“The Writers Are Watching” (by Anna Scotti)

Anna Scotti is a writer who teaches middle-school English at a French international school. Her work has appeared in literary magazines such as The New Yorker, The New Guard Literary Review, and The Los Angeles Review. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and  has received the AROHO prize for short fiction as well as several poetry prizes. Her first story for EQMM, “Krikon the Ghoul Hunter,” appears in our November/December issue (on sale October 23), and we’ve got several more of her stories coming up in 2019. Here she addresses the eternal question put to writers—Where do you get your ideas?— in an unusual way!—Janet Hutchings

Of course you’ve read the disclaimers: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Well, as Colonel Mustard might have proclaimed from the library with a megaphone, Bunk. Writers write what they know, and what they know is their daily lives. And that’s no coincidence.

It might surprise you to know that most writers aren’t rich. Those stories you admire so much in literary magazines? They pay, for the most part, in bragging rights and a couple of free copies. Twenty bucks a page is a nice bonus—for weeks or months of work. Some commercial magazines—those few still in the fiction game—pay a few hundred a pop, but others pay nothing at all. (And yet most writers would give an eye tooth, a right arm, and a month of Sundays to publish within the hallowed pages of a nationally circulated commercial journal, because doing so can make a new writer’s name.) Nope, most writers—and editors, too—are in it for the love of the art, not for the payday.

Sure, Mary Higgins Clark can probably manage a week or two off in the summer, with an astonishing fifty-one bestsellers to her name, and Where Are the Children? now in its seventy-fifth printing. Steven King and Dennis Lehane may well be driving Lamborghinis, or sipping ambrosia in Tahiti, or doing whatever the gods fantasize about up on Mount Olympus. But the average currently publishing writer earns $61,000 a year. That beats slinging hash at the Hilton, pay-wise, but it doesn’t go far in cities like Los Angeles or New York, where one-bedroom apartments are snapped up at $2500 a month. And that “average” income factors in the Kings and the Clarks, so your typical working writer is making a whole lot less.

And that’s just the typical working writer. The average writer’s income is zero. That’s right. Nothing. Because the average writer isn’t working—at least not as a writer. Even those of us lucky enough to publish a story here and there are mostly employed elsewhere, writing our poems or articles or novel chapters or short stories in a cold kitchen before the alarm goes off on weekdays, or on a legal pad in the parking lot while the kids are at soccer practice, or on our phones while we’re on break from shifts at Big Lots or Applebee’s. Some of us are teachers—and there’s a career that supports the writing life, with short days and plenty of breaks—although you won’t be teaching writing at the university level until you’ve got a couple of books under your belt. Some of us work in offices or wait tables—though as Justin Kramon points out, in his blog post for Gotham Writers, “free alcohol” is one of the negatives of restaurant life. And then there’s dog walker, short-order cook, library assistant, nanny, basketball coach . . . you name it, there’s a writer doing it to make ends meet. Surely you’ve heard of Caitriona Lally, the Irish janitor who just won a prestigious writing prize from the university whose exalted halls she cleans. (She’s keeping her day job.) William S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator (and yes, he wrote short stories based on his experiences). Sue Grafton did her time as a medical secretary, and Gillian Flynn paid the rent as a TV critic, then a journalist. J.D. Salinger directed the fun on a cruise-ship line! Janet Evanovich was a homemaker for ten years before she tried her hand at writing romance. (Twelve books later, she reinvented herself again with lingerie buyer cum bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.)

Once we finally begin to publish, the question novelists and short story writers hear most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, seriously, where do you think we get them? We get them from you. We get them from our daily interactions with you in line for a coffee, while rushing for a seat on the bus, while pinching avocados at the market, or mid-argument about the C-minus that you see as unjust and I believe to be charity. We listen to your whispers in the library, your shouts in the parking lot, your moans of passion from the apartment upstairs, your cries of alarm when you turn and find your child missing at the park, your exclamations of love and anger when you find her a moment later. We watch you when you stoop to pet the homeless man’s dog, or when you throw change out the window at him and it scatters on the sidewalk. We see you steal a lemon from your neighbor’s tree, and we see you walk very slowly when you’re crossing the street and there’s a blind man making his way across, unaware that you are holding back a line of cars with just the flat of your hand and a threatening expression. We listen as you say hello to the children who cross your intersection every morning, some returning your greeting, others oblivious. We smell the aroma of lasagna from your open kitchen window, we hear the crash of a wineglass against your wall late on a Friday night, and we see the tenderness in your face as you kneel to button your small son’s jacket.

That’s where we get our ideas. From our lives. From the people we know and the people we don’t know, from a glimpse, or a glance, or a snatch of sound. It’s the small stuff that makes fiction immediate and real, and we glean that from our everyday lives, our everyday “pay the rent” jobs. So watch yourself. Be on your best behavior. You may come across a barely-disguised version of yourself in the pages of a novel, or in your favorite mystery magazine, disclaimers be damned. And whether you will like what you will see is largely within your control.

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