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TAKE THREE / Three Views on the Southland | PATT MORRISON

Pens, Swords and Permits

September 19, 1997|PATT MORRISON

I once had a colleague who clipped a coupon from a magazine, filled it out, sent it off with his $10 money order, and received by return mail a certificate attesting that his pet turtle was now an ordained bishop in the Universal Life Church.

You know that that didn't make him a bishop, and I know it, and whether the turtle knew it hardly matters, except as regards those people whose marriage ceremonies the turtle performed.

The point being, 10 bucks and a license didn't really elevate a turtle to a bishopric's purple.

We now have Los Angeles, the Pacific Rimshot city, Millenium Headquarters West, lurching into the modemizing, faxifying, telecommuting business world of the future by legalizing home-based businesses: Pay the $25 for the annual license, and emerge from the shadow world of the unzoned into the legal sunlight of official approval.

The largest proportion of these, closeted away in back bedrooms and converted garages, was to have numbered some of my best friends . . . writers.

The Writers Guild of America waxed wroth in its opposition to the plan, and filed suit. The same apparatchik who authorizes a writer to work may be the very apparatchik the writer must then savage in print. And making writers pay for it? Why, it's tantamount to censorship.

What Orwellian nightmares could be loosed upon the peaceable streets by this licensing? An anonymous hotline to report unauthorized typing? A creative-tax unit to monitor movie and TV credits and the bestseller lists, to cruise the bookstores for scofflaws who write and sell without ponying up their $25?

Perhaps police helicopters could be outfitted with sensors to detect the giveaway glow of the PC, and auditory equipment to lock onto the telltale tapping of quick brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs.

Why, the city might even gas up its dormant battering ram, once employed so theatrically by Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to break down the doors of crack houses as the TV cameras bayed at his heels. Instead of police chases, we could get live shots of writer standoffs, SWAT teams sweating in Kevlar, and a field commander shouting over the bullhorn, "YOU, IN THE OLD SWEATER! PUT DOWN THE THESAURUS AND COME OUT OF THE HOUSE AND NOBODY GETS HURT!"


An indisputable point is the Information Age variant on the pen-versus-sword theme: The word--written, spoken, faxed, Internetted--is the leverage point of power, and its break point. No gun can undermine a tyranny the way a fax machine can. When the contrarian billionaire George Soros spent a million dollars to help Hungarians fight the Communists in the 1950s, he spent it on Xerox machines, not bullets.

So, if it had been, say, the CPA Guild of America opposing this licensing, the city might have yawned and buffed its nails. Instead--and no doubt delighted to have in hand a legal finding that exempts writers and artists unless they create as much traffic as a crack vendor--the council will, with vast relief, entertain a motion to exempt such businesses from the ignominy of a permit.

However the Writers Guild may rejoice, this is crushing news to people who wanted this licensing, who saw it as a redemptive family value that would have helped to heal wounds and breaches, restore prodigals to the bosom of their families.

Think of all the mothers who believe their children are using that "I'm a writer" line to spare them the knowledge of even more sinister pursuits, like carjacking or working for Heidi Fleiss. Here, at last, is proof: Look, mom, I really am a writer. It says so right here on my business license!

The moms, weeping happy tears, could send out photocopies of the license in Christmas newsletters. Relatives would stop asking to borrow money, knowing that writers almost never have any.

French writer Jules Renard said that writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money. Hollywood can add to that, "if you earn no credit." The city is full of writers whose names do not appear on the screen from year's end to year's end, and still they make handsome livings writing or rewriting screenplays that never get produced.

Like professing religious faith, professing a writer's life needs only the visible manifestations--like a computer with screenplay software. Who can inquire beyond that--for a testament of faith, or a residual check--without being ungentlemanly?

Graham Greene said of writers what can also be said of cities, that we need not worry overmuch about them. Man will always find a means to gratify a passion. He will write, as he commits adultery, in spite of taxation.

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