Writers can come from any number of backgrounds – just go down the list of famous authors and you’ll see a broad spectrum of “first” careers.
The first is to write a brilliant bit of fiction or a staggeringly wonderful bit of non-fiction before you are 21, then get a multi-book deal with a big New York publisher and ride that gravy train for the rest of your life.
The second and more realistic suggestion is this: go into journalism.
Why? Well, first, the world needs more journalists. It needs people committed to rooting out truth and telling great stories and doing something other than gushing over celebrity gossip and ranting, twitchy-eyed, about their given partisan political perspective. It needs folks willing to toil in relative anonymity to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of the ignored and disaffected.
Second, you will gain the skills that every good writer of fiction or non-fiction books must develop, and you will acquire them early. You will learn to write with speed and clarity, get to the point quickly, interview strangers, go into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, observe the world around you and do sneaky things like read upside down and eavesdrop on the folks in the restaurant booth behind you while simultaneously holding a meaningful conversation with the person across from you.
You’ll also learn to take criticism without taking it personally. Of all the lessons you could learn early, this is probably the best, as it enables you to accept a comment like, “This need a lot of work,” without collapsing into a heap of self-doubt and whiny pleas about the writing coming from your soul.
Trust me. The value of each of these skills, for any writer, can not be overestimated.
Third, you will join a line of great writers who made the transition from journalism to writing fiction, depending on many of the skills they learned as reporters to make their writing special. Mark Twain started in newspapers and pulled the things he experienced and wrote about into his fiction. Ernest Hemingway started his working life at the Kansas City Star and used the lessons he learned there to inform his writing from then on.
J-school is the writerly equivalent of joining the U.S. Marines. You might arrive thinking you are one badass mofo of a writer. Your high school English teacher gushed over your work. Your parents fawned over your awards and teacher’s-pet status. In high school, you might have thought your writing was the absolute shit.
A good journalism school does exactly what Parris Island does for young recruits – it strips you down of all your self-delusions and preconceptions to the very kernel of what you know and who you are, then builds you back up the way you’re supposed to be to do the job at hand.
The Marines specialize in turning tuner-driving, subwoofer-blasting high school douchebags into honorable, unstoppable fighters by breaking them through mental, physical and moral trials, then putting them back together the way the Marines want them – fearless, razor sharp and hard as nails.
A great J-school takes your flowery and overwrought high school prose and says, “You might think you’re awesome. You are not, but we’ll make you that way.” It will strip you so bare of your writing preconceptions that you’ll wonder if you could ever really write at all. Your professors will then start adding basic skills – simple interviewing, the inverted pyramid style, headline writing and copy editing. Only when you have mastered those skills will you be allowed to go down the flowery path again to become the writer that you were truly meant to be.
Sure, I’m biased. I graduated from the excellent journalism school at the University of South Carolina at a time when the faculty was populated with delightful, curmudgeonly newspaper veterans – people who remembered copy boys and typewriters and the clackity-clack of the Associated Press wire machine chugging out reams of stories from around the nation and world. They themselves make great stories.
But here’s the best part of going to a real J-school. Unlike your fellow aimless undergrads, with their relatively useless English and history degrees, you will not only get an excellent liberal arts education, but you will be actually learning a trade. Depending on the market, you can graduate and immediately get a job in your field. And what do you know – that field is writing.
Granted, that first job will likely be at a small newspaper in a backwater town. That sounds like a drag – wouldn’t it be much better to work at the New York Times or ABC News, after all? Sure it would, but unless your parents own a paper or sit on the board at Disney, neither is likely to be your first job.
But the benefits of parachuting into East Outer Nowhere are myriad. Depending on the size of the paper, you’ll get to do almost everything. At my second newspaper job, as city reporter at the Camden (S.C.) Chronicle-Independent, it was possible to cover everything from snooze-inducing city council meetings to violent crime, business ribbon cuttings to interviews with visiting celebrities and political bigwigs, .
I got invited to pilot a glider plane, fly with the Army Golden Knights skydiving team, rappel from a fire department bucket truck and qualify on .38, .45 and Glock 9mm handguns with the police department. On a weekly basis I hung out with cops without being a suspect, visited the jail without being a prisoner and got to see the inner workings of local and state politics without the mess of running for election.
Will you get rich? Unlikely. But you will learn to live within your meager means – a must for any writer, no matter how successful you might become. And until you write that breakout novel that’s bubbling up inside you, you’ll get the daily satisfaction of knowing that you are being paid every day to hone the craft you aspired to.