Monday, October 27, 2008

Where I Get Off

There are two kinds of professional writer.

The first is the staff writer: the schlub who, day after day, hammers out copy — which may range in quality from routine boilerplate to high art, depending on the taste and needs of the employer — for a regular paycheck. Some of these folks work for publications like newspapers and magazines; but the great majority are “work for hire” employees in some sort of public relations or internal communications shop — they sell their copyright to their employer, who therefore owns everything they write.

The National Writer’s Union considers work for hire to be inherently exploitive; they may be right, but it’s also the only reason why many of us can make a living at writing. Certainly, staff writers’ employment can be precarious, because writers tend to be regarded as a luxury at many companies, and an early item to go when there are cutbacks.

The patron saint of staff writers, therefore, is Scheherazade.

The second kind of pro writer constitutes the glory corps of writing — the freelancers, people who live from project to project and contract to contract. The stars of the writing world number among them; but so do some very under-paid, hard working folks who, because they freelance, live from hand to mouth. So, also, are many people who write the occasional piece, do it well enough to get paid (often very well), but for lack of time, inclination, ambition, or sometimes just luck can’t make a go at it full-time.

The deal with freelancers is that, myths of “choose your own hours” aside, they actually tend to have less free time than staffers. Every full-time freelancer I’ve ever known worked at least as many hours as staff people, because freelancers have to spend so much (unpaid!) time marketing their writing rather than writing.

The patron saint of freelancer writers, therefore, is Thoreau’s basket maker — the fellow who, unclear on the supply/demand thing, made baskets and was puzzled why nobody would buy them as a matter of course.

That may sound stark: Certainly, the literary life has offered me a lot of joy over the years. Eighteen years after they ceremonially ripped the stripes off my lab coat and sent me out into the cold, cruel world of the professional writer, I’m still — so far — making a living at it, so I have far less cause to complain than many.

But I confess: I’m sick of being Scheherazade, and I’m sick of wanting to make baskets nobody (or no publications) seem to want. To pay the bills, I plan to keep the day job; to make some extra money, and to keep myself a bit sharper as a wordsmith, I hope to continue writing paid freelance pieces. But I wanted a space for myself — a space where I could write what interested me, not what I thought I could sell (or had the time to market, anyway).

Maybe it will be a space for things that interest you, too. I hope so; but in all honesty what I’m really doing is nurturing my inner basket maker. We’ll see whether he has enough to offer to warrant a readership. Hell, a writer who can’t take risks isn’t much of a writer.

So what will you be reading here? Well, checking out my bio, you’ll see that I have a peripatetic, typically University of Chicago background. So I plan to have a somewhat peripatetic site. Most of what you’ll see will probably reflect my ongoing fascination, as a former biochemist and current volunteer search-and-rescue dog handler and professional science writer, with the sense of smell (hence the blog’s title). SAR subjects may often come up, in that context or alone; so may navel-gazing pieces on writing like this one (though I promise to try to minimize these, as they get old). I write science fiction as well, so SF topics may also appear.

And like any bloggist, I reserve the right to mouth off on current political (and other) issues about which I’m not well enough educated to illuminate.

Ya fires up yer browser, ya takes yer chances. Reading, like writing, poses its risks.

10 comments:

Ben said...

Sheesh! How many? How big? Who's got more? It is as if all these years you have learned nothing grasshopper.

The presence or absence of various genetic markers, types of cells and the like merely represents potential. Lived experience will account for much more variation in performance certainly on any behavioral test. I'm sorry to say but it really is all about culture my good man!

adelheid said...

Hi there!
(Heidi)

jnrollins said...

Hi Ken,

I remember meeting you at the AHCJ conference in North Carolina. Welcome to the world of freelancing. I'm always glad to be a friend to a search-and-rescue person. A team of them rescued my husband and son from the San Gabriel Mountains about 15 years back, and I'm forever grateful.

Ken Chiacchia said...

Duuude,

Long time no -- but I'm afraid you're factually incorrect. Shifting the focus to a better-studied phenomenon -- IQ, with all the admitted problems attached with the tool -- meta-analysis suggests it's pretty close to a 50/50 contribution of genes and environment. Every gene is expressed in the context of an environment: It's a false dichotomy, always was.

It'd be pretty silly to say that a hawk can't see better than me because he can quantitatively focus light onto his retina or that an elephant wouldn't squish me in a wrestling match because he has the weight advantage. At some point raw numbers have to tell -- the interesting question is, how and why?

For what it's worth, we're not so far apart on this: Stay tuned for a future blog on that biophysics paper I cited in a footnote to Broken Bottle Fight. It turns out that it's all about providing a wider spectrum of receptors for an undefined world of odorants -- and both that spectrum and their connections to the brain are partly shaped by experience.

Ben said...

Goodness gracious how can you "shift the focus" right out of the starting gate! :) You should be afraid I am factually correct.

Now if your sharp eyed hawk was raised looking at flat panel TV screens all day, tethered to a post it's "eyesight" and how it interpreted those signals to its brain would be way different ("way different" is how social scientists think of significance) than one raised in the wild. Lived experience - will account for more in terms of behavior. Lock a high potential IQ kid in the closet for 4-5 years between the ages of 1 and 5 and starve them for stimuli and you'll not get a kid who can smoke the IQ tests later on. What appears to be a false dichotomy is a construct of the rigid "scientific" paradigm you have overlaid on the phenomenon. What is true is that the extreme examples are far less frequently manifest in the "natural" world and therefore much harder to observe and understand. Science likes to discard outliers because they threaten the models (notions of truth) held so dearly by the faithful. I would, on a practical level, hope for a SAR dog and team that had lots of training and experience over one that had a dog with immaculate breeding.

Ben said...

Goodness gracious how can you "shift the focus" right out of the starting gate! :) You should be afraid I am factually correct.

Now if your sharp eyed hawk was raised looking at flat panel TV screens all day, tethered to a post it's "eyesight" and how it interpreted those signals to its brain would be way different ("way different" is how social scientists think of significance) than one raised in the wild. Lived experience - will account for more in terms of behavior. Lock a high potential IQ kid in the closet for 4-5 years between the ages of 1 and 5 and starve them for stimuli and you'll not get a kid who can smoke the IQ tests later on. What appears to be a false dichotomy is a construct of the rigid "scientific" paradigm you have overlaid on the phenomenon. What is true is that the extreme examples are far less frequently manifest in the "natural" world and therefore much harder to observe and understand. Science likes to discard outliers because they threaten the models (notions of truth) held so dearly by the faithful. I would, on a practical level, hope for a SAR dog and team that had lots of training and experience over one that had a dog with immaculate breeding.

Heather Houlahan said...

Ben, Ben, Ben ...

SAR dog handlers who know what they are doing start with dogs that have immaculate breeding.

Nothing worse than fighting Nature.

The show dogs, bred to trot in circles for a man in a tuxedo -- turns out, their children do not make such good partners.

The working dogs, bred to use their brains and noses and strong, healthy bodies, and bred specifically to work with a human being -- I have actually never seen a pup from good working breeding fail for lack of talent. Dog talent that is. Handler talent, sure. But who knows what that breeding might be?

So the way that a team gets a ton of (effective) training and experience is by starting with the right genetic package.

Ken Chiacchia said...

Ben,

If I'm shifting the argument, then you're choosing to debate a point I clearly wasn't making -- nobody's saying that you can't get a vast difference in performance based on experience. The classic example is the seed thrown on fertle ground vs. rocky waste. Of course the seeds on the rocky ground don't do as well -- but that doesn't negate the profound genetic differences that the situation could be (and almost certainly is) masking.

I chose IQ because I'm most familiar with the literature; but my strong suspicion is that the argument would hold for whatever talent/ability/skill you'd want to choose.

I confess, I'm having trouble grasping your argument because you seem to be putting forward the straw man "there is no nature" argument most quantitative peope would *like* to debate against. I'm saying that biology is a complex place in which one factor seldom completely predominates; you're arguing, essentially, that I could outrun a cheetah if I trained hard enough and enough of my fellows convinced me it's so. So who's hewing to a rigid paradigm?

One other thought: I'll weigh in with Heather on the SAR thing, and raise her one. Though it's clearest in dogs, who've been bred for specific work for 10,000 years and so are nearly unique in the raw power of their genetics, it's true of people as well.

Some people, no matter how hard they train, will never be a dog handler; some can never be a field medic; others can't be a team leader; still others can't fill the strategic role of Plans Section Chief, the organizational needs of Operations Chief, or above all the "big picture" requirements of Search Manager

We can all get much better with training, or worse in its absence: But no matter how hard I worked at my trumpet, I was never going to be Wynton Marsalis -- I know, because I tried, and although I developed a pretty decent ear for classical music, there was something missing in my ability to play jazz.

It's about looking at one variable while trying to hold the others reasonably constant, and finding out what we can learn in the process. Not everything important can be quantified; but we deny the evidence of numbers at our peril.

Barton Paul Levenson said...

I am very, very suspicious of nature/nurture attribution studies, because of the different ways you can get different fractions. Take identical quadruplets and raise two on good nutrition, one on middling, and two on poor and you'll get all height variance accounted for by nurture. Take five kids and give them exactly the same parenting, nutrition and experiences and you'll get different heights solely from nature. These are "Well, duh" examples, but I'm not sure many published studies have really controlled for this sort of thing as well as they think.

I'm not stupid enough to think genes don't affect differences in intelligence. But I am suspicious of any study that tells a big group of people things they desperately want to hear confirmed by "science."

And don't get me started on "The Bell Curve." [growls psychotically]

Barton Paul Levenson said...

Quintuplets! Quints! I can't believe I wrote "quadruplets" and then talked about how to distribute five of them. My brain hurts.