There was a time when every journalist starting out got some version of the fire-in-the-belly speech from his or her editor. The speech went like this:
Writing’s a tough game, kid. The pay’s as short as the hours are long. The world doesn’t give a crap about your deathless prose. So if you don’t have the fire in the belly–if you’d just as soon spend your days as a lawyer or a doctor or a mechanic–do yourself and the rest of humanity a favor and decide writing’s not for you before you file another story.
Mine was delivered by my first boss, a grizzled war correspondent–the ideal character to deliver that kind of speech. He looked a little bit like the man in the photo, who was really a physicist and Nobel laureate and not an editor at all, but the gesticulating with the pen gets at the spirit of the occasion as I remember it.
The speech did not have a deterrent effect. It wasn’t intended to; I knew he thought I was in the right line of work. I listened, shrugged (inwardly), and carried on. But I am still grateful for it all these years later. It was, obliquely, a reminder that the writing life, however you live it, has few guarantees, so you’d better damn well be sure you ‘re in it for the right reasons. What counts as a right reason–or a good-enough reason–is up to you. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for talk of callings and so on, but if that rhetoric makes sense to you, feel free to use it.
There’s been some silliness kicking around the Internet the last few days about literary prizes and competitiveness and whatnot. (Relevant anecdote: I once heard a top editor at the Washington Post tell the newsroom, in a year when Pulitzers were lacking, that “we are not defined by the prizes we don’t win.” Of course we’re not.) So, as a belated tribute to my long-ago editor and his fire-in-the-belly speech, here’s a partial list of what seem to me a few decent reasons to write. These could apply to creative writing as well as to nonfiction, and you should feel free to ignore them, adapt them, come up with your own, or decide it’s time to go to law school.
1. You have a way with words. Enough said. Get writing.
2. You don’t have a way with words but you’d like to and think that maybe, with some hard work and practice, you will someday. You’d like to find out. So find out.
3. You’re curious. It’s a big world, full of mysteries to explain and puzzles to solve and stories somebody really ought to tell. Go tell them.
4. You need a job. Okay, given the job market these days that’s not much of a reason, but in some cases it may still apply.
5. You have a mission. There are wrongs to be righted, evil-doers to be brought to justice, good causes to be celebrated and chronicled. The world will always need muckrakers.
6. You have genuine expertise you want to share. Dandy. Don’t be shy.
7. You understand the world by writing about it. There’s no getting around this one if it applies to you. You’re stuck being a writer, kid.
8. You think it’s fun. There are many ways to define fun. Call it the fire in the belly if you like but there has to be some element of this in the mix somewhere if you’re going to make a go of this.
If, however, any of the following reasons propel you to face down the blank page, I submit that you need to do consider doing something else with your time. Writer beware if:
A. You have a Hemingway complex.
B. You hear the lifestyle’s great.
C. You’re in it to win, win, win! Persistence? Essential. Prizes? Great if you get ’em, but we all know that prizes are a fickle and unreliable measure of achievement. Accolades? Bring ’em on. Money? Yes please! Readers? Most necessary and gratifying of all. If you’re obsessed with winning, though, it’s not really about the writing any more. Be inspired by other writers, have friendly rivalries with them, or ignore them. What matters most is the competition with yourself to see what you can do.