will hold up my book and — though neither of them has read it — say, “This is an extraordinary piece of work.” And I will say, with all the modesty I can muster, “Thank you, Matt [or Katie]. The book really wrote itself.”
And then he or she will ask the Big Question: “Has all this success — the money, the fame, the movie contract — changed you?”
“Well, Matt [or Katie], except for buying a five-hundred-acre ranch bordering Glacier National Park and purchasing large quantities of Impressionist art, vintage Porsches, and Shaker furniture, I am basically the same person I’ve always been, only more relaxed, and much more spiritual.”
I will be witty and animated, my nose hairs will stop growing, and food substances will never get stuck between my newly capped teeth. My posture will improve. I will affect an Irish accent and be invited to all the right parties, where all the right people will stand around dressed in black and smoking an unknown but fashionable brand of foreign cigarette. I will finally understand their jokes, which turn out to be not cruel and humiliating at all but hilarious and insightful. David Remnick and Lewis Lapham will grovel and slip me their secret home and office numbers: “Call any time. Collect is fine. Will twelve pages per issue be adequate?” Critics will describe my book in terms like “luminous,” “edgy,” and “Salingeresque.” I will appear on Charlie Rose’s late-night talk show, and he will lean across that perfect wood table to ask, in an attempt to understand such genius, “How . . . where does it come from?”
(In reality, after my book came out, I gave a few impassioned readings in front of small but attentive audiences, many of whom were there to get out of the cold. I remember laboring behind a two-hundred-pound dolly filled with my publisher’s books as my editor and I entered the Seattle Bookfest, where I was to appear for a very brief signing. “Hey, Keith,” I said to him, trying to negotiate a high threshold with my heavy load, “Publishers Weekly mentioned I was to have an author’s tour. Will this happen soon?” Without missing a beat he said, “This is it.”)
Finally, I will receive a hand-delivered registered letter from NPR apologizing for the rejection and, more importantly, for the misspelling (a fatal mistake by an intern who has since been transferred to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he is in charge of de-icing transmitter towers). I will be a guest on Fresh Air, where Terry Gross will interview me for the whole hour and giggle uncontrollably at my engaging anecdotes and my clever take on pasta. In fact, I will receive contrite apologies from every magazine, journal, and newspaper that has had the gall to reject my prose over the last ten years: “We regret our past mistakes. Who knows what we were thinking? To ensure that this never happens again, we have flogged and dismissed our entire editorial staff. Enclosed is a registered check in advance for any future work you might be kind enough to send us. If the amount is too small, please let us know. We will send another check — immediately.”