The Word Merchant’s Dilemma

Sooner or later, everything falls apart.

Once upon a time – although it seems like a long time ago because it was – I made quite a good living as a writer, even though my byline has almost never appeared in print. For one thing, I was a technical writer – a proposal writer – which is a very skilled but much under-appreciated skill.  My proposals earned tens of millions of dollars over a twenty-five-year period, and I was often written into those proposals for a percentage of the grants we received. Occasionally, I would simultaneously write proposals in response to the same RFP for two different organizations and often got them both funded. In the meantime, because I was a somewhat public person, my own writing was almost always published under pseudonyms, especially after I found out that one of my clients lost a competition because one of the deciders had taken umbrage at something I had published under my own name. 

That all came to a crashing halt in 1996, when I left the writing business to become a mortgage broker. (Yes, there’s quite a story attached to that event but I am not telling it here.) 

I made a lot of money in the mortgage business until 2008 when the real estate boom collapsed around us. I finally threw in the towel in 2o12. 

Sooner or later, everything falls apart.

Fate hasn’t come knocking yet, but it is only a matter of time and my time is running out…and so is yours, I wager. I hear my fate coming from a long way off, too far to discern the details of my fate but it is really only a matter of time.

Now, I have a dilemma. I have more than a thousand – and perhaps a lot more than a thousand – poems that need to be curated before fate has its way with me. Some of them stink. Some of them are world class, according to the few people I have allowed to read them.

Unfortunately, I don’t know which is which, what to keep in, what to leave out. (I’m sure someone else has used that line before.)

Writing poetry is a ridiculous activity. No one pays you for your work and, even when you do make something from it, your hourly rate works out to something less than I made when I was a newspaper boy back in the 1950s.

Unless, that is, you have achieved the status of a brand name in poetry. Even then, except for a very few, poets either starve or do something else for their daily bib and tucker. Rod McKuen made a tidy fortune off his books but that’s a rarity unless you’re Allen Ginsberg (or a member of his circle) or you set your verse to music. Bob Dylan and the other members of his cohort (those born in the early 1940s), have made huge fortunes, but so have Rihanna ($1.7 B) and Taylor Swift ($1.1 B)  That door is being slammed shut as we speak by monopolistic capitalism, unless you take your fate into your own hands as Taylor Swift has done. (And kudos to her for doing so.)

And no one knows really what poetry even is anymore. Almost anything can be labeled as poetry, even shopping lists. I’ve done that a few times and people actually thought well of those “poems.” (I wrote them as jokes but some of them worked so well that I have kept them.)

Despite the fact that there’s virtually no money to be made in the poetry game, the competition for attention is intense.  There are hundreds of competitions, although you could go broke by footing the entrance fees if you were to enter all of them for which you were eligible. There are hundreds of periodicals that publish poetry, although most of them only pay a pittance when they pay anything at all. (They used to give you free copies of the issues where your poems appeared for you to sell, if you could, but how do you sell those issues when they only appear in online journals?)  And there are millions of competitors online, all looking for clicks to survive upon.

And then there are your dead competitors. You’re competing with everyone from the woman who really wrote Genesis, through the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Turks, the French and the English. You’re competing against Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dante,  Shakespeare, Rumi, Thomas, Yeats, Ginsberg, and Whitman….you get the picture.  Among the playwrights (who were also poets), you’re up against Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Thespis, among others, and those are just the Greeks.

I have every one of these authors on my bookshelves, but that doesn’t mean I’ve read them all. In fact, I don’t even know how many I’ve read.

When it comes to fiction – to the novel – the competition is absolutely insurmountable. I won’t even bother to list the mountain of novels that you have to plow through before you can claim to be well-read.

In other words, if you think you’re ever going to join this pantheon….well, you have my sympathies but, in truth, I have pursued the same fool’s errand myself for years and years and then some.

The only thing we have going for us is currency.

The world has changed. The cell phone, to take one example, has completely changed the way that civilized people (or, rather, technically adept people) operate in the world. The internet has changed how we communicate, There are a million innovations that have changed the world to the extent where Shakespeare is becoming unintelligible to future generations of readers. (Just think of how Hamlet might have changed if Hamlet was online or had a cell phone, or Romeo and Juliet, or Julius Caesar.)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in science fiction, because what science fiction writers once posed as possible hypotheses of what the future might look like are today basic elements of our everyday lives. (Take Isaac Asimov as a case in point. Not only did he predict many of the innovations we now live with, but the kids who read his books growing up in the 1950s and 1960s are actually the scientists who are building the things that Asimov imagined. The same could be said for Arthur Clarke and, to a lesser extent, Robert Heinlein.)

Back to my dilemma. 

My dilemma is that I can’t even edit my poetry because the file is too large for my computer to handle – and this is an I7 with 16 GB of RAM and an unlimited amount of storage. It turns out that there’s a significant difference between the architecture of laptop computers like the one I am using and desktop computers so that the same file that runs just fine on my son’s beast of a desktop. an I7 with 32 GB of RAM, won’t run at all under Microsoft Word (2021, which is really the 2016 version of Word) on this machine. 

Breaking up the file would make it impossible for me to find duplicate files or duplicate stanzas that have managed to creep their way from poem to poem without my knowledge or permission. 

I could use Open Office, which can handle the entire file, but lacks the formatting resources I need to produce the final versions of whatever it is I am trying to turn these poems into, in a ridiculous attempt to attract enough attention to force my poetry to pay me back for the 60,000 hours (and, no, that is not an exaggeration) I have invested in writing them.

Fifty-five years ago, when I was around twenty years old, the college classmate who I thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) was my best friend, told me that I didn’t have to suffer in order to be a poet. He was the first person to recognize that I was a poet, although I don’t remember ever showing him any of my poetry.

I told him that I wasn’t suffering in order to be a poet. I was just suffering  whatever I was suffering and that said suffering was best used as material for my poetry. (A couple of years later, while we were living together – he was in medical school and I was at the New York Post –  he stole my high school sweetheart away from me and then became a forensic psychiatrist. The fact that he’s still alive -as far as I know – proves that I’m not the sociopath he thought I was, but he sure is. )

Which brings me back to my dilemma.

What do writers do with their writing when the publishing business has turned into a business that no longer requires writers in order to do business?