Professionals constantly are asked to provide their services at no cost, often by well-meaning (but clueless) friends and neighbors. Attorneys get phone calls from folks in desperate need of free legal advice; doctors get backed into corners, at parties, by total strangers who proceed to describe a jaw-dropping assortment of symptoms, followed by the traditional question ... "So, whaddya think, Doc?"
We writers are no different. People know that I can string words and sentences together with persuasive competence, and so I've often been asked for press releases, letters of recommendation, essays and even full-blown feature stories ... at no charge, of course. Depending on who's asking, I might say something along the lines of "You know, I do this for a living," hoping to elicit at least a trace of guilt; that usually gets me a smile and a reply such as "Oh, c'mon; you could dash this off in no time."
Well, yes ... and the reason I sometimes can "dash it off in no time" is attributable to my having worked at it for 40-plus years. Which should be worth something.
Granted, people only take advantage of us if we let them; I have no trouble declining. But I often say yes — much to my wife's vexation — particularly if the request seems worthwhile, or if the pitch is made in an appealing manner.
Sometimes the weight of the potential honor also carries the day.
I therefore was quite intrigued, back in the spring, to receive a cordial note from Cary O'Dell, who works in the National Recording Registry for the U.S. Library of Congress. They're the folks who select 25 recordings each year for preservation: recordings that have been deemed so vital to our country — aesthetically, culturally or historically — that they demand (and receive) permanent archiving in our nation's library.
I previously wrote about the National Recording Registry, a few years back, when Guaraldi's soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of the 25 recordings so honored in 2011 (although announcements didn't go out until 2012). That's a rare accolade for a jazz musician, and for a soundtrack, let alone the score for a half-hour television special. And yet I'm sure everybody reading these words would agree that Guaraldi's album easily deserves such a tribute.
Anyway, Cary explained that the Registry folks are attempting to augment their core web site with "scholarly essays" for each of the (currently) 400 titles within. Cary then asked if I'd be willing to supply such an essay for Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Now, Cary didn't know this, but — to paraphrase a famous line from Jerry Maguire — they had me at "Library of Congress." Even so, I was particularly delighted by the following few lines in Cary's letter, which I'll reproduce verbatim:
Unfortunately, we are not able to pay you at this time. As a writer myself, I know of the nasty gumption and gall of asking writers to "give it away for free." So, all I can offer as an excuse is: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you..."
Okay, you gotta love it.
As a further sweetener, I also was promised a byline and brief bio.
Heck, a byline on a document within the Library of Congress, attached to a recorded work that has been selected for permanent preservation? Meaning that, in all likelihood, my deathless prose also would stand the test of time? Goodness, isn't that what we all yearn for? Something significant that will outlive our mortal selves?
Where do I sign?
It was, indeed, that formal; I had to autograph an official release, and of course I also had to submit to format and editing requirements. Cary sent along a few sample essays and gave me a suggested length of 1,000 to 1,200 words.
Naturally, my finished essay came in at 2,025 words. After I trimmed it.
Twice as long as requested ... which also is pretty much what happened with the final draft of my Guaraldi bio. Happily, Cary was just as accommodating as my editor at McFarland, and I wasn't required to cut anything.
The results can be seen here, at its own page within the National Recording Registry site; it went live earlier today, and Cary kindly alerted me to same.
And I've been sporting a disgustingly self-satisfied grin ever since.
Because — let's face it — this is way-way-way-way-way cool.
Even if they didn't pay me.