Fillip

Fillip 6 — Summer 2007

Don't Take Any Jobs
Matthew Stadler

This is a story about collaboration gone wrong. It begins when a literary journal asks Matthew Stadler to write an essay for them. It ends in tears, when Matthew fails to write an acceptable draft and turns to a Mechanical Turk for help.

In 1989 I was in Holland trying to write a novel when I went broke. I wasn’t “legal” because my stated profession (writer) wasn’t a profession at all, but something I toiled at without pay. The policemen in Groningen had grown tired of me. I wasn’t a student; I wasn’t a tourist; I didn’t take jobs. I claimed to be a writer, but no one had published me. I spent my days at the library and the provincial archives, wrote my novel, and lived a cheap, Unabomberish existence that fell well off the grid of Dutch legal categories.

Once a month I reported to the police department, where they were working to resolve my case. Every month I encountered the same sergeant, the same small, metal desk, the same thin clutch of useless papers, the same exasperated sighs. On the fifth visit, the sergeant told me to just stop coming. “Don’t take any jobs and please don’t bother us,” is actually what he told me.

When I went broke, I moved back to Seattle, where a private school said they would hire me to teach. My qualifications were better (I had taught at a K-12 school in Manhattan before moving to Holland), and I arrived, mid-winter, to a job in my home town with people very much like my parents, teaching children very much like I had been, in a building very much like the one where I had gone to school. Everything about “this, my new life” (a phrase that lodged itself inside my head the moment I disembarked from the airplane) seemed fitting for the kind of writer I was (ceaselessly toiling, forever obscure, scholarly, and tweedy). But it didn’t last long.

First, someone (Scribner’s) bought the novel I had written before moving to Holland. Second, I learned that a teacher at the school had been fired for having sex with one of the students. What revelations! This news was especially interesting because sex offenders had become my subject. The Dutch research was on hold (separated from me by “this, my new life”) and I had begun writing what some have since characterized as a “sympathetic portrait” of a man arrested for having sex with a boy. The coincidence was uncanny. When I met my new principal for lunch and told her all this delightful news, she looked at me in horror and suggested that it would be better if I didn’t teach at her school.

And that is how I became a professional writer. It’s remarkable how most of our lies eventually come true.

At this point in the draft, you told me via e-mail that the essay was veering off course and you inserted some suggestions as follows:

Matthew: Here is where I could see another focus developing that might or might not include some of what’s below now. I think for the piece to work for this section, a particular anecdote (perhaps drawn from what you already wrote, perhaps something different, we can talk about it) should be relayed here rather than these paragraphs being more generally about the class, which is fascinating (and exciting!), but somehow doesn’t seem like it will be right for this opening part of the mag. The tone you start with in Amsterdam with the police, the don’t take any jobs, to Seattle and sex offenders, is great. Might there be another tangent you’d be interested in pursuing from that starting point, possibly still using the grunge backdrop? I like the idea of DIY standing for don’t take any jobs, esp. now that it’s been co-opted by Urban Outfitters and other jobful locales…also the bleed between disciplines. But I wonder what other possibilities might come from the DTAJ premise (maybe another lie come true)?

The reader should probably know that the rest of the essay described my new life in Seattle, where I decided to teach a class in my apartment. I describe the fun I had with my interesting students, and then I make a larger point about art and how it gets co-opted by professionalism (thus “Don’t Take Any Jobs”). At the end, I return to the advice of the Dutch sergeant, to tie things together. I was incapable of writing it any better than I already had, so I submitted the whole problem to the Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), an online service I’ve been using to write my personal weblog.

AMT is a bulletin board of available tasks that anyone can complete for money. They’re mostly menial (identify animals in photographs; find pictures of blue cars). Amazon set it up to embed human judgment deep inside their automated help systems; so, the user never knows the human Mechanical Turks are in there making the judgment calls a computer could never make on its own. Most of the AMT “HITs,” as they call the available tasks, are channelled straight into automated systems. You typically get a penny or at most a nickel per task, and you have to do thousands to make some dough.

I post HITs whenever I need writing that I’m incapable of producing on my own. When you sent me your note, I had no idea how to satisfy you. I was about to send my usual polite note saying let’s work on something else, but I remembered AMT. Here’s the HIT I posted:

Make my editor happy—write a better draft.

A magazine asked me to write an anecdotal piece for them, and I did. But now my editor says she wants it more like her idea of anecdotal and less like mine. I don’t know how to do that, but I don’t want to disappoint her. Your job: read her comments and write the draft she wants!

You’ll find the draft and her comments at http://www.matthewstadler.org/rewrite.html.

WARNING: This is a tough assignment; my editor wants every sentence to jump; she wants the brain to be popping and the groin to be grinding with energy and surprise; she wants the essay to make sharp, hard turns, but all add up in the end. Read her notes carefully and then take this HIT on only when you’re feeling super GONZO jazzed and ready to rip. I know you can do it, because YOU ROCK!

I posted your email and the notes you sent on the URL, and within ten minutes someone, somewhere, had grabbed the HIT and was working on it.

In the next twenty-four hours, I got four submissions from four people, all of them disappointing. I didn’t think they would satisfy you. Ironically, I had to reject them, which led to a series of email exchanges in which I tried to explain to each of these writers how they had failed. In my rejection notes, I tried to be precise and fair.

To AMT user A4HDO1M600QW5, I wrote: I love the piece you wrote, but it is not what I requested. I’m so sorry that I have to reject this. The HIT specifically asks you to read the editor’s comments and “satisfy my editor.” Instead of following her instructions, you have removed the parts of the draft that she liked (the opening paragraphs), rewritten them deeper inside the piece, and then substituted a different drama at the start. The rewrite she asked for is supposed to “build on” that opening (her words). Again, I recognize that the writing you gave me is excellent writing and that you worked hard, but I cannot use the result. I’m so sorry.

FleurDK@gmail.com, another writer I rejected, wrote me back: It seems to me you’re going about solving your problem the wrong way: instead of YOU trying to communicate with your editor to find out what she wants, you’re expecting complete outsiders to just magically guess what will make her happy. Good luck with that.

I felt terrible. This exercise led me to become precisely the demon that vexed me, that horrible beckoning and censoring seducer that invited my work and then found it wanting. I was probably even wrong about the submissions. As another rejected helper guessed correctly, “I wonder whether you even showed your editor my work—it seems like your mind was already made up, though you keep saying you don’t know what makes her happy.”

Image: Hand-drawn illustrations of the original Mechanical Turk as submitted by a user of the Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The original Mechanical Turk was a chess playing machine designed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Over the late eighteenth century, the apparatus was demonstrated in Europe and the Americas, playing and defeating many challengers, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The machine was later discovered to be a hoax.

About the Author

Matthew Stadler is a novelist who also writes about art and architecture for various publications, including Frieze, Artforum, Volume, The Organ, Domus, The Oregonian, and Nest Magazine, where he was the literary editor. He is also the co-founder of Clear Cut Press.

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