A few days ago, I walked away from a book ghostwriting project.
It wasn't an easy decision, nor was it necessarily a particularly smart move: the up-front money was good, and my subsequent-royalties clause might have made it a lucrative project indeed. The book's subject was one on which I've written at length previously, and in which I have a definite intellectual and personal interest. Moreover, my own latest novel is just-now starting the rounds of acquisition editors, a process that rivals the blinding speed of any message-in-a-bottle; worse, from a cash-flow point-of-view, the usual holiday-season Dead Zone for freelanced news-and-opinion articles is only-just beginning to stir back to life again.
From a personal-finance POV, this project should have been a no-brainer.
But a variety of concerns --among them (but not limited to) the "author-of-record's" particular take on a certain central thesis, itself magnified by his/her sometimes-stated/sometimes-implied intent for writing the book in the first place-- left me with a vague sense of... well, let's term it "unease."
Now, this was not exactly a unique sensation for moi.
Like most scribes who augment their "own book" writing income with crafting content for another's by-line, I confess to (upon far too many occasions) swallowing hard, doing a quick mental calculation that superimposed my current net worth over my current stack of overdue bills, and reservations-be-damned signing the flippin' contract. Once or twice, I've even done the same for a project that carried my own by-line-- arguably a more difficult rationalization, but the nature of the beast for anyone who (also arguably, certainly in today's economy) "makes a living" as a "professional writer."
In short, "unease" comes with the self-employed-writer territory.
And this time --as always in the days before any contract-signing deadline-- all the pro-vs.-con issues that inevitably accompany any writing-in-anonymous-partnership coalesced down to a single, nagging question.
They usually do, and it's always the same one: did I want to participate --willingly, or at least with complicity-- in sending this book into the world?
No. Never in hell.
• • •
I may have made the wrong decision; in retrospect, I find that I often do.
But the freedom to say "no" --to act upon one's instinct, or emotion, or ideology, or even one's possibly romanticized whimsey-- is a basic right in any free society. In American society --where even the Constitution itself is rooted in the right to say "no" to the intentionally limited-powers government institutions that document created-- one might be tempted to cut through the clutter of law-book specificity to posit that saying "no" may well be the ultimate basic human right.
And in an admittedly roundabout way, perhaps that's the point of this piece.
• • •
It's Primary Election Day today in Illinois, and I'm tapping-out this deplorably overlong navel-gazing piece as I await the next wave of voters to emerge from a polling place in a suburban-Chicago voting precinct.
Throughout the day, I'll seize one or another of these unwary folk and on them inflict what the pundits call an "exit interview." My notes & insights will, along with those being scribbled by similar freelancers and staff-reporters at other polling places, be compiled by the broadcast entity that has rented my services today; the end-result of this dubiously valuable effort will be to allow the aforementioned pundits to predict the outcome of races that, willy-nilly, will be "officially" determined a few hours later anyway.
But to do this invaluable work right, one doesn't merely ask "who did you vote for?" Even if re-phrased to avoid the dangling participle --and what's a writer for, if not to be properly grammatical?-- that raw datum alone wouldn't come close to justifying the cost of hiring a seasoned professional to stand sentry here.
Instead, I find that my interview notes are filled with far ...uh... deeper voter-insights.
And most of them involve, in one way or another, the word "no."
(Not to the requested interview, I hasten to add; while I offer only a potential minute or two of fame, short-changing the Warhol afficionados among my waylaid post-vote voters, none has --at least, none thus far-- pushed past me with a curt "no comment.")
Rather, their words have largely revolved around their own sense of unease-- yes, about the economy; but surprisingly (to me) also about:
"...everything is getting regulated to death these days. You know the EPA is trying to fine farmers who raise dust on their own property?" (NOTE TO SELF: Farmers "raise dust"??!? There's unintended humor in there, but damned if I'm going to change a quote to avoid it... or to emphasize it out-of-context)
"...I heard on the radio this morning that the government is making hotels put five-thousand-dollar handicap chair-lifts at their swimming pools, or face fifty-thousand-dollar fines..."
"...what if I don't want to pay for twenty-five Secret Service agents to go to Mexico just because his daughter wants to have a spring break vacation?"
"...the health care mandate. Who are they to tell me what insurance I have to buy?"
"...we're not Catholics, but I'm against making any church do something it thinks is a sin..."
As a trained reporter & political analyst, I'm sensing some sort of trend here.
Unless I'm misreading these people badly, they're answering a four-year-old chant of "Yes, We Can!" with a very determined-sounding "Oh No, You Won't."
• • •
Granted, with so much focus on the top-slot candidates, in essence this is still largely a Republican "beauty contest" election; the actual electors (who will cast their votes at the GOP convention for their designated candidates, at least on the first ballot) are voted on separately, independent of the candidate himself. Based on my exit interviews, it's not certain that this process was entirely clear to all voters. But as we say in the Land of Lincoln (motto: "Two Of Our Last Two Governors Are In Jail Right Now!"), welcome to Illinois.
In addition, presumably today's voters themselves compose a very skewed sample of the American electorate as a whole, and one which may be wildly outnumbered by Democrats (as well as the real swing vote-segment in any American election: the one that my pundit-bosses are wont to call, with a questionable degree of accuracy, "Independents.")
And certainly, there's a valid argument to be made that this sampling of comments might reinforce any impression that the GOP is in fact the party of "no." (SARCASTIC NOTE TO SELF: Must rush to copyright this phrase, before someone else comes up with it!)
But, so what? Is not "No!" the ultimate "two negatives equal a positive" response to any aggressive campaign against those subjected to forced (or EN-forced, whether by statute or mere bureaucratic regulation) action? If not, must such dogma as "'no' means NO" be retired from, say, the anti-rape lexicon? If "no" is a rejection of one proposition, is it not also an affirmation of... of... well, of some other, alternative course of action?
• • •
I'd go on, and on, and probably on even some more --many writing-exercise pieces could benefit from a good editor, and this is definitely one of them-- but even to me, this is starting to sound like a debate in a freshman Philosophy class (at least, one where the professor has long-before nodded off at his lectern, and the kids are philosophizin' amok).
• • •
And a really good editor might have already changed the first line of this piece, wherein I stated that I had "walked away" from a project.
"To 'walk away' might over-emphasize the negative context," R. Good Editor might tell me. "But the focus in your article is that a negative --'no,' as you used it here-- is in reality a positive: a affirmation of the right to decline participation. Or --as you put it-- even complicity."
RGEditor might even smile, in a way that might signal benevolence... or at least a benevolent tolerance of a writer's musings, typed-out during downtime moments of a mind-numbing assignment.
"We can fix it," he might say, his tone intended to soothe. "I'll change the wording to 'A few days ago, I liberated myself from a book ghostwriting project,' okay?"
I might ponder for a count, hearing the wisdom in his suggestion. This thing is a mess, I might say to myself. I oughta just hit 'delete all'...
But then I might --just might, though I hope I actually would-- say what every writer has wanted to say to every editor who ever saw his written, but not-intended-for-publication, words:
"No," I might say. "Let it stand as written. Not everything a writer writes has to make for a good story."
--Earl "Okay, So What Do You Guys Write Just To Fill A Page With Keep-Yourself-Occupied Words?" Merkel