GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH, I was no stranger to Masonic lodges. It took two hands to count all the club buildings dotting our small town. The “temples” with their peaked roofs and white board siding; the roomy parking lots and high-stationed signboards facing the road advertising tonight’s Steak Dinner for $6.99; or Friday Fish Fry; or every other Wednesday, karaoke night for singles. They were called The Freemasons, The Shriners, Kiwanis, Lions, The Knights of Columbus, names that rang of brotherhood and bonding, of forging together, of uniting for the common good. They were good deed doers. Their membership creating such charitable institutions as The Shriners’ Children’s Hospital and the Lions Medical Research Foundation, which lead to the development of an HPV vaccine.
My great-great-grandfather was a mason, my great-grandfather too. My maternal grandfather was part of the Rotary Club. My paternal grandfather was a Lion, along with being a war veteran and a politician. I remember Grandpa and his white-haired wife riding in parades as tassel hat-ed fellas in pint-sized cars wound circles out front. I remember being invited to ride along once, too. Grandpa at my side, I tried to wave my hand like I had seen the Royals do in news programs. While I had been invited to sit in the car, I was never invited inside one of our town’s innumerable lodges. Only members were allowed into those secret chambers. Grandpa visited the lodge once a week to have a dinner or breakfast, to shake hands and make alliances with brother’s whom had similar goals. These clubs were about community, building friendships, leadership, good citizenship—fellowships to bring forward into the broader world.
I am now enrolled in graduate school. In the first year of my Master’s program we attended a craft class. This is our institute’s way of apprenticing us in our building careers as artists. Thousands of writers attend MFA programs each year for this reason, working on the craft of our art. When we exit as graduates, our Masters in hand, we will have no union or lodge in which to gather. As a collective, writers do not have a union. Some of us will join one if we get hired by corporations and will then be covered by heath-care plans and receive benefits. But the large majority of us will toil alone, no shelter from any proverbial storm.
In Scott Timberg’s essay “Can unions save the creative class?” he reports, from multiple sides and sources, the pathos behind the decline in unionship across the country and the resistance from any of the creative fields to lodge together. It seems that our current culture as artists is one geared towards individualism. We are seeded with the idea that it is me, the artist, against the world. We do not see ourselves as a collective because we do not so very often collaborate. While builders have always worked in a group, writers sit alone in dark apartments typing.
Historically a mason was a person who shaped granite. They could create fine, artistic carvings into the stone of a building—gargoyles on the buttresses of Europe’s cathedrals were created by masons—this was considered a blue-collar profession. While Michelangelo’s David, a freestanding marble carving of a man’s likeness, was considered art.
The lodge of freemasons arose from fundamental needs: specific working hours, better working conditions, food and shelter. In the Middle Ages, the monarchy and church was so massive and overreaching that masons needed the full breadth of a fraternity to even begin negotiations. This collective grew to combat a powerful feudal system.
An anonymous freemason wrote, “Freemasonry as we know it today, began in London in 1717. There are some records extant that record Elias Ashmole being made a Freemason as early as 1640s. Before that Freemasons or Masons were basically a guild or labor union with a charter from the ruling monarch to gather and pass on their trade under strict rules.”
The term lodge was not originally a noun but a verb, to lodge together. On the side of the cathedral, masons ate and drank and took shelter. Today’s Masonic clubs and their offspring are no longer necessarily about building or craft. Ultimately it is the power of gathering, unionizing, working together as a protecting congress that humans have instinctually been drawn to for half a millennia.
Grandpa worked as a county commissioner for over 25 years in our Florida village. He was so influential in replacing the old wooden bridge with a new drawbridge that to this day it remains named for him. As an elected public servant he would be gifted with a benefits package, a health insurance plan, and a retirement fund. As a veteran he would have VA protections and medical care. As a mason, my great-great grandfather, his monthly dues would not only have granted him access to the Fish Fry but the collective bargaining agreements that craftsmen such as the Freemasons had fought for for over 500 years.
Since I was fifteen I have been an active member of the Screen Actors Guild. Being part of this union provided me with health insurance for a decade, disability and death benefits, and a comfortably sized pension. Because of our union, one of the big things actors are able to count on is a standardized day rate for commercial, television and film performances. Screenwriters have a guild similarly powered as the actors. Writers for news, web content and commercial branches do not. It is almost weekly that I hear from a friend, or read via social network, that a talented scribe is having a hard time supporting her family because she is constantly being asked to write for free. Part of being a successful media personality is maintaining your platform— you want to support your brand, you need to be writing, free or not. Now if the writers for news and web based content had a based line rate structure, similar to what the screenwriters have, it would translate to, if you write something, anything, you are guarantee a base amount of pay. Be it $25, $50, $100. Or as The Weeklings has just installed, splitting its yearly profit shares into equal per-post contributions. Creating a standardized pay grade would be a game changer. This is the power a union welds. I can anticipate some venues, specifically web based, which would not be able to employ union writers or risk going under, but at least it would stop massive corporations such as AOL/Huffington Post from hoarding profits for editors and board members while asking writers to donate their time. Web-based content is the future of our publishing plain. As the actors did in both the 80s and the 90s fighting for digital rights well before this was the main medium of filming, writers need to unionize and form a basic structure system for html and e-based content. So far we writers have our allowed our own feudal systems to grow unencumbered by resistance.
I go to school in New York City, and here we have a lively literary community, we have readings and offer hugs. These provide the opportunity for our traditionally segregated lives to come together, to appreciate each other’s work, each other’s company, and drink wine. We are very good at the fellowship aspects that freemason membership entitles, yet we are we not taking the extra step and gathering as our own united collective to work towards consistent pay rates, to establish 401k plans, to plan initiatives for charitable contributions. Why are we sitting back and waiting for someone else to provide for us? As the folks who write about the trending wave of de-unionization with an angry pallor, why have we not put our collective brainpower together and worked towards our own unionizing endeavor? Where is our governing body? Our protecting lodge? I would like a Fish Fry with benefits, too.
Coming together as our grandfathers and great-great-great-great-great grandfathers did, will only benefit us in the long term. If we continue to allow ourselves to be undervalued and poorly compensated, an environment will bloom where only those of us with trust accounts and family benefactors will be able to afford to practice our art. I do not want only the elite to be able to afford to work in this profession. I do not want only the rich writing our news stories, our essays, our opinion pieces.
The masons called their work a craft. We call what we do art. It is with this term that we are creating the invisible gulf in qualifying our work as a real and true vocation. That is how the blue-collar world sees it—throwing blotches on a canvas. As we know it takes years of costly training, of working on our craft before these blotches can coming into readable focus. On my time off from graduate school I return to my small southern town and help out at the family restaurant. I have lost count the amount of times I have heard my bar patrons tell me they are going to write a book. As if writing a whole book is something that is simple, an easy thing to do on rainy days. Would someone ever casually say, tomorrow I think I will design a flying buttress for the duomo I am going to design in my retirement? What builders, stone crafters, masons do is viewed with respect and reverence. It is no trifling matter designing the support structures that will hold up thousand of tons of roofing. Properly structuring a book, an essay, a sentence can be equally as difficult. Because of this, it is imperative that we set specific terms and guidelines in which to work, at least to show the other crafts and ourselves that we are a profession. I already know this to be true, but like the actors realized when they began their guild in 1933 in an effort to eliminate exploitation, it often takes a village. Or a lodge.