Writers are supposed to beware of selling out. Barton Fink descends into gothic terror upon bartering his talents for a mountain of Hollywood beans. Anthony Trollope was mocked for carefully noting what he got paid for each novel in his Autobiography. What no one tells you, though, is that Fink and Trollope won the lottery. For most of us, most of the time, the value of our soul and integrity is precisely $0.00.
I've learned this lesson repeatedly in the past couple of years, as I've tried, with a mixture of desperation and self-loathing, to find steady freelance work in the corporate sector. I've written questions for standardized tests, even though I think standardized tests are dumb, evil and ruining education. I've written marketing copy, though marketing copy makes me want to gag. I think the self-help industry is a repulsive scam selling a myth of meritocratic overcoming; it tricks people into paying to perpetuate the ideology that grinds them down and guts their safety net.
Nonetheless, I've written book summaries of best-selling self-help books. (The book summaries end up taking income away from the original authors, so the job basically involved ripping off grifters. I don't know if that makes it better or worse.)
But I've lost these steady gigs, and efforts to replace them have been only sporadically successful—a few hours here and there rather than regular product turnarounds every week.
Betraying my principles was never lucrative. I didn't calculate my rate per hour for the book summaries because I couldn't face it, but they were somewhere between "not much" and "kill me." Still, "not much" is better than "nothing," which is what you get when applying to violate your principles, and never hear back.
This isn't unique to writers. Most people have the experience of trying to find morally compromising work without success. Coal miners or fast-food workers don't necessarily want to contribute to the slow incineration of the biosphere. They need a paycheck. And if they get the job contributing to global warming, they’re happy, because they know lots of people get turned away. America teems with people deemed not good enough to contribute to our collective self-immolation.
Writing is supposed to be a true effusion of the self—a beautiful expression of the writer's purity. To devalue your writing is to devalue your spirit and high calling. Artists are supposed to have a responsibility to their art. When you sell out, you let yourself down and the tradition you’re trying to represent.
That's all hype, though. A writer isn’t any more or less valuable than anyone else. Some days I write truth that matters to me, in an effort to entertain and enlighten. Editors at Splice Today and other sites pay me and I can't believe how lucky I am. Other days I write training manuals for corporations. I feel pretty lucky someone's willing to pay me for that, too, even sporadically.
And then other times I send an application into the void, and the void responds by telling me that I'm not good enough to spit on my own soul. That's capitalism for you; a system that in its late, perfected form, alienates you not only from your labor, but also from your lack of labor. Nothing is quite as debasing as being reminded that even your debasement is worthless.