Someone wrote to Malcolm Cowley in 1947, asking if he, the correspondent, should be a writer. Here is the response. Cowley says that asking the question is a good sign that you aren’t cut out to be a writer. That seems harsh to me, but essentially correct. Professional writers are often asked this question by young people, and the correct answer — the answer that young potential scribes do not want to hear — is a version of the one Cowley gave. (Rainer Maria Rilke’s version was, of course, more poetic, but essentially the same). I didn’t want to hear it when I was 20 years old and asking the same question, and reading in Rilke that the only reason you should try to be a writer is if you felt that you had to write to live — by which he meant: if writing is to you like eating and breathing. Only that depth of feeling would give you the inner resources to endure what you would have to endure to make a career out of writing.
Cowley’s point, obviously, is that to question whether you should be a professional writer is to reveal that you don’t have what it takes to be one. Again, I think that takes things a bit too far, but he’s more right than wrong. I recently spent a year unable to write professionally because of the unusual and unanticipated requirements of the job I held, and it was, in some respects, the worst year of my adult life. But it taught me in my bones the truth of Cowley’s and Rilke’s insights. That I could not write for publication felt like a deformation and a perversity. It was as if someone had come into the house during the night, broken both my legs, and told me to walk. Until I left that job for a position here at TAC, I fought depression and anger. It was a miserable time, but it reinforced my conviction that writing isn’t simply a job for me, and never would be: it is a vocation.
So, when people ask me, “How did you decide to become a writer?”, the smart-ass answer is also the most honest answer: “It’s all I can do.” I have been very, very blessed to have had the opportunities to make a living at it, and I owe to the people who have been my patrons — I mean, those who hired me when they could have hired anybody else — a far greater debt than I can ever repay. Nobody makes it as a writer, or any kind of artist, on talent and passion alone, and anybody who thinks so is full of himself, and full of other things besides.
It makes me nervous when young people ask me if they should become journalists. Nervous, because I’ve had a good career as a journalist, but I also know what they don’t, or don’t wish to: that there has not been a more treacherous time — in living memory, I mean — to enter the field. And yet, people still do. I would say, then, that you have to have the same kind of passion for journalism, and writing journalistically, that Cowley and Rilke say professional writers should have. In my generation of journalists, and older ones, I have known many people who wrote decent, serviceable prose. They rarely, if ever, wrote anything memorable, but they got the job of daily journalism done. For them, writing was a nine-to-five job, and there was work for them. Nowadays, though, I don’t think people who conceive of journalism as a nine-to-five job, as opposed to a vocation, will have the internal resources it will take to bear the stresses of a career in journalism.
Cowley offers great advice to the undergraduate regarding coursework to prepare one to be a writer. He advises against taking literature and composition courses, instead telling them to focus on courses in other fields of study (e.g., the sciences, languages), and study the techniques of writing on the side. This is great advice for an undergraduate tempted to major in journalism. I majored in journalism, and picked up two minors: in political science and philosophy. If I had it to do over again, I would have majored in either poli sci or philosophy, and minored in journalism, but still worked as hard as I did at the college newspaper. You really do need some basic courses in journalistic writing to introduce yourself to technique, and to the journalistic approach to storytelling. But I find that in my 33 years as a professional journalist, I have drawn more on what I learned in my politics and philosophy classes than what I learned in my journalism classes. Journalism classes taught me how to write (or, to be more precise, drew out and honed the writing talent within me), but the politics and philosophy classes gave me a perspective from which to interpret the world I was given to write about. When I was an undergraduate thinking of changing my major to journalism, an old friend C., a working journalist and my first mentor in the field, told me that her master’s degree in economics and finance had been as useful to her than her undergraduate degree in journalism, because they built on each other.
Among this blog’s readers are at least a few professional writers. I would love to know what lessons you’ve learned about writing as profession and vocation. If you have anything you’d like to share, please indicate how old you are, or at least how long you’ve been writing professionally.