The following is excerpted from my recent speech to a National Writers Workshop:
I want to begin by dispelling the harmful myth that writing is a dying art form. It isn't. It's very much alive. Getting paid for writing is a dying art form.
It may be helpful to review the history of writing so we can see how we got into this predicament and how quickly and easily it can be resolved, at least for those of us with gas ovens.
Back in the early days of writing, in Chaucer's time, it wasn't all about money. Writers were mostly paid in chickens and wenches, and that worked out fine. But then came the Industrial Revolution, and everything became a commodity, including writing. People like Dickens and Poe were actually paid piecemeal, by the word, meaning that literature consisted of really long sentences. Rain did not "come down." Rain tintinnabulated upon the parched and steaming rooftops, drenched the chimney pots and belfries, the porticos and cornices, bathed the cupolas, cascaded through the downspouts, flickering the gas lamps, eddying in drains — ravenous, merciless and cleansing, rinsing the stench of the city like a torrent of appalling adjectival excess.
It was perfectly all right to consume page upon page with this stuff, because trees were in greater abundance then. But the dawn of the environmental conservation movement saw the advent of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, who would never write that rain "came down," because that was too many words. Hemingway's characters spoke the way Indians used to speak in very bad Westerns.
So there were fewer words, but each word made a lot more money for the writer. Writing remained profitable because there was no real competition. Back then, reading books remained the single most popular form of solitary entertainment, by which I mean there was no really good porn.
And when really good porn did come along, for a while it remained unthreatening to the craft of writing. That's because the porn was mostly confined to magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse, which also contained long articles by famous, erudite people, about subjects like cello playing and nuclear disarmament. There is no evidence that anybody ever read any one of these stories, but someone did get paid to write them. Our profession was okay!
Then the Internet happened, and everything went to hell for writers. As advertising bled to the Web, newspapers began to die or, more insidiously, to shrink. The reassuring sound of the thud of the morning paper in your driveway was replaced with a more gentle sound, like a sycamore leaf slowly settling to the ground. But more important was the fact that the Web came to be dominated by porn. Porn is not writer-intensive.
To prove my point, I recently engaged in some serious research by visiting a number of high-traffic adult Web sites in an attempt to find written narrative. It took me nearly 10 minutes. I am going to quote now, verbatim and in its entirety, what I found:
"Misty enjoys girl-on-girl actoin."
Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, wait a minute! The Internet is not just porn! There must be a way for writers to get a piece of the Internet "actoin." I decided this merited additional research, so I Googled "get rich writing," and sure enough, there were plenty of sites!
The first one begins: "Great Opportunity 4r U as a Freelance writer," and I would have read further, but I got distracted because more than half of the page consisted of pictures of attractive Asian women squatting in cocktail dresses, with links to their escort services.
A second site promised millions for online writing. Oddly enough, the site itself contained no writing whatsoever. It was merely a list of links. Here are some: "Start Your Own Window Cleaning Business," "Ultimate Secrets to Saltwater Fish and Invertebrates," "Best Bridal Shower Games and More," "The Art of Cake Decorating" and "The Only Real Lesbian Seduction Guide for Men."
But finally, there was some good news. One of the sites was a blog by a man who decided to become a full-time online financial writer and has chronicled his efforts. He's been at it, part-time, for two years, and things have actually progressed to the point where he has made his first bold financial step: "We've hired my replacement at the box factory."
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.