Flying Velvet Unicorn Meat

7dbffc53b4941094_landingNote: I know this is well overdue, but I’ve been ruminating about this article and the writer’s plight for some time since reading it. Basically, here’s why it’s okay for writers (and other artists) to think the world owes them a living when we provide services. Expecting otherwise is downright un-American.

When you’re younger and say you want to be a writer, people look at you as if you’ve decided to breed flying velvet unicorns for a living. Parents, teachers, and minimum wage employers are the most common criers of boo. The nastier ones tell you to forget about it because you’ll die poor, hungry, and alone. The limply supportive ones beg you to find a “career” and do a little writing on the side—you know, to be safe. Just remember: it’s not a real job. More on that later.

But you keep it up, and eventually someone might decide your words are worth paying for. Not a lot. Nothing close to compensating you for your time, research, expenses, etc. The most I ever got was about $1,200 for an feature article. Awesome, right? I must be wearing mink underwear under an ermine jumpsuit, right? Well, after calculating the aforementioned, time, research, expenses, etc., and including the endless rewrites insisted upon by the editor (who, according to his suggestions, appeared to be reading a different article) I should have cleared way more (and let’s not get into taxes, healthcare, social security, etc.—you have to mail the government their chunk on your own). But you make sacrifices, because thank goodness you’re being published, and you understand the publishing industry is always in a rough way. You take what you can get.

And then you grow older. You acquire a spouse, perhaps, a home, children, and so forth. You take on writing jobs you’d rather not do or get a day job you don’t hate (if you’re lucky), to keep food on the table. Society continues to be no help at all. Even as it consumes writing in the form of books, newspapers, the Internet, films, TV shows, and so on, it still views you as an aberration. On the face of it, you produce nothing of value. You can’t eat an essay; you can’t build condos on a novel. And after all, writing isn’t WORK! Writing is “fun.” Bricklaying, plumbing, accounting, selling, marketing, lawyering, and so on—by gum, those are REAL jobs that deserve to be given a living wage, because they
contribute. And they’re boring—unless you’re lucky enough to have a penchant for cement, figures, and torts.

The arts and artists, on the other hand, deserve to suffer, because what do the arts ever PRODUCE that can be bought and sold?

You know, besides books, newspapers, the Internet, films, TV shows, video games, advertising, and so on.

Anyway, it’s good to suffer for your art! Oddly, society feels it’s not good to suffer for your selling, marketing, or  number-crunching. Let me repeat a phrase I coined in a moment of inspiration: Have you ever heard of a “starving young accountant?”

Consider this (and I’m not picking on any particular professions; merely pointing out the facts): even a mediocre to middling lawyer, accountant, or salesperson can earn a living wage. I’m not saying it’s easy or that they work any less hard than a writer, but the system is geared to compensate them for showing up, mucking in, and not messing up—as it should.

Conversely, writing success is rarely equitable to just compensation, according to hours worked and income generated. In the aforementioned fields of publishing, TV, and film, success is parsed out to a lucky, talented, formulaic, shrewd, and/or whorish few. You’ll notice a recurrence of certain names in your favorite media and fan sites. No matter how enjoyable or abysmal their output. They are the few who presumably worked hard, got a break, found an angle, established themselves as dream- and taste-makers, and got paid well for it besides.

Most writers… Well, that never happens for us.

As a full-time writer, you end up in one of four situations: (1) ruling your own personal Stephen Kingdom and making money hand over multiple fists (extremely rare) or making enough doing what you love to afford a comfy home, regular meals, and two dentist visits a year (just plain rare); (2) working a day job (more common); (3) having an EXTREMELY understanding spouse who carries the burden of bringing in a regular paycheck (infrequent but not unheard of); or (4) taking every job that slips over the transom while living on microwaved burritos (too often).

I’m not singing the socialist blues here. It’s a fact of life that we live in a  capitalist society, and in a capitalist society you work if you want to survive, because hard work is compensated. At least, that’s the way it used to be, more or less.

The business of business is business, not to mention screwing every person, place, and thing on the planet out of one more nickel. Human beings have long been both ladders and obstacles (with their selfish needs for food, water, shelter, and love) to profit. Thus far American labor laws remain powerful enough to ensure (legal) workers aren’t buggered TOO much, and by and large, cheating people and working them to death are still somewhat frowned on. I’m not talking about undocumented workers, obviously, and minimum wage is purely a joke, but my point is that the general rule is that you MUST compensate people somehow for their time and effort, otherwise, they’ll walk away. How then to ensure you squeeze every last drop of sweat from their bodies and minds while you have them under your thumb? If you’re not paying people enough, your first resort is fear. Work, or I’ll fire you. Work, or I’ll dock your pay. Work, or your kids don’t eat. Work, or I’ll make you even MORE miserable. Work! Regardless, the bosses eventually reach a point where they can’t scream and starve efficiency out of their workers. So, what’s next?

Why you make them “partners,” of course. Not business partners with stock options and whatnot, naturally, but, you know, chums!

Enter the implementation of happy-face corporate programs, disingenuous penny-pinching, and the return of the nonsensical notion that one’s work life is equitable to one’s home life. Your time, skills and knowledge aren’t being rented, pal. Your paycheck is secondary to participating in a splendiferous never-ending picnic of joyous labor. Grab a potato sack, champ, and start racing! Uh, but before you do that, can you stay late to prep that PowerPoint for the CEO’s presentation tomorrow? Golly, why do you look so annoyed? Pulling together is what families DO, right? What? You haven’t seen your real family in weeks? I don’t follow you.

This appears to be what’s happening with our beleaguered writer. Publishing is hurting, pal, and the “family” needs you, because we’re all in this together. The offer of “exposure” in lieu of grocery money is just their little way of stepping up and saying thanks.

Editors who pull this crap know better, since they too are doubtless being reamed by requests from on-high to be more “proactive” (e.g., letting support staff go and assuming more duties for less dough). I suppose “exposure” is an attempt to give something back. Personally, I find it less insulting than the several times an editor tried to schmooze work out of me, because hey, bro, your stuff is very… very… “hip,” amiright? Then again, given a choice between being schmoozed and being offered nonmagical beans for my work, I’d choose… neither. Because it’s a scam either way.

People who aren’t writers may not understand why an experienced scribe wouldn’t leap at the chance for “exposure” in a major magazine. Let me put it this way. Ask any CEO you know if he or she would accept a million pin-back buttons bearing their face instead of cash or stock options. Jeepers, ask anybody on any company’s staff anywhere if they would accept a full-page ad plastered with their face in the major metropolitan newspaper of their choice, in lieu of a month’s pay.

Ah. That daylong flush of excitement doesn’t seem so enticing now, does it?

Exposure is a term of relative value. I’d say that if you’re in your early 20s and starting out in the writing racket, and an editor from a top-tier mag offers you a chance to have your work appear on their blog for naught but “exposure”—you ride that pony until it drops dead, chum. Silver platters show up infrequently—so do it and add an impressive tear sheet to your young, emaciated portfolio (just make sure you retain the rights; there’s no shame in requesting a one-time reprint contract). But here’s a sour truth, kid. Unless you set the editors and their readers afire, that’s likely it for you for a very long time. You might end up in some mid-market mags, newspapers, and sites, and you’ll probably poke along if you keep working your ass off, but you’re not displacing anyone at Harper’s or the New Yorker on the basis of one blog post. Still, well done. I wish you every happiness.

Now, let’s imagine you’ve been writing for 20-plus years. Maybe you haven’t cracked the high-profile markets, but you’ve done okay with local papers, a few web sites, and the like. Maybe you’ve got a small-press book or two under your belt. You’re not a hobbyist or an American primitive discovered typing in a bayou shack. You’ve paid your dues. You’ve flown the flying velvet unicorn past your parents’ front window to their delight. You’re a G-D writer for a living.

And then some editor from a magazine—one from whom you might have collected a stack of rejection letters—comes along and asks you to rewrite a piece of yours for them, for free. No, not for free—for “exposure.”

We’re not talking about a charity or nonprofit you’d contribute to out of the goodness of your heart. No, this is a mag claiming to present ads “from energy companies to luxury products to top tech brands.” (And Scientology too, apparently, cough.) As they love to trumpet, they have A-listers writing for them. They seem to be doing okay. Toughing it out maybe, trying to please the owners, but they’re staying put. According to the articles I’ve been scanning, they’re doing fantastic with their digital presence. Digital… Hey, that’s like blogs and stuff, right?

But they just can’t shake loose with a quarter a word for an article. That’s about $300 for a 1200 word piece; I think I averaged about $250 for an article of that size when I wrote for the Chicago Journal. Not much, but something. I didn’t expect the very local newspapers I write for to pay me my weight in gold. But, man, that Atlantic “exposure.” What a plump, juicy plum, right?

Except it’s not an appearance in the actual magazine, it’s a blog post. Unless your piece memes harder than Grumpycat, your “exposure” will involve a few friends sharing your Facebook link to the site. You are literally working for nothing—no money, no promise of further publication, not even placement on the home page. You’d have equally good results posting it to your own blog. They’ll clear X number of bucks through click-throughs, no doubt, but at least your mom, dad, and significant other will be impressed.

Still, I get it. It sounds cool. I’d probably do it myself because I’m one of those writers with a day job, and I consider writing a vocation, not a career (though I wouldn’t say no to a book contract). But I have no illusions. I’ve had similar “breaks” and near-breaks that came to nothing. Let me give you a grandfatherly piece of writing advice, young scribes—do not wait for the single event that will launch you into the big time. Just work hard, enjoy yourself, and promote your work (no one else will). If fame and fortune come, they come. If not, at least you’re doing what you love. That’s only slightly more rewarding than “exposure,” but it’s something.


This “exposure” thing is noisome. Claims that exposure is a worthy substitute for pay are irrational to the point of insult. Firstly, and as the Wonkette article points out, this amply demonstrates the beleaguered state of modern journalism, and the workload imposed on editors due to cutbacks. The bean-counters determine that if more work were done by fewer people, there is greater potential for profit. That one human is now doing the work of three—often to deleterious effect for all parties; quality DOES slip, you know—however, escapes them. Best to prod that person to challenge themselves and “innovate” and “impact” ways to improve work processes. If they can’t, well, they’re just being difficult. Fire ’em. Better yet, suggest that you’ll fire them. That’ll pour nitro in their gas tank, and you’ll get three to five months of extra work hours out of them. Hey, editor! BOO! Get your writers to work for exposure peanuts.

We can’t feel too bad for the editor mentioned in the piece either, despite Wonkette’s suggestion. She knows damn well prison life is slightly better for trustees. She’s achieved a comfy position and decided to remain in place by exploiting (or attempting to exploit) others. That’s unfair (both to her and the writers she’s soliciting), not to mention lousy business. This attitude has become endemic in the working world. While companies are pulling in profits, they’re still telling the proles, “Golly, we wish we could throw you a bone, but, you know, we’ve got bills to pay. Heck, we’re barely hanging on here. So why not muck in, champ? Spend a little of your own dough? We’re all in this together!” Where it becomes egregious is when the organization plays the austerity card for years.

Note the mushy statements like “unfortunately…can’t pay you for it” and “I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.” She’s trying to soften the impact of asking him to suffer a little bit so she, and her magazine, can fill a column and sell ad space. Do you know what that’s called? Manipulation. It’s running a long con, involving many marks in this case, I’m guessing. How many other authors were approached this way? How many sighed, added another notch to their belts, and said, “Oh… okay… I guess so…”? The writer’s work, as well as his or status, is likewise denigrated and devalued further. And the attitude spreads: “Why should I pay you when I can get a hundred writers like you for free?”

This perception is becoming prevalent. Publications are no longer viewed as conveyances of information; they’re ad sheets tacked together by articles and photos. Without advertising, say the moneymen, you wouldn’t HAVE your little Mickey Mouse weekly readers! Yet, they forget that without articles, no one would see their damn ads. The fact that video and audio have supplanted print is entirely different discussion, but let me stress this: people read books, newspapers, and magazines not for the ads, but for the articles. The ads are targeted at these people because of the editorial content they peruse and enjoy. But this perception is being slowly obliterated because it allows for greater profit. “Writing and photography is valueless, so let’s cut the budgets and staff to the bone. But…pursue free content by convincing the creators of their “worthlessness.” Nyah-ha-ha.”


There’s another level to the above, not discussed in the piece; though this is only my supposition. Requests like these always carry an implied threat, whether intended or not. “If you work for free this time, I’ll remember you fondly. If you don’t, well, I’ll remember you were ‘difficult.’ No other promises though if you say yes. In fact I’ll probably ask you to work pro bono again.”

When you’re trying to make it in any business—especially one as insular as publishing—you don’t want a “difficult” reputation—particularly when you aren’t difficult. That goes for both sides of the equation. Writers will write for you and write well if they are suitably compensated to the point of being able to buy groceries. So, what gives with the shakedown? What stomach-dissolving need are you fulfilling by shaking down a writer? Wait, I have it. Greed.

Let me quote Heath Ledger’s Joker: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Internships are an exception, I suppose. I recall a local journalist making the case for young reporters coming into local and regional papers to do scut work for nothing but experience. The supposition, however, is that because you are young you probably know jack about the business when you’re starting. The danger rests in attempts to let the average age for interns creep into the late 20s. I imagine we’ll have thirtysomething interns before long, paid with a robe, a daily handful of rice, and a begging bowl. Personally, I believe unpaid full-time intern/apprenticeships only work for Victorian cobblers and blacksmiths, and that they’re just another scam to preserve profit. However, if you’re in school and Mom and Dad are providing a roof and filling the fridge, take advantage of working for nothing for a while to build that portfolio and resume.

But if you’re writer already in the business—and an old hand at that—don’t go for “exposure” unless you can afford it. In fact, don’t bite; because you’re setting a precedent for the next thousand or so writers, and perpetuating the contradictory bugaboo we writers have had to fight all our lives: it’s okay to screw writers, because they produce nothing of value.

Strangely, the media continue to display an insatiable appetite for flying velvet unicorn meat.

Introduction for My Soon-to-Be “Published” E-Book Hilaretic

Let me know if this reads well.

Well, I’ll Be Damned
By Dan Kelly

I knew I’d grow up to be a writer. It never occurred to me I’d be a church reviewer.

Heck, I didn’t even come up with the concept. Brett McNeil, former Chicago Journal editor did. A decade ago, as Brett mentions in his foreword, Tom Frank of the Baffler introduced us at a party. Brett was looking for writers; I was looking for ink, money, and ego satisfaction. As two ex-southwest suburban Chicago kids we got along famously, and he asked me to send him a few clippings and pitches to get a feel for my work.

Writing for the Journal had one stipulation. Journalistically land-locked, it covered the beat bordered by Lake Michigan, Cermak Road, Lake Street, and Western Avenue. As long as I stayed within those boundaries, I could write about anything I liked. I confessed to Brett I was familiar with the area only in macrocosm, so assignments were appreciated. He said he’d think about it.

A few days later, Brett called and asked, “Dan, how’d you like to be a church reviewer?”

I laughed, then cursed myself for not thinking of it first.

I told him it sounded great, but what exactly did he have in mind? Visiting various houses of worship in the area, primarily, and approaching the experience as if I were critiquing a play, making notes about atmosphere, accommodations, and entertainment value. Mainly, I should answer the question “What’s going on in there?”

Therein lay the idea’s brilliance.

Houses of worship are surrounded by invisible, consensual force fields, most humans having an aversion to entering holy places not their own. Funny that, because—with a few exceptions, and with only minor etiquette requests—the doors are usually open to all comers. How else, gentle reader, do you think religions expand and thrive?

Whence comes this reluctance to enter religious buildings, much less to attend other religious services? Bigotry, mildly warm to boiling, is one reason. If you were raised in a particular faith, part of your inculcation likely involved a variation on the theme of “WE are right, THEY are wrong, and what’s more, THEY are DAMNED.” Even in the 21st Century some people still believe the earth will yawn wide and gobble them up if they nibble a cupcake from another faith’s bake sale. More likely, it’s based on the fact that religious services, lacking in visible sex and violence, just aren’t a big draw. If you skip mass on Sunday, it’s doubtful you’ll visit Friday afternoon Salat at the mosque, or Saturday Shacharit at the synagogue, for funsies.

Largely, I think, it’s based in fear. Fear of evangelization and harassment by goony-eyed true believers. Fear of accidentally offending the regulars by desecrating a chalice or toppling the tabernacle—risking public humiliation or a sacrificial dagger in the heart. Fear of, in short, the unknown. Cultural terra incognita exists in the heart of the Chicago Loop.

“What’s going on in there?” I visited several services to find out.


Church reviewer wasn’t an entirely precise title, but Brett and I agreed a church reviewer I’d be, whether I was visiting a cathedral, temple, synagogue, mosque, or Chicago’s Stonehenge equivalent (Daley Plaza?). House of worship reviewer just doesn’t sing, yes? If I was approached by one of the religious elect during a story, I never used the term church reviewer. I’d say I was the Journal’s religious writer, covering the neighborhood deity beat. I remained visible but unobtrusive. I’d sit in the back, accept all literature passed my way, surreptitiously took notes, dropped  in a couple of bucks as an admission fee at collection time, and generally avoided making an ass of myself. A devout introvert, I would have left it at that, but Brett (a damned extrovert) pressed me to speak with the parishioners and resident clerics for the human touch. I received a few suspicious looks when I identified myself (they always seemed a tad disappointed I wasn’t a potential acolyte), but largely I was welcomed. The services weren’t all barn-burners, but I was rarely bored. Burned out on Catholic Mass Repetition Syndrome, even the driest service was interesting simply because I had no idea what the hell was happening. As theater, I liked it better than real theater.

Brett had one other rule: “Don’t leave them crying at their altars.” I understood that to mean, “Don’t be a dick.”

My personal religious beliefs are complicated. Raised Roman Catholic, I currently attend an Episcopal church (the one my son was baptized in) and I participate in several of its services and events. I even gave tours of the building—a gentlemanly 1888 Gothic revival church—during a house walk. Yet, as much as I like the place and people, I’m not interested in converting just yet. In fact, I don’t think of myself as religious in the typical sense. I like to think I’m a philosophical Christian—the Beatitudes and the less judgmental parts of Paul’s letters are good guides to a kind, considerate life—with Deist leanings and a little Marcus Aurelius pragmatism thrown in. Nonetheless, I can see an excellent case for agnosticism. Maybe. I can’t say for sure.

Unlike the fundamentalist smart-asses on either side, however, I believe that—save that they harm none and admit the world works scientifically—there’s little point in denigrating or damning anyone for their religious beliefs. So, I guess I have a little bit of Buddhist and Wiccan in me as well.

While I knew I’d find a few laughs amongst the elect, I mostly wanted to play it straight, avoiding excessive snickering, ironical winking, self-promotion, or similar tactics from the hipster journalist playbook. Entering a house of worship and mocking the squares is too easy; so is entering a place in a state of pig ignorance, and I always read up on a religion before attending a service. No, I never wanted to convert, but I always wanted to learn. I remember a certain pop cultural critic saying (in so many words), “You can disagree with a religion, but you can’t just dismiss several thousand years of history.” Every religion has had its periods of evil insanity and pernicious groupthink, true, but if it inspires, for instance, the Book of Kells, Paradise Lost, and Tallis’ Spem in Alium, it can’t be all bad.

Don’t be a dick? Mission accomplished. Though one angry Christian Scientist letter writer disagreed. He also found me pretentious and thought I used too many $10 words. My goodness. Well, what can one say to that but, de gustibus non disputandum est?


I have my regrets, but only about what I didn’t or couldn’t do with the series. The Journal’s borders and demographics heavily favored Christian churches. Finding a Loop synagogue or a mosque was a cinch; locating a Hindu or Mormon temple, a Sikh gurdwara, or an above-ground satanic coven somewhere on LaSalle, Wabash, or Ashland? Not so easy. St. John Cantius was the single cheat Brett allowed me, but only because it was within driving distance.

The most disheartening service I attended took place down in Chinatown—the pagoda-like exterior belying the vanilla Christianity taking place inside. When the preacher fired up an overhead projector and starting his PowerPoint presentation on soul-winning, I walked out for the first and only time in my church-reviewing career. Curse the new American prosperity religions and their aversion to tradition and mystery! A Catholic kids’ pretend mass, conducted on a card table and using Nilla communion wafers, has more soul.

Then there were the folks who said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The I AM Temple people were pleasant hosts, walking me through the mysterious innards of their astonishing 12-story building on Washington Street and telling me, very politely, they didn’t offer interviews or let non-devotees attend services because they feared misrepresentation. They were probably right. What I saw and the little bit of the service I heard piped into the waiting room pushed the envelope of sanity screaming off the ledge. I would have had a field day with the Munchkin-voiced lady screeching about the all-enveloping purple ray of righteousness—or whatever it was. They tried to sign me up as an I AM’er too, telling me I’d obviously been sent to them by (dramatic pause) SOMETHING. If that were the case I’d be the only Methodist Christian Catholic Muslim Scientist Baptist Et Cetera Jew in Chicago by now.


“What’s going on in there?”

Way back in Catholic grade school, one particularly old and odd nun warned us about the perils of attending other religious services (especially, for some reason, Baptists’—her tone suggesting they were satanic cannibals cabals). Such foolhardiness would only serve to confuse us, putting strange ideas into our heads and causing us to drift away not only from Catholicism but also religion, God, and Life Eternal. Funnily enough, being a church reviewer had the opposite effect. I started out a lapsed Catholic and I ended up, well, a wavering agnostic. Still, I learned a few things about what motivated my fellow primates by going where I wasn’t “supposed” to go, and I discovered there were more similarities than differences between us. Maybe that’s what worried Sister P.

I’m risking ending on a goopy ecumenical note, so I should add a few less Pollyannan thoughts. I’ve got to admit, a few times, at the services, I heard things I didn’t agree with—particularly in the “WE are right, THEY are wrong” category—or which reminded me of something atheist par excellence H. L. Mencken wrote:

“There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly.”

Regardless, the more services I attended, the more consistency I saw in human ideals. Pushing past the hellfire rhetoric; the “My Ancient and Opaque Holy Book Is Better Than Yours” battles; and the occasional Neanderthal to medieval attitudes about this or that chunk of the population, at base every service was about community, sharing, and interacting with other humans in the quiet confines of a special building. I may not have agreed with everything I heard (and fortunately, I never heard anything particularly loathsome or brain-dead), but I never saw anyone get hurt or hurt anyone else by sitting in a house of worship, alone with his or her thoughts and god. Frankly, it was always a nice break from the rest of the week, if not the world.

Dan Kelly, November 2010

“And as He Folded the Paper, He Would Caress and Palpitate It to Orgasm…”

Eyugggh. I don’t know what’s worse: Zell’s blinkered, cost-cutting measures (right though he is about the inevitability of electronic papers, he’s only doing this because he can shave off a few more dollars and tie in with the iPad rather than imagining the democratic and artistic possibilities of all-electronic dissemination) or the inevitable batch of paper fetishist op-ed columns that will emerge as a result. If I read one more orgiastic memory of a grandfather carefully folding his newspaper as he reads it over coffee one Sunday morning, I’m going to hurl.