Newspaper article International New York Times

Is Being a Writer a Job or a Calling?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Is Being a Writer a Job or a Calling?

Article excerpt

Benjamin Moser and Dana Stevens discuss whether being a writer is just a job or a loftier ambition.

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. …

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