Intimacy of the Written

Words are different. Words are worth something whether others will pay for them or not.

Buffy fan? Good. Go read this right now. Even if you’ve never heard of “fanfiction,” even if you think it’s bullshit, even if you’re a grown adult and think of being a fan of something as something Trekkies do. Trust me, please. You need to see this.

When I started this site I wanted it to be about writing. I wanted it to be about the way we remember, and see, and communicate. Most of all I wanted it to be about good writing, because one of the downsides of this wonderful thing called the Internet is the idea that anybody with a keyboard can be the next Herodotus.

But in the non-Internet world there’s this snobbery about writing. Who you write for is so much more important than what you write. I got this all the time, working in journalism for a great paper that nobody knew about. People would shanghai me at parties. “So, are you STILL at that paper?” they’d ask, as if I’d missed some sort of deadline in a career path that looks more like a Nascar track than a Roman road. “Do you want to work at the New York Times someday,” they’d say, as if reciting the name of the only newspaper they knew was something they knew about me.

And I always went red with anger to the top of my head because seriously, if all you want as a writer is to pack your resume with an ever-increasingly-impressive list of places you’ve worked, that’s actually a hell of a lot easier for people to understand. Ambition is easy. The alchemy of words, skill, luck, magic required to do good work as a writer is incredibly hard, and not the least bit dependent on how big a boner you get over the title below your name on the press credentials.

No, I always said, I want to be a writer. I want to do good stories. I’m a dumb girl from a small town in Wisconsin and I went to a state college and then straight to work (no graduate degrees, no backpacking across Europe or something) because that’s what I wanted to do. And I could have fucked a professor or two and racked up some high profile internships and become an obit writer or night cops reporter at a huge, well-known newspaper. Instead I did whatever the hell I wanted to do at smaller ones. It worked for me because I wanted to write more than I wanted to be “successful.” That to me was success.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in where you do what you do, in being part of a great organization with a rich history. But there is something wrong, in my mind, in taking more pride in being where you are than in doing what you do, and not every great organization with a rich history has a fancy, famous name.

Words aren’t soap flakes and they aren’t cereal. Writers are not necessarily defined by how well their books sell. I don’t know ten people who’ve memorized whole swaths of Mark Helprin’s novels, but to me, they’re worth more than their weight in gold. I will read anything Sharon Cohen writes for the Associated Press. Know who she is? I thought not.

Words are different. Words are worth something whether others will pay for them or not. Words are about what they do to you when you read them, if they lift you up and make you better than you are, make you see worlds you didn’t imagine before you read them. Words live beyond the paycheck you get for them. Like teachers, writers send their work out into the world and receive back only a small idea of how far that work has traveled. You never know who’s going to pull it off a shelf 50 years from now, whose life it will change.

Writers come in all kinds of colors and stripes. I’ll read about cooking if the writing cracks me up. I’ll read about The West Wing if the writing does crazy things with tenses and poetry and experiments like crazy. It doesn’t matter that the one’s a bestseller and the other’s on the Internet and written by someone whose real name I don’t know. It’s good, that’s all that matters.

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