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Jackson Mac Low

Thinking of a computer program to write Zen poems reminded me of a meeting with an eccentric poet at the Naropa Institute almost 20 years ago.  An older man joined me at breakfast, asked if I was a poet, and then asked how I wrote poems. I described how I developed ideas to which he responded, “I do something different. I wrote a computer program that takes words and phrases from Ezra Pound’s Cantos and combines them into new text. I have a book called Words nd Ends with Ez.”

Of course, that poet was Jackson Mac Low. Even though I didn’t buy his book, I’m glad someone could devote his life to making such goofiness real.


Great Reading in Santa Monica

I finally got meet my favorite living short story writer, Aimee Bender.Aimee Bender

I got on her good side by saying, “Anton Chekhov is not fit to clean your boots and Raymond Carver should carry your coat.”

Brendan Constantine was there too.Brendan Constantine

As was Brian Doyle, author of the hilarious “Bin Laden’s Bald Spot.”

The Economics of Writing Novels

Two statistics explain the economics of writing novels. The first is that it typically takes 2,000 hours to write a novel and the second is that only 1% of novels get published. Let’s examine these. First, 2,000 hours is how much someone works at a fulltime job in a year (40 hours per week times 50 weeks). This seems a little high to me. I can come up with a reasonable draft of a novel, if I spend 2 hours writing per day for a year. That makes 700 hours. Add editing and I can come up with 1,000 hours. Because 1,000 hours seems more realistic than 2,000, I’m going to say an author puts in the same amount of effort writing a novel as someone working a fulltime job for 6 months.

Anne Lamott said only 1% of novels get published in a talk she gave 15 years ago. Admittedly, this was before the boom in self-publishing so she must have been talking about novels accepted by big publishing houses. I’ll assume that most authors who make money still have to go through big publishers so I will use this statistic in my discussion. But is this number reasonable?

The first step in getting a deal with a big publisher is finding a literary agent. I asked an agent what portion of submitted manuscripts she agreed to represent. She told me 1 in 5,000. In the past I’ve typically queried roughly 100 literary agents for each of my books. If this is common, the chance of having their book accepted by an agent would be 1 in 50. Add a factor of 2 for whether an agent can sell the book and you get Anne Lamott’s 1%.

Here’s what being an unknown novelist is like. Imagine you get a job at Burger Planet. You go to work each day but don’t take home a paycheck. At the end of 6 months, your boss gives you a pair of dice. If you roll 9 boxcars in a row, your boss will pay you sometime in the next decade. But it’s worse than that. Novelists often have to hire editors to polish their manuscripts. The fee is usually 2 cents per word so for a 50,000-word novel (which is pretty short), this would cost $1,000. So our imaginary burger worker is not only unlikely to get paid but he has to buy his own grill. I’ve read a publisher’s advance on a novel is typically $5,000 (if they even give advances any more). So minus the $1,000 for editing, a novelist has a 1% chance of making $4,000 for 1,000 hours of effort. That is, he earns $4 per hour, less than minimum wage. What about the money our author earns on book sales? Sadly, most books never make back their advance. But it’s worse than that. Several articles advise authors to spend their advance on marketing. Now our fictional food worker has to spend his salary buying ads for the burger shack, too. Welcome to the glamorous world of writing!

What should we do about this? I don’t know. But if we care about books, shouldn’t we pay the people who create them for their effort?

Farewell to the Duck


Last night we held the final poetry reading at the Ducky Waddles store in Leucadia, California. I wrote this piece as a memorial.

Memories of the Duckimg_0829

Jon Wesick

Ducky Waddles and I go way back. My chapbooks found a home on its poetry shelves and Jerry Waddle hosted several of my book releases but few people know I lost my virginity there. It was 1971 and she was the wife of an Apollo astronaut, not one of the moon landers but a mission specialist on a bullshit, Earth-orbiting flight NASA staged to use up leftover hardware. Anyway, Chloe was in debt to a biker gang called the Hoosier Hooligans for all the coke she’d put up her nose. One Saturday, I rode my ten-speed to the 7-Eleven for a Slurpee and found her surrounded by these thugs. Normally, I wouldn’t take on a half-dozen bikers but having just earned my yellow belt in karate, I was feeling confident. My chest block, reverse punch combination did the trick but Chloe and I had to get out of town because the Hooligans took a dim view of any sixteen-year-old laying out their members.

Chloe and I drove her Ford Pinto wagon as far as we could, abandoned it in Albuquerque, and took a Trailways bus to Leucadia, California. After she scored her nose candy, we had just enough cash left over to buy two tickets to the Jefferson Airplane concert at Ducky Waddles Emporium.

It was an intimate affair with nude women, body painting, and Paul Kantner handing out tabs of orange sunshine. After an hour things got weird and all I remembered were Grace Slick’s voice and hundreds of pendulous, blue breasts wherever I turned. When I woke up the next morning, dawn’s rosy fingers were caressing with walls of Ducky Waddles’ storage room and Chloe was straddling my morning wood.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I just couldn’t help myself.”

Imagine that! I was unconscious for most of my first sexual experience. Jerry was cool. He offered to let us crash in back if we worked at the store. Those were the best weeks of my life, opening the latest books by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the days and making sweet love to Chloe at night, but they did not last. One Thursday afternoon, a rumble of motors shook the Betty Page action figures off the shelves as a dozen Hoosier Hooligans pulled their Harleys into the parking lot. I guess Chloe shouldn’t have paid for the bus tickets with her credit card.

It looked like I’d be eating Thanksgiving dinner through a straw between my broken jaws until Jerry emerged from the back room with the AK-47, he’d taken off a KGB colonel when working black ops in East Berlin. There were a dozen quick cracks. A dozen bikers lay dead, each shot cleanly through the left eye.

A minor offense like mass murder counts for little when compared to the loyalty former CIA operatives feel for one another. The chief of police made the bodies disappear and strongly suggested that Jerry get rid of the murder weapon. Jerry couldn’t bring himself to part with his trophy so he melted it down and sculpted it into the wireframe duck that now sits on the store’s roof.img_0831

With all the commotion, Chloe and I had to leave. She checked into the Betty Ford Center while I returned to Ben Davis High School to finish my junior year. No matter where I went in subsequent decades, whether working as a roustabout in a Louisiana oil field or intercepting telemetry from Soviet missile tests in northern Greenland, I always longed to return to that little slice of paradise, Ducky Waddles Emporium in Leucadia, California. Fortune smiled on me and I did return in 1994.

It’s been a great couple of decades but nothing lasts forever. Now that the crappy economy has baked the Duck at 350 degrees and drenched it in an orange sauce of rising costs, falling literacy, and the high-fructose corn syrup of online competition, we must say goodbye to the Bukowski on the bookshelves and erotica by the counter. Goodbye to the Mary Fleener and Shepard Fairey paintings on the walls. And most of all, goodbye to thin, balding Jerry Waddle by the cash register. It’s been great!