Recently I was asked by a member of the National Writer's Association if I would speak to his local chapter about what I do.
"What I do depends on what day it is," I said.
"That's okay," he said, "you can just talk about your life. A lot of us are part-time writers and it's rare when we get a chance to listen to someone who has actually made it."
Though I've somehow managed to live and support a family as a freelance writer I've never quite allowed myself to think that I've ‘made it.' Making it, to me, is when you're Tom Wolfe or Stephen King or John McPhee. But to a lot of people who casually know me or sometimes see my byline in a magazine or on a masthead as a "Contributing Editor," I'm a successful writer, just because it's how I earn a living.
"Yeah," I said, "I'll talk. What the hell, it will get me out of the house."
So, what part of my life do I choose to talk about? The frustrations of dealing with the female publicist who acknowledges the uniqueness and integrity of the Playboy interview but denies access to her stars because "No client of mine will appear in Playboy"? The humiliation of being asked by a new editor of a magazine I have written for to send clips of my work before they consider me for any future assignments? The P.R's insistence that a star will talk to me only if I can guarantee a cover photo? The constant unemployment, the lack of health benefits or golden parachutes or bonuses? The anonymity? The speculative submissions that go unanswered? The tracking down of money owed? The frequent pay-after-publication for work done months prior to publication?
Sure, I can talk about all of that-it's the stock and trade of the freelance profession. But it's not what aspiring writers want to hear, and it's not why I continue to write. I write in spite of all the petty (and not so petty) frustrations and humiliations. I write because writing has brought me the woman I love, has allowed me to enter the homes of the rich & famous, put me in the bosom of history-in-the-making, forced me to read great works of fiction and non-fiction, allowed me to see the world, and made me realize my true nature.
47 years ago, when I was 15 years old, the Long Island newspaper Newsday sponsored an American History essay contest for high school students. The topic of the first essay was "America's Three Greatest Presidents." I chose Lincoln, Jefferson, and Woodrow Wilson, scratched out the 600 required words, and won. My essay and picture was published in the paper, I received an engraved watch, and a trip to Washington, D.C., where I was supposed to meet President Kennedy. The president's schedule, however, didn't coincide with my trip and he had to go to Berlin to deliver a speech in front of the Berlin Wall about how we were all Berliners. As a consolation I got to meet the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy in his office, the director of the FBI, and the two senators from my home state. For a 15 year-old kid who hadn't started shaving yet, this was pretty heady stuff. I understood at an early age that writing paid, even if it wasn't always with money.
Four years later when I was 19 and in college (UCLA), I flew home for the summer and the day after I arrived my friend called to say we had to fly immediately to Mississippi because Civil Rights activist James Meredith had been shot and Martin Luther King was marching and it was history we could not ignore. So we flew to St. Louis, caught a connecting flight to Memphis, hitched across the state line and joined the Meredith Mississippi March. We walked for hundreds of miles and listened to King speak and huddled in fear under pitched tents as bullets whizzed through the canvas at night and heard Stokely Carmichael up the protest ante when he began shouting "Black Power" for the first time when one of the march leaders asked "What do we want?" There were no reporters allowed on the march and I knew an exclusive when I saw one, so every time we came to a town I'd find a public phone and call Newsday and report on what was happening. Each day what I told them appeared in the paper, not under my byline and not for any pay, but that didn't matter, I was reporting history. It was exciting. And what I learned then was that if you had a story someone wanted, they would take your calls-collect.
A few years later when I was in the Peace Corps in Ghana I had to return to New York. I was involved in a car accident five years before and the case was finally going to trial. While home, I met Hiromi, a Japanese artist who was visiting a neighbor, and fell in love-at-first-sight, corny as that sounds. I had to return to Ghana for another year and she went back to Japan. When I left the Peace Corps I traveled to Japan, went to her house, and asked what it would take to get her to return to the States and live with me. She thought I was crazy. I made her a proposition: What if I wrote an article about her and her art and published it in a magazine that might advance her career? Would she come to me if I could do that? She just laughed-she was an unknown fiber artist just out of school, who would want to read about her?
I went to a department store, bought a tape recorder, and asked her questions about her work. Then I flew back to New York, moved into my parents' basement, and wrote the article. Craft Horizons (now American Crafts) accepted it and agreed to publish it in eight months, which gave my future wife enough time to settle her affairs in Japan and join me in New York. The lesson here was: Money may not be able to buy you love, but writing can.
That article also made me believe that I could write other articles, and soon I was freelancing stories for newspapers like the N.Y. Times and Newsday and for magazines like True and Film Quarterly and African Arts. But what I really wanted to do was be a novelist, so Hiromi and I decided to leave New York and head to California. As soon as we arrived I got a call from a Newsday editor asking if I could interview Mae West for them. I said sure, though I didn't know if she was even alive, and that was how I became a celebrity interviewer.
After doing thirty such interviews for Newsday I began to wonder what it would really be like to talk to someone in-depth, not just for the two or three hours I needed to get the 3,000 words for Newsday. The most in-depth interviews I knew were those that appeared in Playboy-but how did an outsider get their attention? I decided to interview Hugh Hefner for Newsday, and do a really thorough job so he'd take notice. It worked, he did, I got to meet Arthur Kretchmer, the editorial director, and he told me who to contact regarding the interviews. That editor wanted to know who I was working on. I mentioned Barbra Streisand. "If you can get her, we're interested," he said.
It took more than a year but I finally managed to get to Streisand. It took more months of negotiations (she wanted me to sign a letter giving her complete ownership and control of the interview; I refused) and then once she agreed, another nine months before it was completed. During this time, of course, I got paid nothing from Playboy and expected nothing. But my perseverance paid off and after Streisand became the first celebrity to appear on the cover of Playboy, the magazine somehow got Marlon Brando to agree to be interviewed and they asked me to do it.
Seventeen months later, after being put through more hoops than a circus dog, I flew to Tahiti to spend ten days with Brando on his private island. I was beginning to appreciate the freelance life. Other assignments would take me to Paris, London, Colombia, Mexico, and New Zealand.
After the Brando interview appeared in the magazine's 25th anniversary issue I got a call from my editor asking if I'd like to interview Al Pacino in New York. I said of course. He said I had to be there in two days. Impossible, I said, I wasn't prepared. "You don't understand," he said. "Pacino said he'll only do this with the guy who did Brando."
"I want more money," I said. Another example of how the writing profession brings out life lessons: when you're holding the cards, play ‘em. For a long time in the eighties, being The Guy Who Did Brando got me through a lot of gated doors.
I never imagined that much of my writing life would be spent as an interviewer, but then I never really gave much thought to the freelance life. I had no role models, knew no one who ever freelanced, and I kept thinking that I'd be getting back to those novels one of these years. But when the opportunity presented itself to spend time talking to the writers I'd read in high school and college-Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, James A. Michener, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury-I couldn't believe my luck. I could read their complete works, prepare carefully, and maybe even get some advice-or at least some signed books.
So, yes, this writer's life is filled with constant uncertainty. I never know what I'll be doing or whom I may be talking to or writing about a month from now. I've got one daughter in medical school and another newly married and looking for help buying a house. Whenever I finish one assignment I have to apply for another job, and this constant reapplication, month after month, week after week, can wear you down-especially when new editors replace old ones and they want to see your clips. It's a humbling experience, freelancing. And it's made me realize that my true nature is that I'm a compulsive gambler. I've been gambling on my future from the first day I decided to do this for a living, all those years back when I fell in love with a young Japanese artist and wanted to get her to live with me.
She's still with me.
I'm still writing.
And that's what I told the chapter members of the National Writer's
Association. You want to freelance? Don't think about the future. As that sneaker ad tells us: Just do it.