Confessions of a Piece Writer
A piece writer hunts and gathers rough materials he uses to create well-stitched stories
By Robert Israel
For the first decade of my life, I lived with my immigrant grandparents in their triple-decker in South Providence, Rhode Island where Yiddish and Russian were the primary languages spoken in the home, synagogue and in the neighborhood. Very early on I learned how to mimic and later translate the coarse words and phrases I heard into English. I also learned some hard lessons about the economics of piecework.
In those days, in Providence in particular, either you worked by the piece with schmates (cloth garments), or you worked by the piece in jewelry shops. When my father, the late Maj. Harold N. Israel, who served in India and Burma during World War II, returned stateside, he found work selling pieces: Fuller brushes, door-to-door, and later, on the road and for thirty years, automotive parts.
When it came time for me to find employment after college, I drew on this economic model and applied it to writing. As it turns out, many other writers work this way, too.
When I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger in the library, published posthumously in an oversized, facsimile edition, I found it to be a useful resource. In each column of this ruled notebook, Fitzgerald chronicled how much money he made each year and for each piece, which of the popular magazines of his day he placed these pieces in, and how much he was advanced for treatments, books or other writing projects. He not only wrote his pieces, he lobbied for their placement. In 1929, for example, Saturday Evening Post paid him $3,600 for a short story, far more than he earned for his novels. While the amount seems lucrative, even by today’s standards, his Ledger reveals, in his final tallies, that he barely got by. As biographical evidence establishes, he emulated the lifestyle of his fictional Jazz Age characters, overdrawing from his less-than-ample purse.
With Fitzgerald’s Ledger as a model, when I returned from Japan, where I had been awarded a 10-week fellowship to report on the lives of atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, I telephoned scores of editors, to peddle my pieces. Many said no outright, complaining of shrinking news holes, and asking me why they should squander their miniscule budgets to pay for my stories when they could fetch a similar one free off the wires. But a handful said yes, and my pieces, tailored to fit the respective publications, were published.
In my own ledger, I jotted down that I received $150.00 for a story that ran, with my own photographs, in the Montreal Gazette. Other papers paid me $50.00 per piece. It was similar to how my grandparents were paid for work in garment shops in Providence: provided only with a bolt of cloth, they made the suit or the dress to order; if there was anything left, a bisel (smidgen), they stitched for you a matching vest. In this manner, they might clear a week’s pay. But often, they never quite made their nut. Their home was foreclosed in the 1930s, and they bought it back from the bank a second time. When they died in their early 60s, my mother and her sisters sold the home for less than my grandparents paid for it both times put together.
Piece writing often begins with a notice in the newspaper, a found item, a snippet, the way the late Malvina Reynolds said she went about writing her songs. She said she had read a one-paragraph mention from Reuters about a mouse that disrupted an entire computer system in Buenos Aires by gnawing on a cable; it later became the inspiration for her song, “The Little Mouse.”
And so, an item I found in the International Herald Tribune about a firebombing of an immigrant’s house in Germany became the impetus behind a piece as to why, so many years after World War II, Germans still harbored hatred against minorities. A neighbor’s story about his son who had immigrated to Israel and who was being drafted into the Israeli Army led me to contact him, and others like him, who had made similar journeys. A former student, calling me one night to tell me he was a doing just fine as a drug pusher and inviting me to tag along while he pushed crack cocaine, brought me face to face with the drug underworld in Boston. And my father’s descriptions about the years he spent as a quartermaster at a U.S. Army post in Calcutta, India, inspired me to travel there to experience for myself just what had fascinated him about that strange and beguiling land.
But sometimes items that are not in the newspaper spur me on. When an elderly survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb delivered a lecture in Providence, I was the only reporter to show up. This led me to apply to Japan to interview other hibakusha, whose stories still haunt me.
A visual metaphor for what I do as a piece writer appeared before my eyes one evening in a crowded Cantonese restaurant in Nagasaki, Japan. A wondrous dish, champon, an intricate layering of fried noodles, baked fishes, sautéed meats, egg yolks, sauces and rice was placed before me and a half-dozen voracious dinner guests. We were seated in one of those ornate private dining rooms on the fourth floor overlooking the crowded Chinese district. I could see the busy harbor where container vessels were docked near the sprawling Mitsubishi plant. The torpedoes used in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, our guide informed us. I was wondering how I would capture all these details when I was admonished to put my pen down and pick up chopsticks. The champon was being divvied up and heaved onto steaming platters. I admired it for its handiwork. It resembled a beehive and had aromas wafting out of cross-hatchings. I half-expected a blackbird to emerge from it, like in the nursery rhyme of my youth.
And so it is with piece writing: like champon, a good piece has many pungent layers and surprises within, and a story emerges that is worth telling, and worth reading.
While publications popular during Fitzgerald’s time, like the Saturday Evening Post, have since gone the way of the wooly mammoth, many new on-line publications have emerged, attracting new readers. I write for two of these paying publications, each of them established a few years ago, and I am always scouting out others.
What hasn’t improved is the pay, which remains lowly, or the irksome editors who relish rubbing a writer’s face in it all, despite the unspoken rule about not voicing who is exploiting whom. Piece writers must either grow a thick hide or be prepared to bleed.
If one elects to toil in this vineyard, one soon learns to distinguish between the sweet versus the sour grapes, to avoid imbibing swill, and to raise one’s glass in triumph when one’s piece has been published and one has been paid, all the while making ready to place the next one, and the one after that. Playwright John Guare once told me that he always has another script “in the typewriter,” a lesson he learned after “Bosoms and Neglect,” which featured onstage violence that shocked the sensibilities of audiences, opened and closed within the week at a major Broadway house.
Piece writing requires learning new areas of expertise and working at it with dedication and aplomb, and putting in hours that one is never compensated for. It helps mightily to have a day job.
The late journalist Shiva Naipaul – brother to V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate -- described an encounter in Delhi with a wealthy woman who didn’t understand what he meant when he told her he was collecting materials for articles.
“What kind of materials are you interested in? Cottons? Silks?” she asked.
Naipaul responded that he was collecting cottons. He was half-joking. Never one to cultivate pretense, Naipaul said he preferred cotton over silk because he knew that a good story, like the rag stock it is printed on, is homespun and durable.
Naipaul’s recounting of the incident in Delhi stirred images of South Providence, where I grew up. I remembered a man who made rounds in his pickup truck calling, “Rags! Rags!” as if chanting liturgy. The din of wire factory’s motors, whose workers waited for him on the sidewalk with garments stuffed into paper sacks to sell for pennies, provided a percussive backdrop.
A piece writer hunts and gathers rough materials he uses to create well-stitched stories.Readers notice the craftsmanship when they try it on. It fits just so, ready to wear.