Why I'm a poor writer


For almost a month now I've been trying to collect $55 that a national environmental magazine owes me for a 400-word book review. That's two 20s, a 10, and a five. Three polite e-mails have yielded the following one response: "Thanks for reminding me. I'll look into it."

This proves my first rule about free-lance writing: The smallest checks are always the hardest to collect. Rule number two: All checks for writing are small.

Today, I rush outside to the mailbox, hoping for an acceptance letter or a check, and instead find a Betty Crocker catalog, the third Wal-Mart flyer of the week, and a rejection letter from National Public Radio. (At least I think the letter is from NPR. There is no letterhead and the word "impossible" is spelled impossiable. I jump on the misspelling as yet another excuse not to pledge money.)

Finally, there is a thick envelope from the Social Security Administration. Inside the dismal details of my economic biography are spelled out year by year from 1968 to the present - Your Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement. For my entire working life, covering a span of 25 years, I have made a grand total of $254,481, for a yearly average of $10,179, or in more depressing terms, $100,000 less than Michael Jordan made per game last year in the NBA. In 1986, at the tender age of 31, I made my first $10,000. Two years later I broke $20,000. Then I made the fatal mistake of turning to full-time free-lance writing. In 1993, I brought home $9,810, the equivalent amount Michael Jordan receives for one minute of playing basketball.

At the end of this letter, Kenneth S. Apfel, commissioner of Social Security, writes that I am on tap to collect around $600 a month when I retire, an amount slightly less than my spouse or daughter would receive if I died today. As an afterthought he adds, "We may also be able to pay your spouse or eligible children a one-time death benefit of $255."

I walk back outside and reach into the mailbox just in case I overlooked an envelope, but this has never happened. Reality sets in. The mail's come and gone without yielding a check or an acceptance letter, and no editor has called with an exciting overseas assignment. In an hour it will be five o'clock Eastern Time, and New Yorker and Harper's editors David Remnick and Lewis Lapham will be leaving their offices without having had the sense to answer any of my weekly submissions.

Of course, when you live out West, those submissions never make it to Manhattan. At the New Jersey entrance to the city is a road block manned by smirking magazine editorial assistants dressed in black whose job it is to screen all mail. They are smoking an unknown, but fashionable, brand of foreign cigarette. They are laughing at inside jokes that seem cruel and humiliating. They will live forever. If a ZIP code appears from an area outside of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston or New York, they will toss the letter in the Hudson River, but not before sufficient ridicule.

I watch enough morning talk shows to know that the potential to be "discovered" overnight is still a possibility. I imagine the multi-city book tour, the lines of adoring fans at the bookstores (even some independent bookstores), and how Matt or Katie will hold up my book even though they haven't read it and ask, "How has all this success, the money, the fame and the movie contract changed you?"

"Well, except for buying a 500-acre ranch bordering Glacier National Park, and purchasing large quantities of Impressionistic art, vintage Porsches and Shaker furniture, I am basically the same man I've always been. Just more spiritual and a hell of a lot more relaxed."

And I will be witty, animated, my nose hairs will stop growing, and food will never get stuck between my teeth, which by this time will be capped. I will be invited to all the right parties where all the right people will be dressed in black and smoke an unknown, but fashionable, brand of foreign cigarette. I will finally understand their jokes, which are actually hilarious and insightful.

Finally, I will receive a hand-delivered, registered letter from NPR apologizing for the rejection and, more importantly, for the misspelling. In fact, I will receive contrite apologies from every magazine, journal and newspaper that ever had the gall to reject my prose over the last 10 years.

"We regret our past mistakes in passing on your work. To ensure that this never happens again, we have flogged and dismissed our entire editorial staff. Enclosed is a registered check for future work you might be kind enough to send us. If the amount is too small, please let us know and we will send you another check immediately."

Stephen Lyons, the writer many readers love to hate, lives somewhere in the Northwest, where he infrequently communes with nature.

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