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There’s a consistent debate within the Substack community about what the actual purpose of the platform is. In my mind it’s a fairly silly discussion, really, because it presupposes, as almost all cultural contemporary discussions do, that there’s some sort of easy, obvious binary answer.

There isn’t.

Substack can be anything you want it to be, basically. As a longtime writer who’s had dozens of short stories published in literary magazines and journals over the years (one nominated for the Pushcart Prize), who’s written 13 [unpublished] novels, who’s interned for a literary agent, who’s been a developmental book editor since 2013 working with many authors who went on to be published with major houses, I, personally, take myself seriously both as a person and as a writer.

This seems to be more or less in the minority.

Many on Substack seem to feel that the notion of asking people to pay for your work is not only ridiculous, but borderline evil. Good writing, these people quip, should be pure of all capitalistic incentives. All writing should be free. The point, some say, is not to make money but to produce quality writing, or as some say, “content,” another word which gets debated a lot. (Is it “content” or “writing”? Does the differentiation actually make a difference or mean anything?)

Another take comes from the opposing side: Of course you should ask people to pay for your work; it’s YOUR work and you put your blood, sweat and tears into it.

I fall somewhere roughly between these two poles, but definitely closer to the paid side. I started writing on Substack in August, 2022, about 14 months ago. I began with 50 free subscribers who were a mishmash of family, friends, acquaintances and former clients. I now have 1,150 subscribers with 70 paying. I’m not rich from Substack, but for the first time I’m bringing in a few hundred dollars per month. Not bad for a freelance writer in 2023. Usually writers nowadays make very, very little. (Especially creative writers.)

The reason I ask people to pay for my work—not all of it: Some is free—is because I genuinely think my work is quality. I realize I’m far from the strongest writer around, on this platform or anywhere else, but I think my stuff is really good. Am I allowed to say that? Or do I need to practice insincere humility to sound good online? My stack IS called Sincere American Writing. That’s my sincere feeling: My writing is good. Solid. Powerful. (I feel the same about many other writers on Substack, such as Sherman Alexie, Writers at Work with Sarah Fay, Castalia, Bowen Dwelle, Dee Rambeau, Latham Turner, Joshua Doležal, Lyle McKeany, Alison Acheson, Junot Díaz, and many many more.)

The truth is: it doesn’t matter. Substack is fantastic because it’s specifically for writers; there aren’t an ads or hidden costs; they take a fraction off the top of your paid subs (if you have any); and there’s a warm community feel even if you’re tiny and just starting. If you want to start out only doing free subscriptions, or even stay that way permanently: Go for it! If you want to add the paid sub option on your first day writing on the platform: Do it! I did what many have done: Started out free and, later, after gaining a few hundred subscribers, turned on the paid option. And then I slowly started adding in paywalled posts alongside my free ones. At this point I’m probably doing 75% paywalled posts, 25% free. Something like that.

Think of any daring, talented and interesting writer—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Didion, Sontag, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Baldwin, Mailer, David Foster Wallace, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ottessa Moshfegh, Zadie Smith, Elif Batuman, etc—and you instantly see that the art stems from an intriguing, even dangerous artist. This is causal: Writers are generally an unusual lot. They are weird, freakish, isolated, individual, “different.” The wild eccentric weirdos who the rest of society seems flummoxed and yet often captivated by.

This doesn’t describe all writers, of course. There are the boring, tried and true stories of cold MFA programs, typical lives lived for typical reasons. But more often than not, writers are the ones who see things in a much deeper, more full way than the average bear (both a blessing and a curse), who are highly sensitive (for both good and ill), who wear their hearts on their sleeves, who have a black smear of self-indulgent narcissism and desire desperately to be “heard and understood,” who are vulnerable and yet simultaneously somehow aloof, who seem to always be documenting everything in their lives. They “see” things in life from different angles, vantage points and perspectives than most people.

Many writers—myself very much included—do not live conventional or typical or “normal” lives. We are in fact not “normal” people. This isn’t to say writers are better than anyone or somehow superior; actually if anything I’d argue that writers are in some ways disastrous failures: We are usually (but not always) deeply wounded and insecure and seek constant inner and outer validation from a society which refuses to give it. Especially today, at a time when books seem to either be read much less often, or else be startlingly ideological.

My point is a neutral one: Writers, by and large, are their own breed. I am almost 13 years sober and even in AA circles people think differently of alcoholic writers versus just general alcoholics. Writers are very commonly alcoholics; it doesn’t take more than a second to conjure up the old familiar names of famous literary drunks: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Kerouac, London, Wallace, King, etc. This of course makes sense: Writers being so hyper self- and other-aware, highly sensitive, how could many of them not be alcoholics? Ditto suicide.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear attempts to annihilate this notion I’m presenting, making the claim that just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you have to be tied to the old fashioned and anachronistic and unhealthy idea that you should be mentally or psychologically sick. I like the book. A lot, actually. Everyone should read it. And I don’t necessarily disagree with the basic premise: To be a writer you don’t have to be broken. There is a 20th century myth that in order to be and survive as a writer you must be totally self-destructive, must drink to blackout, must be incredibly wounded and in constant spiritual pain. I do not think this is true.

That said, the history of 20th century writers and writing cannot be ignored, and it is rife with alcoholism, suicide, violence, suffering. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s experience. I don’t encourage mimicry. I encourage all people to live their truest, most authentic lives. Be “who you are,” unless, like the existentialists (say like Sartre and Camus) you don’t believe in any inherent “self.”

I speak personally here. I am one of these broken, wounded writers. Not broken as in unfixable or completely ruined and useless. Broken as in somehow spiritually bent into an inner symbolic shape which is not like most others. Other writers get it. My “breed,” my “tribe.” I come from a writing family. My mother is an author. My maternal uncle. Two cousins.

For those of you not paying attention, Claudine Gay is the current (hopefully temporary) president of Harvard University. She’s a Black woman in her early fifties. She started her tenure in July. In October she made headlines when being interviewed by congress and refusing to condemn student calls for the genocide of Jews. Following this, a few instances of plagiarism were discovered, which soon bloomed into dozens of instances of plagiarism. Currently she’s now accused of not releasing her data-sets from her early 2000s paper which gave her a PhD at Stanford. She’s been criticized roundly on all sides for most of this.

The claim on the Left and by many at Harvard is the usual: This is a “right-wing conspiracy” and “racism.” Or else there have been bizarre rationalizations of the plagiarism claiming that it’s “not really plagiarism.” (For cases where it clearly is, for instances where Harvard students are routinely disciplined, and according to Harvard’s own designation of the act of plagiarism.)

This is the most blatant and obvious moment of Woke Racism. To elite white progressives, both at Harvard and off, Claudine Gay is nothing but a political football, to be hurled around for virtue-signaling points. She’s not a full human being but rather a symbol. The most superficial thing about her—her skin pigmentation—is being used as the main criteria for defending a clearly disastrous record. Do you realize how awful and detrimental doing is this going to be for all Black Americans? From now on whenever a Black American gets into a high position of power, people are absolutely going to think, Hmmmm; were they hired because of competency and merit…or because they’re Black?

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