Parents reading this may be familiar with the feeling I’m about to describe.
When you were a kid, did you sometimes glare resentfully at your own parents and think fiercely, when I have kids of my own I will absolutely not be doing that. And then, when you did have kids of your own, did you find yourself doing exactly the same thing, and maybe even understanding why your parents did it?
Yeah, me too. Occasionally. Usually through fear for their safety.
Tell you what, though. Having been in publishing for seven years, maybe not as long as an entire childhood but surely long enough to understand a little about why things happen the way they do, I still don’t get a lot of it.
Not just the things publishers do. I did get a handle on a lot of that, especially the question all writers ask at some time: why does it sometimes take months to respond to submissions? That’s not choice, or laziness, or not caring: it’s priorities, deadlines and only having twenty-four hour days like everyone else.
This week, though, what’s exercising my mind is the way people, ordinary people, regard writers.
A man called Keith Waterhouse, who died a couple of years ago after a long and illustrious freelance writing career based on being wise about the human race, had quite a bit to say about being a writer. Among my favourites is the one about writing a novel being akin to digging a small quarry singlehanded with a teaspoon.
But today’s anecdote, probably taken from one of his many newspaper columns, is the one about the editor of his local village magazine, who was a lawyer in his spare time. No, not really in his spare time, but you’ll see what I mean.
This editor asked Keith Waterhouse to write a piece for the village magazine: nothing elaborate, wouldn’t take long, just a few paras describing exactly what it was that he did, as people in the village would be interested to learn that they had someone in their midst whose name appeared regularly in the national press.
Waterhouse’s response was exactly what you’d expect from a freelance writer: Certainly; how many words, what’s the deadline and how much is the fee?
It was the third item that rather flummoxed the editor/lawyer. Waterhouse carefully and politely explained that writing was how he earned his living; if he’d asked the editor/lawyer to handle the sale of a house for him, he’d expect to receive an invoice, so he was meeting a request for his professional services in similar vein. Or put more succinctly, no fee, no article.
I used to get something similar when I ran creative writing classes as a local education centre. Students would present me with their grands oeuvres, sometimes tens of thousands of words, and expect a reasoned critique. Naturally that’s fine if the project is part of the course, but if it’s not... well, hey, I have a life too, and teaching three classes a week does not a living make.
The only other people I can think of who get similar requests are doctors. I’ve known one or two who turned down dinner party invitations because they invariably turn into busman’s holidays.
Can someone enlighten me on why this happens? I don’t know anyone who would expect the plumber who lives next door to service their heating free of charge, or the accountant they see in the pub to check over their tax return without a fee.
Why are writers expected to give away their skills and expertise?