Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Why I Write
Considering a barb
Gore Vidal, the elegant and brilliantly snide writer, had a put-down for those in his field who struggled with regular output. “You’re not meant to be doing this,” he said of the novelists professing writer’s block. “Plenty more where you came from.”
Vidal was prolific, and he spoke from a place of strength. Novels and essays flowed from him almost continuously until he died, a decade ago, at the age of 86. If he’s not my favorite novelist, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter—he ranks high, but there are those I’ve been more drawn to—he represents something of an ideal for me, with his relentless work ethic defining a dazzling career. Vidal was a proud patrician, a man-about-town, twice a candidate for Congress. But he never allowed such inclinations to interfere with his work. Vidal wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. (So did the other giant in that above photo, Jimmy Breslin.) He was a public intellectual who took seriously both the adjective and the noun in that phrase. He is dearly missed.
Recently, Vidal came to mind when I received an email from a person in media. I had been debating this person online about Covid policy. In passing, this person wrote this to me: “I’m impressed with how you’ve turned yourself into a columnist who blends a lot of reporting with commentary, though I do think you’d benefit significantly from more editing and maybe even writing a little less.”
It was the sort of line that echoes.
“Benefit significantly from more editing” is one of those tiring barbs writers and pundits will throw at one another when they don’t like what they’re reading.
What was new, I must admit, was being told to write less. I’ve certainly been told to tweet less—I agree—and many people, rightfully, have disagreed with what I’ve written over these years. I’ve been wrong plenty. I’m not infallible and I expect criticism. In fact, the best kind will only make me better. What a boring world this would be if we were all forever in agreement.
But here was a new kind of suggestion, scold, or backhanded command. My output was called into question. Too much of it, the person in media said. Too much in New York, too much the Nation, too much in Crain’s, too much in Jacobin, too much with this Substack, and too much everywhere else. Rein it in, maybe. Think more and type less.
There is the obvious schoolyard retort to all of that—two words, and you know what they are—and I considered whether to give it and move on. Yet I knew that wouldn’t be right and also wouldn’t satisfy. As a writer, I like to think through the challenging ideas of the day and self-examine when I can. I enjoy the deep thought and clarity that comes with committing words to the page.
Once the indignation trickled out, a new thought came to me: what a privileged suggestion this person had made. I did not grow up poor—my parents were federal government employees—but I am not wealthy. My parents do not pay my rent or my bills. There is no trust waiting for me. The money that comes into my checking account must be my own money. This has been true since I moved out of my mother’s apartment, shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday.
I write out of deep love for the craft, because I rarely feel struggle, only joy. There is nothing else, really, I’d rather do. Novels, essays, reportage, the odd humor piece—I’ll do all of it, and relish almost every moment of creation. I want to be great but I want to do. There is a precious restlessness to the writing life. I never want to let it go.
I also write to get paid.
As a freelancer, this is especially paramount. The existence, for many, is precarious. I am lucky to have reached a point in my career where there are editors who know me and publications willing to pay me. I am deeply fortunate for this Substack, which you should pay for if you aren’t subscribed already because that’s my livelihood too. I freelance, in part, because I’ve been able to carve out a comfortable life taking on the assignments that matter to me, writing the books I want to write, and setting my own hours. It took a good deal of scrapping to get here—and an enormous amount of writing.
Maybe even writing a little less can imply many things, but for me it’s simple: it will mean, rather quickly, less to live on. Less for groceries, less for gasoline, less for public transit, less for anything approximating a middle-class existence. I can write less and, in turn, circumscribe my own existence. I pitch editors every week because I need to. My next story idea is rent money, meal money, Verizon money. Ideas are my currency. They are what I trade on the market.
The most overlooked crisis in media is the decline of the working-class presence in journalism. In the twentieth century, local and regional newspapers with sustainable business models offered viable career paths for journalists who did not come from wealth. At large city dailies, it wasn’t uncommon for high school graduates to apprentice as reporters and land staff jobs if they were good enough. Jimmy Breslin and his tabloid rival, the legendary Pete Hamill, never graduated college. Entering journalism did not represent any great risk for the kid from a blue-collar home who couldn’t rely on parents to subsidize a lifestyle. Jobs were relatively abundant, at either the large dailies or smaller papers that covered towns and neighborhoods.
As the internet, in the twenty-first century, decimated the print advertising model, the newspaper industry shed jobs at an enormous clip. Most of them never came back. The result was intensified competition for fewer slots, with starting salaries remaining low. In the 2000s and 2010s, unpaid internships were still in vogue, and journalism jobs, like all other white collar professions, mandated college degrees. For the average working-class student accumulating debt to graduate, taking on an unpaid internship to then battle for a job that paid less than $30,000 or $40,000 was not plausible. Since many smaller towns and cities had lost the bulk of their newspaper jobs, young college graduates had to compete largely in New York and Washington D.C. for opportunities. Starting journalism salaries, on their own, barely pay rent there.
To remain in the journalism field these days, you have to be very lucky. Either you spend your early years working for a comfortable wage or your family, in some way, subsidizes your existence. The children of the affluent can always choose to enter the field. My luck came in simply growing up in New York City. My first full-time journalism position at the Queens Tribune did not pay me enough to live on my own. While my mother would never pay my rent for me, she would let me live in my childhood bedroom until I made enough to move out. I was able to save on rent while earning $24,000 a year. Finally, I was paid more to report for the New York Observer, and I was able to make enough to move into a cheap apartment with my partner. Without her support, I wouldn’t have made it this far.
Throughout all of this, I could never, at any point, afford to write less. Nor could many other journalists and writers hunting for their next paychecks. My disposition is suited for a more breakneck style of writing and reportage, but it’s also what’s necessary to survive. Paychecks don’t arrive when I take time off. There is no sinecure. There is my labor and the small fruits it produces. Editors are free to edit me and I welcome all their feedback. Absolutely no one, though, will keep me from the sacred alchemy of shaping thoughts into words and sharing them with you. No one.
What I do, though, doesn’t mean all that much either way. Far more crucial is the future of American democracy and a journalism industry that can support a wide range of people representative of that promise. Blind spots emerge when media increasingly culls from the upper crust of society. If a writer has an ambition to write and report, class position shouldn’t be a deterrent. Everyone who wants to write more should write more, and get a healthy wage to do it.