We Lion

by Kathleen Hellen

The 2011 contest entries opened doors to many rooms: Living rooms, dying rooms. Waiting rooms, prison rooms. Rooms that ask you to come in, rooms that warn to stay away. Clean rooms, hidden rooms. Bar rooms, back rooms, bare rooms.

For me as a writer, as a woman, as a woman and a writer, The Room will always be more than the physical space it occupies. The Room will always be Virginia Woolf’s conception that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”— if we are to write anything at all for that matter. Woolf knew that women had been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and freedom for all of us as writers is in part, financial.

Money gives us freedom to create art. Or not.

Projections from the National Employment Matrix show the genres earning the most money (highest to lowest): TV writing, Theatre/film writing, Audio, internet and other, Books – fiction, Books – academic/educational, Books – children’s fiction, Newspapers/magazines and Books – non-fiction.

For some, it is the writing itself that has assured the freedom to continue writing. According to Forbes magazine, the American thriller writer James Patterson— who last year earned $70 million for And here comes the spider and Kissing girls—heads the list of the world’s 10 richest writers. Twilight series author Stephenie Meyers, Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Ken Follett, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks are also on the list, while J.K. Rowling took 10th place.

Technology affords many more of us The Room.

Spurred by the demand for authors, writers, and editors, especially those with Web or multimedia experience, the ranks of those who call themselves writers are growing. The Occupational Handbook projects that the numbers of us employed as writers/authors will increase by 15 percent in the ten years from 2008 to 2018, from 151,700 to 174,100. According to Yerevan World Book Capital, online publications and services are growing in number and sophistication.

Which brings me to Philip Levine, selected as the new Poet Laureate. In a room with the likes of John Steinbeck …

Sherman Alexie, Etheridge Knight, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Thomas McGrath, Russell Banks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Sterling Brown, Tim O'Brien, Raymond Carver, Tillie Olsen, Sandra Cisneros, Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, et al.

For most of us, writing is the job that doesn’t pay. The second source of income. The night shift. With annual average earnings estimated at $21,343, most writers write out of the experiences of Not Having Enough. Of Making Ends Meet. Of Paycheck to Paycheck.

They lion the Industrial Wasteland. The Inner Cities. The Foreclosed Farms and Suburbs.

What the selection of Levine signals is that America has rediscovered its voice— various, strong-spirited, that “dent in our consciousness” Roger Mitchell of the American Book Review talks about when he talks about McGrath.

No shame here, according to Confucius, who said: “In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.” The Room is getting bigger.