I’ma Throw Shade If I Can’t Get Paid: Once Again, Writers Need Money, Too.

MoneyPiggyBankLately, when I rant about things on Facebook or Twitter, my friends tell me, “Honorée, you should blog about this!” A lot of times, it has to do with the way writers are treated in terms of money.

I’ve gotten in trouble (a lot) by speaking my mind since I was, like, five, so that makes me a little afraid to, believe it or not. There’s always a danger that speaking my mind will translate into arrogance and I don’t want folks to think that about me.

Also many southern ladies—what we call women below the Mason-Dixon Line—are reared that talking about money is downright rude. Actually, talking about anything owed us southern ladies is considered rude, whether it’s money, cakes for our birthdays, or wedding rings after we’ve had four babies and been living together since President Clinton took office. Southern ladies have been reared to just wait politely and maybe throw hints.

But you gotta be up front when talking about money, unfortunately. So let me put things in my characteristically blunt manner: over the past few years, I’ve encountered a problem talking about money when negotiating for reading fees, meaning money paid to me to come present my work before an audience. I know this is not a new subject, but I think it bears revisiting, especially since the economy crashed, recessed, whatever you want to call it.

To wit: I have noticed that organizations started offering less money for readings by authors. I still get good fees from people—sometimes, as in the case of my recent Witter Bynner Fellowship, phenomenal reading fees. (To God be the glory, as always.)

But there’re always these organizations that will roll on me, asking me to come read for say, $500—what I used to charge when my first book came out fourteen years ago—and invariably, this fee also is supposed to cover my travel, an honorarium, and incidentals. When this happens I always say no, but I always feel, well, defensive when I do.

I shouldn’t feel defensive, but here’s why I do: in the Creative Writing world people will say things like, “I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love,” or “ I don’t even need to get paid, I just want to see my work published.” These are the folks I would call The Spiritualist Writers.

I’m not throwing shade on The Spiritualist Writers, but with those above comments they are throwing shade on writers who expect to get paid. Writers like me. And this shade implies that there is something lacking in the souls of folks who practice art but also expect to earn money through that art.

Then, there are The Proletariat Writers who say things like, “Literature is for the people.” Okay, I agree. But are the people going to pay my light bill (plus reconnection charges) when my electricity gets cut off?

Then, there are those people who fall into the Mean Girl/Guy Writer category, people who say things like, “Well, Such and Such Writer is worth that much money,” when I look at the list of writers for a reading series and spot a name of someone who I know makes at least $5000 a reading. Not anyone who has won four times the awards that I have or has three times the number of books. Just another, regular writer (clearly with better negotiation skills than I have). But I’m not getting near that amount, though I’m reading on the same series.

What Mean Girl/Guy Writers are saying is that Such and Such Writer is just better than I am, for no apparent reason. They don’t say why, other than, “Oh, s/he gives a heck of a reading.” You know what? I give a heck of a reading. (Ask about me, okay?) And I’m wearing a cute outfit, Spanx underneath while doing it, plus gold, dangly earrings.

So what you got to say about that, Mean Girl/Guy Writer?

Then, there are The Grim Reaper Writers who remind you that “Zora Neale Hurston died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave, so what do you have to complain about?”

I’m convinced these are zombie hybrids of the Mean Girl/Guy Writers Category, only worse: they’re trying to get me so deep into depression about my finances (and whether I will have enough money to pay for a nice funeral) that I stop writing and that will clear the field for them. Also: addicted to Xanax or something.

Then, there are The Keep Cool and Copacetic About It Writers who say, “Look, there are many fine writers out there, so let’s spread the wealth around.”

I completely agree with this sentiment.—But how is paying someone $500 spreading the wealth? Because if someone offers me $500, which is supposed to cover my honorarium and travel as well, they’re actually asking me, “Can you read for free?” But yet, the organization is misrepresenting the offer as if I’m actually getting paid real money, instead of in moral currency or whatnot.

Explanation: first, the IRS is going to take a third of my $500 honorarium. So that’s now $335 after taxes.

Then, I have to pay for my own travel. But in order for me to fly to a reading series from where I live in Oklahoma that’s $400-$600, so now I’m $65 to $265 out of my pocket–unless the reading is the next county over and I can make it there in my thirteen-year- old hoopty.

Then, I have to park at the airport, so that’s another $10 out of my pocket.

Then, I have to buy me a sandwich—or the gluten free equivalent—at the airport on the way there and on the way back. That’s another $14 of my money.

Four bottles of the expensive airport water are $21. Also, my own money.

Finally, I have to give my emotional and spiritual energy to do a reading, because even if the series has asked me to pay my own money to read my work, the audience doesn’t know that and I’m going to give the best I can because that’s my duty. I have to wait until I return home to get swole.

I understand that institutional budgets are low these days for readings series. Things are tough all over financially. But the deal is that’s why I expect to get paid—because things are tough all over. I know there are a lot of writers out there who are not even getting published in the first place. I know they are working hard. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not working hard, too. And, I’m not independently wealthy. I do not have a trust fund. I must work for a living. (My husband works, too.) And part of my work includes my writing.

And when one looks at the number of writers for a yearly series and sees fifteen writers—who are being paid $500 apiece—it is difficult not to wonder how much fairer it would have been to cut the number of readers to five and pay them all $1000 plus travel expenses. This would send the message that writers count in the world, and render a necessary and important service in society. And there would be actual money in someone’s pocket–and equally important, a feeling of good will all around.

Let’s also remember that many of us writers have student loan debt because we borrowed money (with interest) to pay for our training as writers. Are we now supposed to pay to deliver our work to audiences, too? Last I heard, writers did not go into training to be Literary Sharecroppers, always in the hole.

The Shady Lady Crew

One of the reasons I am so excited about my four whole weeks to myself at the Vermont Studio Center is that, in addition to working on my poetry books, I’m hoping to sneak in some time to work on my fiction, too.

As I’ve told y’all, I’ve been an apprentice fiction writer for several years—fifteen to be exact—and up until I found out in February that I was short-listed for Best American Short Story 2009 for my story, “Easter Lilies in the West Room,” I was in the closet about it.

But I was caught up in memory this morning, thinking about how I first started writing fiction back in the day in graduate school in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Alabama. A senior fiction professor, Alan Wier, told me that I had a great voice for fiction, and that I should transfer from the poetry concentration to the fiction concentration.

I was excited about what he told me, but I didn’t want to transfer from poetry; I wanted to write both fiction and poetry expertly, but the Director of Creative Writing (who was not Alan Wier) wouldn’t let us do that. Not only did she not let us take on two concentrations, she let us know—firmly—that it was impossible for anyone to succeed in professionally writing in two genres.

Of course, I was thinking, “Well, Langston Hughes succeeded in FOUR genres.” But since I was in a program that treated me like a Field Negro most of the time—don’t get me started on that; but in all fairness to the program, this was fifteen years ago, so hopefully they know how to treat Black folks like actual human beings now—I was definitely afraid to bring up a Black writer’s name as proof of what I could do.

So, I put my fiction aside, or I should say, I wrote fiction in secret. Then, in 2000, right around the time I published my first book of poetry, I published my very first short story, “Sister Lilith” in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. My story ended up being the first story in the book. I got four sentences in the Washington Post. And a sister got a check from Warner Books for the story. I was happy as a hog in slop.

Then I got another story published in a journal that next year and another accepted for publication in another anthology. Well, I was so naive that I thought I could finally come out of the closet about my  status as an official fiction writer.

A few years later, I was at an (unnamed) writers’ conference; I was there on financial aid (which is a great resume line). I was hanging around some of the ladies who were there on financial aid, too, only they were there in fiction, instead of poetry like me.  One day, we were kicking it at a coffee house.

It’s been years ago, but still, I remember where I was sitting at the table when I mentioned that I was a fiction writer as well as a poet, and all those women laughed at me. It was a multiracial crew, but even the colored women laughed at me. I remember it all, and the memory still hurts.

Y’all know how mean girls could be back in high school? Well, these grown women had those “mean girls” beat. I nearly cried, I felt so hurt, but the only thing that kept me from crying is that whenever I cry (from hurt feelings), a few seconds later, I get really, really angry. Then when I get angry—Shazam!

Trust me, you do not want to see me angry. I am a Leo woman: enough said.

Please don’t think I’m trying to portray myself as some sort of victim here. I’m five eight and a half and I do weight training, plus, I can poke somebody’s eyeballs out because I learned that from a self-defense class. I know how to take care of myself at all times, but even though it seemed like we all were just kicking it in a relaxed setting, that coffee house was actually a business setting. All these women were writers, too, so if I had gotten angry and gone off, I could have ruined my career past repairing.

Also, I didn’t pull out my figurative switchblade on those women because I have noticed that whenever I go off on mean females, instead of their taking my pay-back in an honorable fashion—since they started the cruelty in the first place—those women start crying, and suddenly, I look like a female Bigger Thomas. In other words I look like the villain, with my big, loud-talking, frightening, BLACK self.

This flip-the-script strategy is a shady-lady move, no doubt—but I must admit, brilliant. There’s a line in an Edward P. Jones short story—I’m paraphrasing here—where a character says that his mother told him that since God didn’t give women muscles, so He gave them the ability to cry on demand.

Ok?

For a few months after that scene, I thought about abandoning my fiction. My confidence evaporated, and whenever I would have problems with a story, that moment at the coffee shop would play in my mind, and I would say, “They were right to laugh. I don’t have what it takes to do this.”

The only reason I didn’t give up is because I talked to my mama, and she told me those women weren’t really laughing out of righteous derision, but rather, fear. Because the competition out there in the writing world is so stiff, if one more person gets added to the mix, she could get in the way of someone else’s hustle. So those women were just trying to knock out the competition early by messing up my head.

And besides, Mama asked, had any of those women read my fiction before they started telling me what I could or could not do? Did they give me kind advice—like real women would—about how to become a better fiction writer before ridiculing me for being an uppity poet who thought she could write in their genre?

“ ‘No’ to both of those questions?” Mama asked. “Then stop letting some low-down, jealous heifers get in your way before you even get started.  I bet they were all homely, too.”

Sidebar: Now that I think about it, all but one of those women were cute-challenged, and even the cute one was a bad dresser.

Anyway, despite what my mama said, still it’s taken me several years of prayer and psyching myself up to get past the trauma and shame of that coffeehouse moment when I was surrounded by women who I assumed would be supportive and instead, who drop-kicked me.

It’s taken me that time to regain the hope I had in 1995, when my professor told me how good my fiction voice was and that I shouldn’t set my prose to the side. And really, up until February, when I found out about the whole short-list thing for Best American, I didn’t know if I’d ever recapture my confidence.

Now, I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m back to where I was before my feelings got hurt: consistent in my flow and believing I have a right to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t ever expect to be rich and famous, but really, the journey of writing (and enjoying that journey) is the whole point. So I’m not arrogant, but at least I’m hopeful these days.

So first, thank you, Mama, for reminding me that I am a Stone Cold Sister descended from a Stone Cold Sister. And Stone Cold Sisters don’t let anybody get in the way of their journeys.

And thank you, Professor Alan Wier for your kindness at the University of Alabama, back in 1995.  Thank you so much. I’ve run into you at conferences before and thanked you, but some things you just have to keep saying, because folks sometimes are unaware how they help you with kind words.

And finally, thank you, Shady Lady Crew of the Coffee House. You don’t know, either, how much you helped me in my progress as a fiction writer. You just don’t know.