A few years ago, a guy named Jerry called me about writing a grant to help him start a hot roasted peanut stand business. He explained with excitement that he would hire blind people and deaf people to sell hot roasted peanuts on street corners, “you know, to do them a favor by giving them a job.” Jerry seemed to think that blind people and deaf people are incapable of doing anything better with their lives than selling peanuts on street corners, which would be a step up from holding out a donations can. I asked him if he knew any deaf or blind people. He said he did not, but that he didn’t think he would have trouble finding some. When I told Ron about this, he said I should have shouted at Jerry, “Are you nuts?!” Ironically, Jerry’s call interrupted me while I was writing a huge federal grant for funding for a project to train and place mentally ill disabled individuals in mainstream jobs; and I was writing about the Supported Employment Model, an evidence-based approach built on research that demonstrates that given adequate extra support, severely disabled people can make a significant contribution in the workplace, earn a competitive wage, and establish a satisfying career path. Bad timing, Jerry. What’s worse about this exchange was that Jerry, carried away on his inspiration, proposed that I write the grant for free since it was such a worthy cause. I mean, how could I resist, huh? I suggested that he befriend a deaf person or a blind person, told him I don’t work for peanuts, and hung up.
This past week I received an email from the editor of a nutrition e-zine who invited me to write an article on a topic of interest to me. I emailed her back and asked how much she would pay me and how many words long the article should be. She responded, “We don’t pay for articles, but you would benefit from exposure to our 18,000 readers and we would drive traffic to your website.” Website traffic? Exposure? Is that like flashing my breasts to strangers? Writers hear about this “exposure” stuff a lot. The world is full of people, particularly those desperate for web content, who think that writers salivate at the opportunity to wave a few words at a perhaps substantial and perhaps phantom audience. These people seem to think that writers will work for free because we just love writing so much that we don’t care whether or not we get paid to do it. Sadly, there are a lot of writers who do write for free, and many of them are good writers. Fie on you freebie writers. You ruin the game for all of us. You have been coerced by a society that devalues our craft.
Last week, in addition to my correspondence with the editor who invited me to write for exposure, I also had a bit of a run-in about payment arise on a grant writing job. I quoted a client a price for a project and she balked. So I said I understood that I was out of her price range and we should call it a day. But then she convinced me to do part of the work for a reduced price and we made an agreement. I did the work according to the agreement. When I turned in the deliverables, she expressed surprise that I had not done more than what we agreed upon. Did she think I would get hooked on her amazing grant proposal and therefore donate my time to the cause? What part of “I do this for a living” does she not understand? I told her if she wanted me to do more work, she would need to sign a contract to pay me for my time. She is thinking it over. Hey, Jerry, pass her the peanuts.
Sometimes I write grants for folks and we don’t get a dime (good grants, too) and sometimes I write grants and we hit the jackpot. I always tell my clients “If you don’t buy a ticket then you definitely won’t win.” Last year I had a banner year, wrote a lot of successful grants. The crown jewel was my work for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, which paid me generously to write two grants, both were awarded, and I secured $12 million for the agency. My fee was excellent for me and a mere plume of spray in the ocean of what I earned for them.
A few years ago, a clown called to talk me into writing a grant for him for free for a clowning project. Who can say “no” to a guy with blue hair and a big red nose? So cute. I said “no.” There’s a great joke in that somewhere, like “How many grant writers does it take to cram 35 clowns into a Honda Civic?” Answer: Two—one to write the grant to buy the car and one to play Send in the Clowns plaintively on the violin. I have turned down work on quite a few grant writing projects because they didn’t pay enough or they were projects I just couldn’t get into. For instance, I consistently refuse to write family planning grants to teach abstinence to teenagers, not because these projects don’t pay, but because I can’t imagine writing a persuasive argument on this topic. Are you kidding me? The main function of adolescence is pretty much to explore sex. This is not rocket science. It has to do with hormones. But some people will label any fact that they don’t like “bad science.” I could write a grant to teach teenagers about safe sex, but I couldn’t write convincingly about abstinence. Not even for the exposure. If I turned down big bucks for writing abstinence grants then I’m certainly not going to leap at the opportunity to get paid nothing to write grants for cramming clowns into cars.
I discovered a few months ago that it is customary for academic journals published by university departments to pay nothing for articles. Apparently they have no problem convincing grad students and college instructors to write articles for them just for fun. I find this baffling. Considering how much it costs to send a child to college, it astonishes me that universities do not budget for these academic journals published by their various departments to pay writers who produce content for them. I’m still processing this. I wonder if college instructors are eager to demonstrate to their students how much fun it is to write papers by writing for these journals. Are they proving a point? Or are they just high on printer cartridge ink or something?
Dear Editor: Would you ask your plumber to fix a problem with your toilet for free? Or your accountant to prepare your taxes for free? Or a doctor to remove erasers from your toddler’s nose for free? Of course not. Then why do you ask writers to write for you for free? Writing is a profession. I am a professional writer. I write in exchange for money so I can pay my bills. News flash. The grocery store wants cash in exchange for cheese. I like to eat cheese. I write, you pay me for my work, I use the money to buy cheese. I eat my cheese and you publish my article. This is a simple concept. I’m not an economist, but I think this might be an example of how a monetary system works. Since it’s not likely that the NEA will grant me a fellowship to buy cheese, I must depend on whatever income I can eke out from this underrated, undervalued profession to survive.
If you read this far, thanks for listening. You are a super-supportive audience. I’m going to sign off now and go write fiction. I have an idea for a short story about a dystopian future in which an evil e-zine editor hunts down and rounds up clowns and forces them into abstinence, they go blind masturbating, and a guy named Jerry rescues them from a life of despair and exposure by hiring them to sell hot roasted peanuts on street corners. In the end, the clowns’ sight is miraculously restored so they cram into a Honda Civic and ride off into the sunset on a mission to drive traffic to websites. **Spoiler Alert.** They get to have sex again but they find this difficult with so many of them in the car. Just out of curiosity, how much do you think this story might be worth on the open market? Message me privately to avoid exposure.