I recall an old cartoon that featured a series of monologue frames by a fuzzed 20-something. It went more or less like this:
“When I was in college I decided I wanted to be a writer.
“Writing was cool, I thought. I could write a best seller or a blockbuster screenplay… become rich, famous, go on “Letterman.” Meet chicks…
“Then, on the first day of creative writing class, the teacher told us: ‘If you want to write, the first thing you have to learn is to read. Read, read, read all the time… anything and everything you can.’
“Read? Who ever thought writing would be that hard?
“So I switched to Accounting.”
I never studied accounting or planned that writing would bring fame, fortune or Letterman. In fact, I never planned on writing as a career even though I loved words, language, and charting out thoughts in sentences and paragraphs.
Writing, I believed, was for writers. You know, the happy, tortured few who feel a great work of significance churning in their souls, begging to be put on page. That wasn’t me. I’d be too embarrassed to publicly air significant passions, inner thoughts, or—egads!—sex scenes. (Besides my soul never churned, except the time, when I was nine, that I shook hands with Roy Rogers.)
Let those who can do, I reasoned. I would teach. In my case, French, which combined my love of language and the sensual mouthing of words with a chance to interact with people while being “cultural.”
This worked fine until the bureaucracy of Big Education, combined with the growing cult of entitlement among students, began to dull the shine on this teacher’s apple. I left teaching and began a life in publishing. My first job was as an ad rep with a raucous community newspaper.
With this job, my awe of the great Writing Cathedral began to diminish, and my conception of what defined a writing life began to shift. I saw that writing didn’t have to be an ivory cupola; it could also be a friendly diner, where friends met and hung out, shared information, humor, and endless points of interest.
The newspaper job, and later ones, taught me that writing as a craft, even without inspiring, could inform, amuse, tweak, persuade, and please others. I learned too that these are all important reasons to write. No apology needed.
And the professor was right. A writer must always read, read, read. I love good writing, and even some not-so-good writing, and revere the producers of great work.
But I admit that I began to lose my way after Gonzo Journalism, and, to me, much of modern fiction reads like the badly translated “Some Assembly Required” instructions—e.g.,
“The next night in a bookstore near Taipei 101, the third-tallest building in the world, an hour after ingesting MDMA, walking aimlessly with held hands, Paul “grimly,” he earnestly felt, asked what Erin was thinking about, and she said she was having paranoid thoughts again, “like maybe it’s not the drugs, maybe we just don’t have anything to talk about anymore.” (Tao Lin: Taipei)
So, I write because I can and because I discovered that people would pay me to write. Writing is neither a passion, compulsion, obsession, nor artistic imperative.
But it is play and work and satisfying and frustrating all at the same time. The highs are exhilarating, the lows are lousy. And you must accept that words are ticklish, fickle things that flirt and tease you with merciless cheek. Often you find romance, but sometimes you go home alone.
Numbers would never be so flighty.