I’m 41 years old. Since my late 20s, when I dropped out of grad school, I’ve been stuck working in sales and low-level clerical jobs. If it needs saying, I’ve loathed them all. On the good side, I’ve used my spare time to teach myself a few of the finer points of writing. As most of your readers will know, anything you ever wanted to learn about style or voice, pathos or ethos, you can learn in an Internet comments section, provided you can endure the gladiator-school rules of engagement.
Four years ago, I began submitting work for publication, and managed to sell a few pieces. None of the venues was terribly high-profile, and God knows none paid well. But those small triumphs did serve to encourage me until, a couple of years later, I landed a paid blogging gig. Since then — thanks partly to the most patient and generous editor God has ever placed on earth — I’ve managed to build up a small but loyal readership. In a typical month, I post six or eight entries of about 1,000 words apiece. Together, they draw about 15,000 page views. In my market, which is a niche market, that’s not too shabby.
My problem? I’m faking it. I don’t know nearly enough about my subject to present myself as an authority. Partly for that reason, my opinions aren’t very original, or even very strong. The material I deal with is abstruse, much of it translated from foreign languages of which I have only a cursory knowledge. To master it I’d need another seven years of schooling, and even then the payoff would be uncertain. What is certain is that continuing to write in a facile and gimmicky way will never win me more attention — or more respect — than I’m getting already.
So what do I do, Cary? Invest the time and money in the paper chase, hoping not to go stark, raving bonkers along the way? Learn to derive some sense of self-worth from being a subsidized hobbyist? Could there be an in-between I’m overlooking?
Dear Plastic Pundit,
Here is what I think: As the information space flattens out, so will the class structure.
See what I just did? I made sweeping prognostications based on no expertise.
I love doing that. Why can I do that? Because I have a lot of nerve. You have a lot of nerve, too.
You worry about the fact that you’re faking it. In one sense, we’re all faking it. We’re all making it up as we go along. But there is one thing you have that is yours and yours alone: your voice. Your story.
People ask me, Do you have special training for this advice columnist job? I say, No, I’m just a writer. I’m just telling my story.
I have no expertise. What I have is the willingness to plunge a camera into my own heart. I have a willingness to speak as if drunk. I have a willingness to read aloud the graffiti on the walls of my own cave.
That doesn’t make me a genius. It makes me an adventurer.
It takes a lot of nerve to be a writer but nerve is free.
Nerve and verve. Courage and voice. That is what I recommend you acquire in this new era. In this new era, one distinguishes oneself not by the amount of information one has (because the price of information has gone to nearly zero), nor by one’s elite degree (because elite degrees are becoming signs of class and generational wealth rather than talent). One distinguishes oneself by having a voice.
The cool thing is that you do not need to go anywhere to acquire it. You just have to be deeply, radically, fearlessly yourself. You must be an adventurer.
The writer must leap from high places and plunge far under the surface. I would put that on the job description: Must be willing to jump from high places.
The writer is a performer. The writer performs operations on his own soul in public. The writer displays herself in a stylish way and makes it look easy. To learn to do that one must do it over and over again. In a daily job like this, many pieces are rehearsals. One learns. One learns in public.
I say, speak with your own voice, for no one else in the world has your voice. But then, in that voice, tell a story. A story is about someone who wants something and how she goes about trying to get it and whether she wins or loses. Stories are always interesting. If knowledge is what you want, then the story of how you got that knowledge will be interesting.
You can make a story by saying, “Here I was in the beginning thinking this. But here is where I wanted to get to. Here is what I needed to know to get there. Here are the questions I had to ask myself and answer. And here is how I went about trying to answer them.”
That is what I try to do in this column. I’m not that good at it. But that is what I try to do.
Also, because this is an episodic thing, I do this: I picture myself as a traveler on the road and each letter I answer is an incident that happens on the road. Every day someone stops me on the road with a riddle or a story. I report the story and I report my response. I wish the person well as we pass on the road.
As Vivian Gornick would say, there is the story, and there is the situation. In the case of “The Fugitive,” his situation is that he has to find the one-armed man who killed his wife and framed him, and he has to avoid arrest. And he has to do that every week. My situation is that I am employed by Salon to do this every day. So the road I am on is not only my personal road of discovery but is also the road I have been charged to walk by my employers. It is my job to walk this road. That takes care of the situation part.
Now, having a “job” is a sort of built-in situation. Like when we see a detective in the movies we accept that he has to go out and detect. We do not ask, How did he get that job? Unless he doesn’t seem suited to the job. Then we might. Or if he calls attention to his own unsuitability for the job, then we might also doubt him. In your case, no one is forcing you to write these blog posts, so you may need to consider how you got into this situation and make that part of your narrative. You may need to think about how to make your presence seem inevitable.
But you do not need to be an expert. Acquiring the knowledge is part of the story. If you describe the thing you are seeking and the obstacles you meet and the ways you overcome them, you will be telling stories. These stories will be interesting to people. That is all you need to do.