Oh, the horror, the horror! The teenage (but not for much longer) son of my best friend thinks he wants to be a writer, so he has asked his writer godfather for some advice. I was immediately tempted to say — Don’t do it. Like every parent who has lived a difficult, demanding, and too often fruitless pursuit of an artistic life, his own father is a professional musician, we hope to save those we love from what is, in spite of its compelling glories, a suffering pursuit. While, oddly, at the same time, being proud of the maturing presence of courage, creativity, and imagination.
I do wonder if giving him a Moleskine journal when he was sixteen may have … ?
It could be worse. His initial instinct was to be an actor.
Let me move this from the specific to the general. I have been a writer for at least fifty years, and an author for thirty, and have written screenplays, journalism, academic essays, and novels. I have been lucky. I have been paid for almost all of that work. If I were my godson’s age, would I do it again, knowing what I know now?
That is a false question. If I have learned anything true during this life as a writer, it is that writers write because they cannot not write. If you can not write, then you fly the writer flag under false pretenses. Yet, I think, maybe that is also less true than I always believed. Because what I know as “writing,” and “being a writer,” may have ended or be ending, and what writing is becoming and what a writer will be is something alien to the life I’ve had. I don’t know if this is true; it’s just a feeling that has started to consume my thinking about this sort of artistic life.
I am convinced that these recent years and those years upcoming are transitional for writers, and what we have always known of and called “writing.” It is the Internet age, of course, which is still too new to have formed a paradigm. There is the writing and the life of the writer that came before, the life I had the fortune to have participated in as it lay dying, and there is whatever is coming next, after the transitional time. I know what was, I have a vague but clarifying idea of what is, but I have no clue what is coming, what will be.
Thus, the problem of advice to the young. I can only tell you what was, while you are already living smack dab in the what is. Neither of us knows what will be, although you probably have more clues than I do. For a very long time, centuries, the old could both honestly advise and provide models for the young, the professional to the novice. Writers live like this, writing looks like this, if you do this, and if you are lucky on the side, you can expect that. No more. It worked for centuries, but no longer.
In spite of that, I do believe that the human mind will always demand stories and therefore need story-tellers. What I don’t know is what the format of those stories will be and how the story-tellers will tell their stories.
My godson will be my current age in about forty-five years. I do not have the capability of imagining his world then. When he is the age I am now, it will be a decade more than a century after my birth. I was living as a writer a century after Dickens, Poe, Twain, Hawthorne, Hugo; I lived and worked as a novelist almost a century after the births of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Balzac, Proust. Any of them could have served as models for the life I chose, any of them could have advised me well. Is this true for our generation? Can I advise my godson with the confidence that what I offer will have much acquaintance with the real world in his future?
I have no answer for that. I can only say that knowing what I know now, in spite of the unknown world after the Internet transition, would I chose to be a writer? The answer is, what choice?