By: Steve Slavin
When Am I a Writer?
How many published writers are there, and what does it take to become one? When can you call yourself an author?
- Do you need to write a book, or is a solitary poem sufficient?
- Do you have to be well known, like Tom Clancy or Michelle Obama?
- Does being a starving poet living in a garret qualify?
- Should you use aspiring, soon-to-be-best-selling, or other qualifies before you’re published?
- If you’re self-published, does that count?
Joining the Other Writers
Many years ago, I joined the National Writers Union, which soon became a United Auto Workers Union subsidiary. That wasn’t as strange as it seemed. By merging with the UAW, our union secured decent health care benefits for many of its members.
It also got us a free subscription to their newspaper, Solidarity. We even got to call each other “brother” and “sister,” which took a little getting used to at the beginning.
The National Writers Union often held fund-raising parties, which were a lot of fun. When I arrived at my first one, they told me I would get in for free. When I asked why, someone said, “Because you wrote a book.”
“Didn’t everybody here write a book – or at least a lot of articles?”
“Hey, brother, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Okay, she may not have called me “brother” because we had not yet merged with the UAW.
Where are the Writers? Where is the Fun?
Soon after the merger, the parties gradually became a lot less fun. There were speeches, and eventually, we had to sit through “agitprops” – short for agitation and propaganda. These were stilted skits or short plays, heavily relying on words like brother, sister, solidarity, worker, proletariat, justice, bloodsucking bosses, and a living wage.
Almost everyone in the audience kept talking to each other, so occasionally, one of the actors would scream at everyone to pay attention. If we persisted, I wondered if they would cut off our health insurance.
Writers at a Gala?
One evening, the union held a “gala” fundraiser. It would cost us $75, and we’d get a meal. I was seated at a circular table with eight or nine other attendees, none of whom I even recognized. So, to break the ice, I asked everyone to tell us about something they had written.
No one had written anything!
I discovered that most of our members could not afford $75 – and certainly not $150 for a couple. So, who were my dining companions? It turns out that they were members of other unions that had bought them tickets to show their “solidarity” with ours. These folks got a free meal, and we raised a lot of money.
But I did get to meet a fellow writer after all. A woman sitting across from me confided that her husband was a poet. Now virtually no one puts food on the table and a roof over his head by writing poetry except maybe Robert Frost.
A Rose or Writer by Any Other Name
When the poet returned from the bathroom, I said his wife had told us that he was a poet.
“What kind of poet? Honey, how many times do I have to tell you, I ain’t no poet! I’m a subway motorman!”
His wife protested that he was far too modest. “Sometimes, after work, Michael sits down at his desk and writes.”
“Yeah! Yuh wanna hear how far I got? I’ll recite it right now:
‘Once, I was youthful, gay, and fair.
Now my ass overlaps the chair.'”
We all applauded. It really wasn’t half bad.
“Hey!” someone called out, “You could be the poet laureate of the Transit Workers Union!”
Just Use the Term and You’re In
Apparently, there were no writing credentials required for membership in the National Writers Union, so the two books I had written made me look like a working author. I actually received a princely salary from a community college somewhere out in New Jersey in those days.
At one of the first meetings, I befriended an extremely affable woman who was an administrator at the Brooklyn Public Library. She was amazingly articulate and entertaining. I was shocked to learn that she had never even tried to get anything published.
One day, as I was browsing through Solidarity, there was her photo. They had given her a column. Maybe, our union’s admissions committee recognized her great potential.
I would eventually meet a few other writers – including one or two who even made a living writing books or newspaper and magazine articles. But as my list of publications grew, I decided to join a “real” writers’ organization.
The American Society of Journalists and Authors was exactly what I was looking for all along. Most of the members not only had impressive writing credits but supported themselves by their writing.
By now, I had written four or five books, one of which was an introductory economics textbook. Now my royalties were even greater than my princely teaching salary. Drake McFeely, a top editor with Norton, famously proclaimed that selling college textbooks was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Once their professor has assigned a textbook, the students had no choice but to buy that book. So, if it was assigned at a lot of colleges, you could make some real money.
Judge Not Lest…
At ASJA, I became friendly with a struggling novelist named Rob, who did support himself writing, but it was a constant struggle. He also wrote “how-to” books and magazine articles. Perhaps his most famous piece was a chapter in a book on Nicole Simpson, O.J.’s murdered wife, who stood trial for her murder. My friend only had a few days to research and write an analysis of Nicole’s handwriting. The book became a bestseller. Rob made $300.
Another ASJA member I had become friendly with was a children’s book author with over twenty books to her credit. She must have been doing quite well since she lived in a huge coop on Park Avenue in the fifties.
One day she asked me if I could offer any advice about writing non-fiction so she could make some real money. We both agreed that academic textbooks, no matter how lucrative, would not work for her.
When I asked why she didn’t just keep writing children’s books, she explained that the artists made all the money and that the writers were almost literally a dime a dozen.
“Well, if you don’t mind me asking….” She finished the sentence for me, “How can I afford a big Park Avenue Coop?”
We both laughed. I waited.
“I divorced well.”
Real Writers Don’t Get Paid According to Rob
Rob once overheard me telling someone that I was a writer. By then, I had written about a dozen books, most of which were selling reasonably well. But my economics text remained my big money-maker.
Later, he confronted me. “You’re no writer!”
I thought he was joking, so I asked how many more books I would need to write before meeting his standard.
“You have a job! In fact, you have health insurance! “
“And your point is?”
“Steve, I live hand-to-mouth. I have to pay for my own health insurance.”
“So, I need to give up my job, my health insurance, and my royalties to become a writer?”
“As long as you have a job with health insurance, you’re not a writer.”
A few years later, the president of my college made me an offer I could not refuse. If I agreed to resign on the spot, I would be paid in full for the next academic year and receive health insurance through the college.
I immediately accepted. I was making much more in royalties than I had earned at the college, and now I would be completely free.
The next time we met, I told Rob that I was now a writer.
“Is the college still paying you?”
“Then you’re not a writer!”
I laughed. But he didn’t. He was quite serious.
A year later, we saw each other again. I told Rob that I was no longer drawing a salary.
“But are they still paying your health insurance?”
Now, I’m a Real Writer According to Rob
He did not need to reiterate that I was not a real writer as long as they picked up any portion of my tab.
A few months later, I got a bill from an insurance company. The college had stopped paying my premiums, so now I needed to pay them.
I called Rob. “Rob! I have some great news!”
“Don’t tell me! The college stopped paying your health insurance.”
“Now you’re a writer!”
Two Drops of Ink: The Home for Collaborative Writing
Bio: Steve Slavin
Steve Slavin has a PhD in economics from New York University and taught economics for 31 years at Brooklyn College, New York Institute of Technology, and Union County College (NJ).
He has written 16 math and economics books, including the best-selling, “All the Math You’ll Ever Need.”
“To the City, with Love”: three volumes of love letters to his city, disguised as short stories.
His website is tothecity.net, where he shares his love of New York City.
He also writes about politics and economics at Valuewalk.com.