There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.
If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.
Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.
What do they never say? Go do interesting things.
I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. Combine this with the fact that I was too self-conscious to tell people that I wanted to be a writer, I became one in secret.
I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but I am a bestselling author at 26. I have a column with a major newspaper. I get paid to write professionally. A fair amount of aspiring writers are nice enough to email me questions about becoming a writer. I usually have the same answer: Well, wanting to be a “writer” is your first mistake.
The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.
Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.
No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction.
Good writing saves nothing. On the other hand, a deep, compelling or stunning message can float writers who struggle to even complete a sentence.
So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another.
Everything that is good in my writing came from risks I took outside of school, outside of the “craft.” It was sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor for a year. It was working as Robert Greene’s assistant. It was working at American Apparel, watching the office politics and learning how to get stuff done. It was dropping out of college at 19. It was saying yes to every meeting and introduction I got, and hustling to get as many as I could on my own. It was reading dozens of books a month.
It was going to therapy. It was getting into pointless arguments. It was having friends who are smarter than me. It was traveling. It was living (briefly) in the ghetto. I was able to write about the dark side of the media because I put myself in a position to see it firsthand.
All these things gave me something to say. They gave me a perspective. They gave me a fucked up writing style that makes my voice unique. They gave me opinions that tend to piss people off.
It also gave me money and the marketing experience to make my projects a success.
I don’t know the first thing about how to write (as you probably noticed in this post). I nod along and pretend that I know what things like “subject” and “predicate” and “passive tense” actually mean. I mean, I think I have an idea, but it hasn’t held me back so far. To quote Schopenhauer again, “to have something to say” is “by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style.” I’ll take grade school dropout writing passionately in his prison cell over some empty, superior Yale MFA any day.
Part of what I’ve said here is my opinion. There are many ways to become a writer and though my way worked for me, you may prefer a different route. So you can take that part or leave it. But another part of it is an undeniable change in the economics of the business of writing.
See, it used to be that getting “published” was the hard part. You had to impress some gatekeeper and that gatekeeper was an agent or an editor at magazine, at a newspaper or at a book publisher (all of whom were typically trained writers). Well, today there are essentially an infinite amount of outlets to feature your writing. And no matter where you ultimately do get your writing out, you’ll have to bring your own audience with you anyway.
Getting published is easy. Getting anyone to care? Well, that’s the hard part.
What matters more now than any other single thing is that what you’re saying is different–that it’s interesting, that it provokes some response from people. You’ll only accomplish this if you’ve got something you have to say. Better yet, you need to have something that you can’t NOT say. If what you’re writing is a compulsion rather than a vehicle for your display how smart and well practiced you are.
So think about it one more time. Is it that you want to be a writer? Or it’s that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?
Getting the answer to that question right is the day you really become a writer.
This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.