Hello, and thank you for dropping by to devote these microseconds to a meeting of our minds. That's an appropriate opener for the year 2020. This article was the editor's idea. No really, they said to tell everyone about the life of a writer. I will tell you right now that I press buttons on a flat electronic device in patterns that cause checks to arrive in the mail. Now that I have that dunked, a whole article is left to fill.
I just don't do autobiography well, but as I understand it some of you out there are clamoring to adopt my path to freelance autonomy. And now I'm going to tell you why that's impossible.
History cannot repeat this career path:
As a kid, I was the weird one who read books all the time. The most boring book was more interesting to me than most of the people I had to talk to, so early on I decided I wanted to be a writer. Wait, correct that, I mean to say that I wanted to be an author. Most of what I had read until then was fiction, and genre fiction at that. The popular layman's vision of the writing career is writing the "great American novel." To this day, people still have this mistaken idea.
This was in the '70s and '80s, so my obvious method was to obtain a manual typewriter in some dusty thrift store, buy a ream of paper and a stack of manila envelopes plus stamps at Kinko's, and set out flinging manuscripts through the mail to publishers in New York. This ancient, primitive process involved mailing hefty manuscripts with a stamped, self-addressed return envelope, through which I would receive my humiliation. I plowed through copies of Writer's Market, slowly realizing that every entry famous enough to make it into the book was flooded with submissions before the ink was dry.
Experience from listening to important authors is probably telling you that I sweated and raged, writing 'til my fingers bled, enduring rejection after rejection until I finally found the one heroic editor who would give me a break. That didn't happen. I accumulated a stack of rejection letters, spent a fortune in postal fees, and gave up, thinking that all the rejections must mean I suck.
That's actually not the full truth. I moreover decided that if I was any good, the problem was that I was too young. I put the author's plan on the back burner and resolved through the '80s and '90s to be a normal, productive member of society. I worked odd jobs and went on adventures. Got married and raised a family, which made that steady paycheck (and sometimes two) necessary.
That was me trying to fit into society. Now, that, I REALLY sucked at! That's a hilarious chapter in my life for another time. The only bearing it has on this topic now is that it did give me a saga of real-life experience to draw on. I also discovered that I had other talents besides being a bookworm, such as technology. I'm one of the lucky Generation Xers who had the tech boom power us right along on our career paths.
The Dawn of Blogging
After several career hops in increasingly tech-oriented fields, I began to assume that the tech field was my destiny. I installed Linux and mastered PC building, snorted programming languages like cocaine, and one day discovered the original freelance hitching post of what would one day become known as the world of eCommerce. That was the now-defunct Rent-A-Coder.com. It launched near the turn of the century.
I'd done enough odd jobs and one-offs on a casual basis before, whenever an associate had a need for a console jockey, so I figured to give it a try. I signed up to Rent-A-Coder and, to my thrill, discovered I could regularly land small gigs. I'd draw the occasional banner graphic, maintain some HTML, hammer somebody's CSS into shape, bang out a script in Bash and Python, that sort of stuff. This is when I launched my own website, originally to geek out about tech. It has since been converted into promoting my work and giving my thoughts on eCommerce and web culture.
Soon I noticed that there was a glut of jobs on the board for just plain old writing content. Blogger.com had launched early in the 2000s, to be bought out by Google and turned into what would become the seed of the eCommerce empire we know today. I discovered that writing gigs were the most lucrative of all for me. While coding work requires you to constantly study to stay current, and graphics jobs don't pay beans, all the world was happy to dump money on me for banging out some halfway legible text.
This is the closest thing to a business secret I have: I write fast. Even at a piddling rate like five cents a word, I can rack up an hourly wage that's pretty respectable for sitting at home on a laptop. The "blogosphere" (sorry!) began to grow. People became "bloggers" and I joined those ranks. All my other skills have mostly withered away from lack of use, while I ride this content thing as long as it keeps me happy.
That's the whole story, but contained within it is the startling change that has happened around us in 20 years.
What even is a writer anymore?
My story is far from unique. There's a whole army of bloggers out there, although I'm probably one of very few who have done it exclusively for a living for two decades now. What's missing, however, is my identity in the lofty history of literary careers.
I'm not writing fictional novels in the range of 70K-120K words, so I'm not an author. I don't work for a newspaper so I'm not a reporter, a journalist, or a columnist. There is no historical template for this kind of writing career, a job that did not exist when I was born. "Man of letters" isn't really an apt description either. I (and bloggers like me) don't fit in with any of these guys. There is no room for my kind besides the graves of my heroes, the ones whose work I swore I'd carry on. There have been no famous bloggers, not in the way that authors or even newspaper columnists are famous.
I've written more than Shakespeare.
This is confusing because let's take an acceptable example of a famous author. William Shakespeare will do. I am arbitrarily using this statistics site as a measure for his lifetime output. That's 37 plays at an average of 22.6K words per play, for a word count of 836,200 words. That is all! You can get the complete Shakespeare into one book. I have a copy. It's hefty, to be sure, but not beyond the measure of modern binding technology.
I average about 6K words per week. You'll have to take my word for it, but that's not actually a huge claim. This article as I hit the next key is already over 1.1K. Figure that 6K * 52 weeks in a year is 312K. I've been doing this for twenty years! Round it off to account for my week off for Christmas and the occasional sick day, that makes 300K per year, which makes - six million words!
I've had a broader audience than Shakespeare too.
Obviously I'm not as famous as Shakespeare. Perhaps he had more reach? But the Internet has given us all the global reach. How many people during Shakespeare's lifetime watched one of his plays? There is a fact sheet for Shakespeare's hypothetical audience, but we're not going to get very far this way.
Here's an easier argument: Measuring just one of my current steady writing gigs at Dab Connection, that site gets 884K unique visitors per month. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. The world population in 1600 was only 579 million. 884K * 12 = 10.6 million unique readers per year on just one of the sites I write for. So if one quarter of the entire world's population saw Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime (a hard figure to justify), I've outnumbered his audience over 20 years' writing.
Fame means nothing now.
The above are some VERY sloppy math, so I won't try to use it to argue much. But the fact is, almost every one of you can say you have just as much influence as I have. One well-timed Twitter tweet, one viral meme on IMGUR, one funny remark on Reddit, can easily expose anyone of us to an audience greater than the sum total of people on Earth during Shakespeare's lifetime.
The greatest selling album of all time is Michael Jackson's Thriller. Total certified copies, 47 million. The YouTube video with the most views is "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, at 6.6 billion views. I'm sure you've heard of "Despacito," with it being an Internet meme and all, but don't even tell me you could have remembered Luis Fonsi's name a minute ago without looking it up.
The Internet changed what everything means.
"Fame" isn't measurable in any kind of numbers. "Media" has changed now that we're all the media. The old world of authors and New York publishers, singers and Top-40 radio, actors and Hollywood, that's all gone now. There are funny cat videos out there that more people have looked at than at the Mona Lisa. The Internet is a black hole that will suck in all the creative output of humanity forever and yet we will all remain anonymous.
In any other millennium past, I probably would have been regarded as a "hack writer," being published in rags, tabloids, and pulp magazines. I'm actually proud of that tradition, I'm in good company.
Here we are. We created this multimedia monstrosity that has changed the way we communicate forever, and all we can do now is ask what happens next? But maybe there is no "next." Maybe we just stay in this loop forever. The Internet perfectly preserves past pop culture in an echoing hall of mirrors, rediscovered by generation after generation. Our highest art form is now the meme. What room is there for culture to grow after that?
This isn't a lament. I have always regarded it as foolish to rail against progress. We have a world now where nobody will ever be famous again, possibly to never again see a Da Vinci, an Einstein, or a Shakespeare. We have replaced them with memes. We are all memes suspended in the global darkness, all exactly equal and ephemeral.
I, for one, am leading a crusade to bring writing back to being a blue-collar profession.