Writer's Block

We Portlanders like to call ours a literary city. The trouble is, we have a hard time putting our money where our mouths are.

By Anna Hirsh May 19, 2009 Published in the July 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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I BLAME JANE AUSTEN for my severe nearsightedness. And C.S. Lewis, and Douglas Adams, and all the other authors whose novels I surreptitiously read by whatever dim hallway light shone through the open door of my childhood room after bedtime. For all the damage these books did to my eyes, though, they also encouraged me to embrace what, as a resident of Ken Kesey country, I came to see as my fate: to be a storyteller.

At 23, I took my dream to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a screenwriter. But my tale was not to have a Hollywood ending. No major picture deal; no appearances in People. Still, I did manage to acquire an MFA and a steady freelance writing career. And I got my novel on the desk of a big-time agent. So by the time my fiancé was ready to earn his graduate degree in the Pacific Northwest, I felt able to make a reasonable living as a writer anywhere I put down roots. Had I been paying closer attention, though, I might have realized sooner that “anywhere” just might not be Portland.

Sure, Portland’s home to lots of newspapers and magazines, a world-famous bookstore, and myriad coffee shops crammed full of aspiring writers pecking away at their keyboards. But in my mind, a writer’s city is also a place where you can actually make a living writing—a self-sustaining center of industry where you can earn your keep without having to devote hours to conference calls and e-mails with editors back in New York or Los Angeles.

Before you, and every member of the Powell’s staff, draft a nasty (but well-written, I’m sure) letter to the editor, let me explain. First, the positive. By and large, Portland writers are incredibly accepting of and curious about their peers: Every writer I’ve met here has mentioned another local writer’s name within the first five minutes of conversation. For instance, after I traded e-mails with Jim Frost, author of the novel World Leader Pretend, he invited me to join one of his book groups before he met me in person. Plus, we’ve got collaborative organizations like Write Around Portland, the Attic Writers’ Workshop, Willamette Writers—even a communal writing space in St. Johns called the Writers’ Dojo (a sort of “room of one’s own,” but for everyone).

“I’ve been treated so well,” says Monica Drake, who wrote the novel Clown Girl (published by local press Hawthorne Books), which is in its fourth print run. “For a decade I wrote short stories published in obscure journals. But even then, Jeff Baker, a books editor at the Oregonian, hired me to write book reviews.” When Clown Girl came out, Willamette Week ran a chapter as a front-page story; Oregon Art Beat aired a segment on OPB; Live Wire! invited Drake on the air; and KBOO interviewed her twice.

Clearly Portland fosters a vibrant, nurturing literary ethos, but the reality remains that positive vibes don’t pay the rent. We may have 31 newspapers and 15 magazines, but we just don’t have the major publishing houses that places like New York do; consequently, those cities draw the bulk of literary agents (i.e., the gatekeepers of the cash). We have some great small publishing houses, like Hawthorne Books and Kevin Sampsell’s Future Tense Publishing, but there is only so much they can do in terms of taking on clients, marketing books, and paying advances.

There isn’t much help coming from the state, either. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, in 2007, Oregon ranked 48 out of the 50 states in per capita arts funding, which includes grants to individual writers and nonprofit literary arts groups. The state legislature allocated 20 cents per Oregonian for the arts; the national average was $1.21. Even Rhode Island managed $3.55 per resident.

“That lack of funding makes it harder for me than for writers in other states to use my time to write the next book,” says Cheryl Strayed, a local essayist and author of the novel Torch. Instead, Oregon authors must chase other writing opportunities to pay the bills, leaving them less time to work on the next Great American Novel. Which might explain, in part, why so many of the recent National Book Award winners live in New York, a state that provides $2.69 per citizen for the arts. (The last time our “literary city” had a Book Award winner in any category was 1986.)

And in Oregon, the pay scales for those other writing opportunities are dismal at best. According to, in 2007, New York’s city magazine, New York, paid freelancers $1.50 per word; Philadelphia offered $1 to $2; Los Angeles magazine paid $1 a word, as did Portland in Portland, Maine. Even New Jersey Monthly and 5280, Denver’s city magazine, coughed up about 75 cents per word. At Portland Monthly, the rate ranges from 50 cents to $1, depending on experience (still hardly enough to secure you a down payment on that NoPo home). Maybe cost of living accounts for the differences between Portland and New York or Los Angeles—but Denver? Portland, Maine?

At weeklies, rates are even lower—Willamette Week and SoCal’s Inland Empire Weekly pay between 10 and 30 cents a word. At those rates, you’d have to pen roughly six stories this size (about 1,200 words) to cover the average $790 rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland.

Of course, I know that writers’ rates have always been low, probably because with so many aspiring wordsmiths, there’s always some poor Palahniuk wannabe willing to work for pennies. And in these hard economic times—when publications are feeling the pinch of fewer advertising dollars—the situation isn’t likely to improve much.

Truth be told, local journalism pays poorly everywhere. But places like New York City and Los Angeles have other writing industries (like film and publishing houses) with deeper pockets for writers. Which is why Portland, with its proximity to Los Angeles, 15-odd film festivals, and growing number of successful animation firms like Laika/House, ought to consider embracing screenwriting as a potential moneymaker.

Or, perhaps, Portland writers should establish a sort of writers’ union like the one screenwriters have. Sounds preposterous, I know, but consider that the Writers Guild of America mandates a $109,783 minimum payment for a high-budget script; even a low-budget film (under $5 million) will net you $58,477. Suddenly a Portland writers’ union doesn’t seem like a half-bad idea. Hell, I’d even volunteer to help lead the campaign. After my check for this piece arrives, of course.

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