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Is Being a Writer a Job or a Calling?

Saturday 31 January 2015

JAN. 27, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Benjamin Moser and Dana Stevens discuss whether being a writer is just a job or a loftier ambition.

By Benjamin Moser

Even the best writing won’t have the immediate, measurable impact of a doctor’s work, or a plumber’s.

When, in adolescent secrecy, I began making my way from reading to writing, the writers who attracted me, the writers I wanted to be, were those who conceived of the writer as a member of a priestly caste, those whose view of literature as a means of understanding the self and the world offered a noble possibility for my life. Those writers who touched me were those who had wanted, literally, to make something of themselves; and who offered me and others a means of understanding, and thus of elevating, our everyday lives.

Perhaps I was given to vocations — but vocations, as opposed to ambitions, were not much appreciated in high school; and, as when I returned from a week in a Benedictine monastery and knew not to mention how badly I had wanted to stay, I never mentioned the exalted idea I had been forming of writing. The earnestness, the vehemence the notion implied were so at odds with the surrounding ethos that it took me much longer to admit wanting to write than to admit wanting to sleep with men.

That teenage vision of Parnassus was followed by years of sitting at the computer, fighting off feelings of boredom with work and frustration with self, as visions of art were replaced by visions of picking up the dry cleaning. “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” Thomas Mann said; and it is good that no beginner suspects how torturous writing is, or how little it improves with practice, or how the real rejections come not from editors but from our own awareness of the gap yawning between measly talent and lofty vocation. Fear of that gap destroys writers: through the failure of purpose called writer’s block; through the crutches we use to carry us past it.

No young writer can know how rare inspiration is — or how, in its place, the real talent turns out to be sitting down, propelling oneself, day after day, through the self-doubt surrounding our nebulous enterprise, trying to believe, as when we began, that writing is important. Not to believe that literature — other people’s writing — is important. But to believe that our own writing, imperfect, unfinished, inevitably falling short, might matter to anyone else.

We never know if we are doing it right. Even the best writing will never have the immediate, measurable impact that a doctor’s work has, or a plumber’s. To discover if we are on the right track, we can, and do, become obsessed with our “careers,” which is the word we use for what other people think of us. And we secretly welcome the unanswered emails and unpaid royalties that beleaguer us as they do every working life — their whiff of bureaucracy making us feel part of the adult world. Because, hard as it is, writing rarely feels like a real job.

But there is something dreary about wanting writing to be a real job. The sense of inner purpose, so often unmentionable in a society enamored of professionalization, distinguishes a writer from a hack. Emily Dickinson didn’t turn her calling into a job, and neither did Franz Kafka, or Fernando Pessoa, or Wallace Stevens, or any of the millions of writers who have never earned a penny for their thoughts. A defrocked priest forever remains a priest, and a writer — independent of publication or readership or “career” — is always a writer. Independent, even of writing. Writing, after all, is something one does. A writer is something one is.

Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.


By Dana Stevens

Of course a writer is going to lean toward saying writing is a calling — that’s our job.

I still remember the moment I decided to be a writer — or, as I distinctly sensed it at the time, realized I would become one. I was between 7 and 8 years old, sitting in the lowest forking branch of a huge sycamore that grew next to our driveway. I was thinking, perhaps for the first time in my life, about the concept of authorship — the fact that books, those miraculous receptacles of meaning pulled off the shelf each night, were just objects created by people, and that when I grew up, I could conceivably be one of the people responsible for making them. Before that “could” was fully formulated in my mind, it had become a “would” — one day, this would somehow be my job.

I never significantly wavered from this ambition in the years that followed, and from an early age writing was something I was always doing, in official channels and not: I wrote poetry for the school literary magazine, made an illustrated children’s book for a much younger cousin, and started a roman à clef about the backstage shenanigans at a high school play, whose fragments I carried around in a box for decades.

Sometime around middle school, my vaguely imagined literary future had shifted from book author to newspaper reporter, in large part because of “Lou Grant,” a dramatic spinoff of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Ed Asner’s curmudgeonly editor character moves to Los Angeles to work for a daily paper. Linda Kelsey played Billie, a girl reporter with auburn curls who, in a moment burned forever into my memory, once hailed a taxi with a harried expression while wearing gray suede high-heeled boots.

Four decades after that afternoon in the sycamore tree, I own two pairs of gray suede boots, one high-heeled, one flat. I even leap anxiously into cabs now and again. And I pay for the cab fare and footwear by being an actual writer — no longer as a hazy ego ideal or TV-based lifestyle aspiration, but as a sometimes gratifying, often grueling, seldom sufficiently remunerative job. Writing has become both my bread and butter and my day-to-day nemesis, my creator and destroyer, the task I am seemingly never not doing and yet somehow never doing enough of (or doing well enough). The pace of publishing and the scarcity of jobs in the Internet era can make a writer long for the comparatively nurturing work environs of Lou Grant’s daily paper (or better yet, the comfort of a sycamore branch). Most days, I oscillate in between “job” and “calling” at the precise frequency of anxiety — which is to say that at this point in my life, the distinction means little. Putting words in rows on a page is at once the only task I can reliably perform well enough to get paid for it, and the only one in which — on the best days — I can still find those elements of exploration and freedom that make work and play seem to flow into one.

Really, the last person you want answering this question is a professional writer, someone in whose daily life the concepts of inspiration, obligation, craft, ambition and economic survival have grown together into a paradoxical tangle. Of course we’re going to lean toward saying writing is a calling — that’s our job (or at the least, our way of soothing ourselves for not having found a better-paying one). Who wouldn’t choose the role of literature’s divinely chosen handservant over that of some schmo hustling to meet a deadline? There are many days — today is one, to be honest — when I am just that schmo, beset by overlapping commitments, late on bills, typing the same sentence over and over with minuscule variations that somehow make it worse each time, wishing I had learned a proper trade — carpentry maybe, or coding. But that moment in the sycamore tree still feels to me like a kind of summons, and I’m glad I answered.


Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.

A version of this article appears in print on February 1, 2015, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: Is Being a Writer a Job or a Calling?