Next winter it’s Phoenix or Honolulu for me, courtesy of the Writers’ Set-Aside payment I’ll be getting from my Uncle Sam.
The program—a brilliant idea, if you ask me—started with farmers, of course, getting paid to let certain fields lie fallow or to give up certain crops for a time because the market couldn’t support any more wheat or sunflowers; farmers weren’t getting paid their “target price,” set somehow, by someone, in Washington. Many countries now grow huge quantities of high-quality grain, thanks to U.S. imperialist intervention, aid, and instruction: even India exports wheat now—and they don’t need ours badly enough to pay the prices U.S. exporters seem determined to charge (our farmers aren’t peasants and won’t work for peasant pay). As a result, a sinful amount of U.S. grain rots in silos and elevators every year.
In order to make this country a little hungrier, so such crops will sell at a good price, farmers hold land out of production (an age-old tactic that works) and—this is the great, astonishing part—get paid not to plant those crops. “No, it’s not a grant or a loan,” one Midwestern supervisor told me, “its a payment for being involved in the program.” Sort of a guaranteed allowance for promising to not mow the lawn.
Well, the crop I raise is written words, and writers feed the world’s soul if not its belly. We supply one of humankind’s most precious commodities; in fact, written language is one of the things that makes us human. It also simplifies just about every function of modern daily life. In short, writing is inestimably valuable.
On the other hand, there is a word glut so omnipresent and immense that words have almost no value these days. (Of course this is confusing: it’s economics.) Our enemies won’t, and our own country and poor friends can’t, consume all the words U.S. writers produce in various forms: magazines, newsletters, books, individual poems and stories and articles, doctoral theses, newspapers. . . . Why, this very article will be read by only 2.78 percent of the people for whom it is intended! And think of all the private communications and the diaries, desk drawers, trunks, and warehouses full of words that will never find a publisher. They add up to one thing: hard times for writers.
Because of the current word glut, I can’t make a decent living at my chosen profession. I’m forced to hold what my family calls “a job,” although, as any writer will tell you, what I do from eight to five at the office, even though I’m the boss, can’t begin to match the mental muscularity and perseverance demanded of my evening and weekend word-husbandry. Because of the greed of other word-makers who have flooded the market with their inferior products, I am, in effect, forced to hold down two full-time jobs: one because it’s gratifying and a joy to me, and the other because we have a house payment to make each month. On top of this, I’m expected to be a good wife and involved citizen. It’s discouraging and unfair, and I get tired.
So I am volunteering to stop writing for one year. Not altogether, just certain kinds of things: say, poetry (my favorite, a high-yielding crop, but each poem I write adds to the most insidious and unmanageable tangle since leafy spurge met pigweed in midfield) and short stories (I’ve never finished one, but I spend a lot of valuable words trying). Dairy producers are the beneficiaries of a terrific program whereby they receive money after they promise to give up all dairy activity for five years, even selling the whole herd for slaughter. But I’m not so committed to my craft and convinced of its usefulness that I could burn everything I’ve written up to now and walk away from it for that long. I am willing to cut back a little, though.
I’ve been paying income tax for years but have never received those lovely cash paybacks that other Americans seem to get. Well, I’ve finally found a program I fit into, perfectly. My writing’s grown relatively prolific in some areas, and I think the Feds will find my offer—to set aside my Selectric for a year—appealing. Naturally, I’ll have to be paid my “target price,” what I’m worth, what I should have been making all along (based on talent and hard work) and would be making if I weren’t forcing my words into an already oversubsidized (with my own tax dollars) and bloated market. I won’t be unreasonable: a hundred grand for the year, I’ve decided, will do nicely.