Rogues’ Gallery
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Rogues’ Gallery

Can a Writer Live on Compliments?

Study shows food, shelter, and money may be superfluous

Photo by Annemarie Horne on Unsplash

Compliments are the caffeine of social interaction.

Without praise, we become tired, unmotivated, and prone to headaches. But scientists are still puzzling over one of Nature’s abiding mysteries: can freelance writers live entirely on compliments, forgoing money, protein-rich foods, and a roof over their heads?

Like Breatharians, today’s writers — also known as “content creators” in the biz — are attempting to construct a brave, new world. It was Aldous Huxley who coined the term “brave, new world” in his dystopian novel, Brave New World.

If you are disoriented, it’s because you read 1984 in Senior English.

Nonetheless, it is a known fact that Breatharianism, like numerology and online recipes, is a sham. Unless you happen to be Wim Hof, you won’t make it more than a month living purely on air.

But perhaps the analogy is incomplete.

Can writers live without cash, lodging, or food if they couch surf and grow their own vegetables?

Most philosophers threw in the towel and called in economists, who went on record stating that couch surfing and homegrown food is not sufficient in the modern American economy. Eventually, whoever is loaning you the sofa will start charging rent.

The soil for your crops will be privatized.

You, the writer, may also be incarcerated for your harmless hobby of selling the marijuana — with the poetic name of Golden Amnesia Haze — to support yourself.

How Long Can a Writer Live on a Compliment?

The ultimate question is how long can the average writer, whether he or she was once able to make a living as a legitimate journalist or not, can subsist on a compliment.

Getting into the weeds on the definition of “compliment” and “live” is tedious, but at the end of the day science has determined that most writers can survive for 63 days on nothing but water and compliments if the complements are:

(1) sincere

(2) grammatically correct

(3) written

(4) include the word “brilliant”

If the compliments include publicity (see also the song, “Money, Compliments, and Publicity” by Todd Snider), then it is possible to stay alive for 78 days.

All experiments were conducted on albino rats, however, so the authors admit these conclusions may not apply to humans.

Finding white rats who could write or were generally artistic (musical, funny, etc.) was no easy feat, but ultimately the researchers learned that all mammals crave social interaction in the form of hearing nice things about themselves.

Late Payments are Worse than No Payments

Writers are sometimes not paid at all, a condition they’ve learned to accept, especially when their natural inclination is to pen limericks or epic poems. But one of the surprising findings of the albino rat writing study was this:

Getting late payment was more stressful than no payment.

The artistic rats were divided into two groups: one received rat chow plus sugar water as a substitute for cash, while the second group received rat chow plus sugar water but with delays. When both groups were entirely deprived of their sweet beverage, the group who’d gotten the delayed sugar water — full disclosure: it was Pepsi — died sooner.

Of course, in order to treat the rats humanely, they did have shelter during the experiment, thus were never subjugated to the demeaning reality of couch surfing.

Dancers and Singers and Contortionists

It isn’t just writers who need payment. Folks are quick to assume journalists aren’t real creatives, the way dancers and singers and jugglers are — but this is false. Journalists are truth seekers who love words and crafting an entertaining story. If you don’t believe it, pick up any copy of The New York Post.

For myriad reasons, traditional journalism has fractured and created a wasteland of terrible paying jobs. Business models like Upwork and Fiverr offer a pittance for carefully crafted content.

The days of PJ O’Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson and Molly McIvins are dead and buried. Talented freelancers are forced to sell their energy for $30 per 1,000 words.

How did it come to this? Why don’t we want to pay a decent wage to the men and women who help us make sense of a chaotic world? Writers inform, entertain, and shore up middle-class America, but we’ve thrown them to the wolves.

The decline began, perhaps, with FOX News, dumbing down our world. Or maybe as our economy has fragmented, we decided that if workers who pour molten steel and build cars can’t make a decent living — why should writers?

Final Questions

Writing has never paid well. It’s always been a glamour profession, and that includes journalism. Yet we should ask ourselves, what happens when the Fourth Estate crumbles?

When those who document corrupt politicians, chronicle beauty, expose criminals and capture the imagination with verses like Kubla Khan are forced to work as UPS drivers — what then?

In the final analysis, writers and journalists are one more casualty of an economy where the money is zooming into the billionaire stratosphere like the air in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And God is not happy with us.

Jean Campbell is a 4x top writer on Medium in humor, poetry, food, and crime. If you liked this post (or not) consider supporting her efforts by subscribing.

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