Dear reader, I have compromised my integrity as a cultural critic. Joy no longer describes my writing. It has been replaced by anxiety. The very ability to write these sentences has been postponed by the corruption of my position. My writing circumstances have been revolutionized by my recent ability to quit my previous job and devote my time to writing full time. But it’s not what you think. I have deadlines now, but it’s not for this blog. It’s not for a book proposal or a grant, or finishing a book I’ve been working on. Nobody is demanding a review of a public park, as much as I would like that to be the case. That is decidedly not the case. Instead I have 17 hours to complete a two-page assignment about federalism, polling, and public policy for an anonymous college student who, for whatever reason, cannot complete it himself. I use the masculine form there because I imagine the client to be male. I have no way of citing this non-fact for precisely the reason it is not a fact, but this moment represents the context in which I am free to write what I like.
As I alluded to, I sat down to write this some twenty minutes before I began, but the quirk of my new life as I writer is that I habitually over-check the queue of orders on the website of my new virtual employer. More often than not, especially as we careen into summer, there are no orders available, and so I am quick to claim any that don’t fall into certain undesirable categories:
1. The order requires more pages written than it allows hours to write it.
2. The order is someone’s capstone project or 50-page doctoral thesis.
3. The client requests a specific writer that is not me.
4. The order information contains words and acronyms that I don’t know in excess of those I do.
The one I saw in the queue fit the bill: two pages with a 17 hour deadline. Considering I lost all yesterday and some of Saturday night to an assessment of Queens County/Borough for the purposes of an associated practicing resident nurse (APRN), I did not want to get sucked into another black hole of APA citations, pdfs and pinwheels. I wanted to write about this, how my relationship with the world, with this table, this laptop and this kitchen was becoming anxiety-ridden, encapsulated in a negativity that threatened my concept of who I am and what I do.
For my entire adult life I have fulfilled one occupation in order to give myself the financial opportunity to research anything I wanted to research, experience anything I wanted to experience, and write about any of it in a way I wanted to write about it. Now I find myself in a bizarro actualization of the implied goal: I am writing professionally. I accept certain assignments that pay so I can pursue other self-assigned writing that doesn’t. I do that so I can do this. Story of my life.
The problem is, the ten to fifteen dollars (usually ten) I get for papers, is not enough money to live on. I imagine others have this job to supplement another income. I took it before I realized exactly what the job entailed, and thought of it as a stepping stone by which I could leave the bullshit shore of my job as a dishwasher and look for other employment that didn’t suck so much. Two months later I remember how hard it is to find a job. Besides that, why would I devote an hour or two applying to jobs I won’t get when I could make a quick twenty dollars for learning something and re-phrasing it in an orderly MLA-formatted two-page essay? Perhaps this would improve my writing, to look at the words that appear by these fingertips more objectively. All writers should write undergraduate papers every once in awhile. Like an exercise. It’s good for you. Besides, it’s cruel to force the graduates of America’s high schools to churn out decent writing. I worked at my school’s writing center. Just the idea of writing a paper destroys people. I happen to like it. Does this all sound like rationalizing?
The truth is, even as resentment of the act of writing builds, I have rarely been as productive as I have been in the last two months. It’s the opposite of writer’s block. Bringing back the stepping stone metaphor, the dam has broken and my present position is not upon a single stone. I am inundated by water and each 5-page assignment is a rock at the bottom of the suddenly torrential river. I stand on it briefly to keep my head above water before finding another to keep from drowning. Meanwhile the debris floating on top that I would have considered before peacefully from the bank (after seven hours of washing dishes) drifts on by without my thoughtful perception of it. It hits me in the head, perhaps, before continuing along. I curse what was formerly the currency of inspiration. I don’t dare swim after it for fear of losing my spot on this rock that I’ve agreed to mind for someone who gave me twenty bucks and ran off to do something more important.
I am not the fisherman in this scenario. I have become the fish. I don’t choose where to drop my lure. I swim for my life. I accept and follow whatever lure is dropped in front of me. There’s only one route to turn words into money, and I have little choice in the matter. I have been asserting my independence in the last day by reading Raban’s 1993 piece for Granta about the flooding of the Mississippi that year. I think its imagery has influenced this metaphor. To give you a sense of the surreal anarchy that may be found in a good ol fashioned deluge: “There were no cars, no tourists, no fishermen, no houseboaters; shops were closed, roads were closed, and the cafe where I remembered a merry breakfast crowd on my last visit, four Iowa ancients in plastic baseball caps sat silently in line, staring out at the Mississippi like an audience at a movie. The river unscrolled like a movie: in the middle distance, an uprooted tree sailed slowly past from left to right. It was followed by an oil drum, a tractor trailer wheel, another tree. The ancients watched closely, awaiting the next twist in the plot—a vagrant’s gift, an outhouse, an interesting box. For half an hour I watched them watch the river, hoping to see them scramble for the boat that was pulled up on the street above the landing, but I and they were out of luck. Something over 235,620,000 cubic feet of Mississippi water slid past the window, burying nothing worth the bother of salvaging it.” I imagine this perspective on the other side of the shore, with the old timers and the established new generation of writers, seeing nature and those subject to it flailing on the biblical tide. But I’m being dramatic. The high water mark is overwhelming when its above you.
Whenever I get a job I find myself forced to talk about it with anyone who hasn’t seen me since I started the job. Never have I gotten such a variety of reactions! The most common, which has come to bother me, is asking whether or not it is illegal to do someone’s homework in exchange for money. And no, it is not. On their end they could be expelled, but that’s no concern of mine. I am doing a service for someone. The professors have access to technology that can tell whether a paper is plagiarized or not, a computer program figures out if the writing is original, so, for money, I give them original writing. Generally the bourgeoisie and its sons and daughters are not interested in paying struggling young authors money for original work. I have discovered an exception. God bless the internet.
I have an imagination so analogies for this work come to me constantly and variously. So when J— said to me, “I don’t want to be a dick, but isn’t it kind of like—” I had to interrupt him and say, “Yes, J—. It is kind of like I’m a prostitute.” His initial reaction was surprise. He, personally, would not be worried about the ethics, but he thought higher of me. It was a shame to learn that, to the community, I was seen as a pillar of ethics in the moment I let that moral standing crumble in the eyes of each individual I informed about my present occupation. Someone else asked me if I was going to start selling drugs to students because I’d “already be on campus.” If I did establish myself locally I would be making twice to three times as much money, but I stand anonymously behind the editors, writer 3***. We joked, however, about a course of entrepreneurship in which I provide the client with a triple service, getting them stoned, off, and their homework completed in one throw. To quote T.I., I give good brain like I graduated from a good school. I’m not sure how seriously to take this analogy. I’m in control of the experience. There’s no sense in seeing my writing output as some pure entity untarnished by the seedy demands of capitalist reality. It’s not. I’ve had to write plenty of things I haven’t wanted to write. It was called getting an education and each essay along the way was not unlike a hand job administered to the relevant authority who would make sure I got credit for the work completed.
Others react like I’ve broken through to the dream, I’ve made it. They’ve wondered for years how to break into this market. It’s empowering for someone who went to school and was required to jump through hoop after hoop, now to pick and choose assignments on a day to day basis, being paid to learn instead of paying to. What’s a liberal arts degree good for anyway besides qualifying somebody to write undergraduate papers? I’ve met people who are mindful and people who are not, and it’s far from true that the former have BAs and the latter don’t. I realize now the reason is that people who have BAs did not necessarily complete the coursework required. Those who don’t probably haven’t paid people to cover their minimum wage shift. Maybe they have. Anyone can choose to skip the legwork required in being human, all’s it takes is a healthy serving of entitlement with a hint of superiority, and the road to a swiss bank account is paved and golden.
Working from home has its advantages. I’ve done it before…filling spreadsheets with survey data…actually I guess that’s it, and that was several weeks in 2007… Let’s say I have a tendency to be at home and be productive while there. You call your own breaks, you don’t have to wear shoes, or even pants, you can choose to work in the garden, do some writing for yourself, pickle some cabbage that’s beginning to rot in your refrigerator. However, the disadvantages are more insidious. There is no disconnect between the anxiety of the job and the life at home. The seven pager I finished was not done because the assignment required at least four more, and I wasn’t paid for those pages. What do I do? I was already on the verge of a panic attack navigating the ancient html technology of the U.S. Census Bureau, and at a certain point I realized I was not going to provide the paper I had agreed to write. I explained the situation to the client and the editor, and I retired to an uneasy sleep, the one afforded to one convinced he doesn’t deserve, who didn’t write what he wanted to, but what somebody else needed written for his own purposes, and not even that.
I wanted to write about it then, last night, to exorcize the anxiety that I resented so much yet which I bred in myself. But I couldn’t just then. I wasn’t doing that so I could do this, I was just doing that and it was destroying me. But today was a new day, I got my 91 dollars for learning a shit ton of esoteric facts about Queens, the sun was out, Oregon’s ban on gay marriage was struck down, and I can do this because I did that. I still have to write five hundred words about federalism, polling, and public policy, but that’s ok. No professor will give me a hard time if I don’t because I’m a fucking adult.
Raban, J. (2010). Mississippi water. In Driving home (pp. 104-131). New York, NY: Pantheon.