It has now been seven spectacular years since I ditched social media, but every now and again a friend will mischievously send me a screen shot of someone’s Facebook page, and I reluctantly must see that so-and-so has abandoned the tech industry and has moved on to life coaching and would you please check out my Web site and why not take advantage of my free introductory offer?*
(*Not a free offer.)
At times like that I am reminded why I removed myself from Facebook and why I can never be a life coach. But if ever I were to become a life coach, my first piece of advice would be: “Don’t be a life coach, because there can only be so many of us.” I would follow that up with: “Try to avoid being that person a travel writer notices and subsequently makes fun of.” My final piece of advice before my premature retirement? “Don’t be a writer, but if you choose this path, choose to be a travel writer, where you can notice people’s foibles, make fun of them, and get paid for it.”
Suffice it to say, I am not destined to be a life coach.
But back to my advice, and that point about avoiding being made fun of by travel writers. My memory fuzzes over the exact passage or person being described, but I remember it was from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the consummate travel book. I remember two distinct things from that moment, however: the first I have already mentioned (not being the object of a joke), and the second was TRAVEL WRITING!
If The Life Call has to come from writing, maybe the caller is travel writing, which seems as easy as booking the trip itself. Get on a plane or boat or train or take a car. Hang out at a coffee shop or café, walk around the surrounding villages, interview the locals, take pithy notes, check out a museum or three. Review plane or boat or train or car trip and embellish. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Of course it’s not that simple, any more than it’s as simple as changing careers from an accountant or a biology professor or a dental assistant to, say, a life coach. Which, to repeat, I have no desire or aptitude.
The thing is, people who are gifted at something—and it’s the same across all spectrums, from sewing to carpentry to physics—not only make it seem easy, but they also tend to be optimistic and sincerely believe that you or I could do what they do and do it just as well. And let me tell you, if we are talking about my own experiences in the universe, that could not be less true. We are not created equal at birth. There is absolutely no way I could learn to change my own oil or design my own dream kitchen, let alone construct a cabinet or do the electrical work, etc. I am not wired that way.
And yet there are people to whom this kind of immensely practical stuff comes not only easily but also naturally. Oh, sure, they usually demur—“It’s nothing, really! You can do it, too!”—but the truth is none of us are specialists at every thing, most things, many things, or even a few things. If we were all Renaissance thinkers, there would be no need for carpenters or The Carpenters or pest controllers who kill carpenter ants.
On the other hand there is nothing easy about writing. It may not be 90 perspiration and 10 percent inspiration, but there is no doubt it’s hard work. Alas, the good ones make it look so easy. The difference between fiction writing and travel writing, however, is one mainly of composition. Even established writers will tell you it’s not easy, nor does it seem easy as you’re reading. With travel writing, however, it really does, thanks to the the best travel writers like Chatwin and Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson and Pico Ayer. They spin their stories, take you into the worlds they visit, and at the end of their tales cause us to put the book down and exclaim, “Heck, I like to travel AND I like to write! I can do that too!” Well, quite frankly, no, we (probably) can’t. If you really want to be a travel writer, what would seem to help the most is to be a male, preferably white; the diversity of the genre is woefully lacking.
Another useful example is George Orwell, in particular his essays and other non-fiction. At a casual glance no style could be easier. And he’s not creating art he’s creating accessible writing (yes, art can be accessible too). But in his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell says his “long-term goal was to make political writing into an art.” John Carey, writing the introduction to his essays for the Everyman collection, responds.
“That comes as a surprise, because we do not normally think of Orwell as an artist. He almost never praises beauty, and when he does he locates it in rather scruffy or overlooked things…the style he developed is plain and simple—or seems to be until you try to write like it yourself.”
There is something beautiful about Orwell’s spare style, like the road from Flagstaff to Phoenix, a red-like moonscape populated by cactuses, crumbling and crumbled rocks, and little else. Over the years Orwell has unfortunately been corrupted and co-opted by the left and the right, but one thing they should agree is that it is difficult to write as well as he did.
This fallacy that “You can do it too!” also calls to mind the legend about Los Angeles and its surplus of screenwriters. Why exactly are there so many screenwriters in Los Angeles? Not only because it’s the movie capital of the world or because the people doing the writing inherently think they are worthy of it (though of course they think precisely that), but also because, I mean, hey, have you been to the movies in the last 20 years? I don’t remember the reviewer (or the movie being reviewed), but they said something along those lines: the reason there are so many screenwriters is because there are so many terrible movies.
If a similar surplus exists within other avenues of writing, it’s not as severe. There are bad books out there, but many, many more good ones. But that is just my opinion, maybe others see it differently? There are more bad books than good? Is that why there are literally millions of people blogging? Perhaps bloggers can twist Marx’s words (many others have) to come up with their own slogan. “Bloggers of the world, unite! Because we have seen the quality of books produced today, and ladies and gentlemen, the problem is not us but them!”
What’s unusual about something like writing—as opposed to, say, the real estate industry, where it seems everyone is trying to recruit more agents—is the undercurrent of competition, underwritten by the reality of scarcity. It seems to me there is less encouragement in writing than in other fields. To be sure, there are always writing classes being offered across all venues, from the community college level to graduate school, from high school electives to bookstore writing groups.
That is not the same as support from writers themselves. It’s one thing for Michael Chabon to endorse us; he has no reason to fear our book will be published instead of his. More than a Chabon endorsement, however, more than a succinct “Your work is good,” maybe what we should want is for our fellow non-published peers to read our work and critique us honestly and do whatever it takes to get us published. The reality of the publishing world and the selfish nature of humanity, however, makes that prospect dim. We may not be a threat to Chabon, but we are threats to each other.
Taken literally this means that writers and other artists actively seek to undermine each other, like we are wiggling together in some bad movie about a group of jealous and scheming teenagers. Of course we do not seek to undermine each other. It is highly unlikely, for example, someone would say, “Your work is awesome! Submit it with mine!” when the work stinks and you are saying it only to make yours look better. But I would be lying if I said, after reading a first novel like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, “Good for her.” More likely the reaction is “Shit, that’s less room for my own novel.” Fortunately the “good for her” sentiment never leaves entirely; I could not live with myself if I was that shallow.
Not everyone who blogs is a “writer” in the strictest sense—i.e. it is how they make, or want to make, their living—and of those bloggers who do classify themselves as writers, they are not all would-be novelists and not all of them are doing it for money. But there is no doubt there are more of them than there is money and publishing opportunities to go around. The cruel fact of scarcity is crueler to the arts than to no other profession except sports. Perhaps, as Mark Twain said, we should stick to sawing logs. Or, as an alternative to writing AND sawing logs, I hear good things about life coaching.