The Writer & the Journalist’s Vocations

Continuing the discussion of the writer’s calling and vocation in Reading Good Writing and Did She Think She Could Do That?, here are some thoughts on how you can figure out what you’re called to do. Last month I spoke to some young journalists (in college and just out of college) sponsored by ISI’s Collegiate Network — a very worthy and helpful enterprise should you know a college student with thoughts of becoming a journalist — and tried to lay out the difference between the writer’s and the journalist’s vocation.

I started with the Austrian writer Karl Kraus’s remark about journalists: “A journalist is someone who, when he has time to write, writes worse,” or more aphoristically, a journalist is “a writer whose skill is improved by a deadline”. Here’s part of the beginning of the talk (written, I should note, to be read out loud):

* * * * *

Krauss was insulting journalists but the quality he insults is in a way a summary of the gifts of which the journalist should be most proud. The particular skill set of the journalist is not that of the writer. There’s not a rigid distinction between the two but they really are different. The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, is often called a journalist but he seems to me to have been a writer who liked to find stories to tell from his own experience, but I don’t think he’d really care to do the kind of digging and searching the real journalist does.

Saying the journalist is not a writer is not to insult the journalist. He just does something different. Something just as important, and in some ways more important, and closely related to the writer’s work, but different. The journalist’s gifts include the ability to recognize the story, and to figure what is the essential part of story and how to find it, and to find the people he needs to talk to and get them to talk, and to write it up in a compelling way in the number of words he has and for the publication that’s assigned the story.

We saw that last night in the first part of Rich Miniter’s talk. The idea of using ex-wives and disgruntled employees to find information that’s still unknown that’ll make your story — I don’t think I would ever have thought of it. Same with the idea of asking the insurance copy for a real estimate of the costs of cleaning up New Orleans. Same with his stories of how he framed the stories so an editor wanted them. As I say, I couldn’t do that naturally. I could learn the list of sources to pursue but for me it would be running down a checklist. For him finding sources is something his mind does naturally.

Here’s an example from Tom Wolfe, from an interview in the American Spectator:

I started writing the same sort of pieces for Esquire. Its editor, Harold Hayes, wanted a piece done on Muhammad Ali, and Ali wanted to be paid for it. . . .

When I joined him on Monday, to every question I asked him, I would get an answer that I had read in the clippings beforehand. I was trying to ask him questions where he was bound to have some new material, but I couldn’t get anywhere. But I could be with him all day. So the whole story ended up being about the people he ran into and the incidents that would come up. . . .

Most of his hangers-on had nothing to do with boxing. One night we went to a nightclub. There must have been a dozen people at a big table and everybody was ordering drinks and every kind of food. When the waiter brought the desserts, Ali got up and stretched, said it was a little stuffy in the restaurant, and left. I was pretty quick to get out too. That was the kind of thing that that story was full of. Ali just didn’t want to pay the bill.

Were I in Wolfe’s place I might given up in despair. But the real journalist just thinks of another way to get the story, or in this case to get the story he could get.

. . . One way to figure out your vocation is: It’s the subject about which you’re a nerd. And being a nerd shows up early. Writers, I think, find themselves interested in words from a very early age. They like reading dictionaries because they like knowing exactly what words mean. They get pleasure from learning the fine distinctions between words and using each of them right. They read things not just for the content but to figure out how the writer does what he does. They compose essays in the shower.

I’m not sure what the journalist’s experience would be. But it must include always wanting to know what’s going on and wanting to know the story behind the story. Future journalists ask grownups the questions other children would never dare ask or even think of asking.

Another way of discerning your vocation: It’s the work you take pains to do, even when it’s a huge pain. By that I mean the kind of things you just have to do if you’re to do what you’re called to as well as possible, which are usually the things you don’t want to do — what “Human Resources” departments like to call your “growing edge.” Sometimes it means calling one more source when you’re 97% sure of the story and just want to get it done. Sometimes it means going through the story it one more time because you have ten minutes before the editor needs it and you know you can make a few tweaks to improve it. It may mean bigger things, like learning another language. Someone said genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains and that’s one of the things that distinguishes the person’s who’s really good at what he does. He goes above and beyond.

So that’s the place of vocation in writing well. Let me add a final sign of your vocation: It’s also the thing whose limitations please you. It’s the game you most enjoy playing. As I wrote in the “While We’re At It” section of First Things a couple years ago, complaining about writers:

Writers, being writers, often insist that they need to do what the editor will not let them do—write a 1,500-word essay in 4,000 words, for example. I tell them that the challenge and pleasures of the craft come in doing what you need to do within the restrictions—in saying in 1,500 words what you’d like to say in 4,000. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

It’s one of the things that separates the writer from the person who writes. The former thinks of how he is going to say what he wants to say in the form given him and sits down to it the way a chess player sits down to play with the pieces and board in front of him. The latter thinks of what he wants to say and accepts the limitations because he wants to get published, and wonders how he can smuggle an extra queen or two onto the board.

For the journalist, part of the pleasure and indeed joy of the work is figuring out how to get the story in the three days you have, and how to write it up in the 800 words the editor has given you, and how to make its importance clear to the bored information over-loaded reader who picked up your publication. If you’re really a journalist, you don’t complain about the limitations, you try to beat them.

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