You know how once you start to think about something intently, you begin to notice it everywhere? That happened to me when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I already knew I wanted to be a writer, it’s just that I just decided that I could be one. All I had to do was write. After that, I kept meeting other writers and stumbling across interviews online that made me feel like maybe it wasn’t such an impossible proposition. I even started to tell people ‘writer’, when they asked what I wanted to be after I graduated, although sometimes I just said ‘journalist’ because it sounded more professional. They looked at me as though I was saying I wanted to become a ballerina at the age of twenty-three.
In the current job market, where freelancing is a ‘lifestyle choice’ and superannuation is an afterthought, the economic implications of this decision are clear. I’m going to be broke. The recent decimation of journalism jobs in Australia is testament to the fact that print journalism is dying a slow and painful death. As Jonathan Green wrote for this journal, ‘It can’t be trimmed or economised into sustainable health. It won’t be restored through the repatriation of outrageous Fairfax executive salaries and bonuses. It is done. It is over.’ Emerging writers no longer dream of bustling newsrooms; they envision a solitary desk and a laptop.
The impossibility of a lucrative career in the arts has been reinforced to such an extent that the idea of a successful writer is often independent from commercial success. It is generally accepted that even published authors with multiple books have day jobs. I vacillate between attributing this to writing’s unique status as a ‘craft’ rather than an occupation, and putting it down to society’s basic lack of value for artistic contributions that are incompatible with market capitalism. I really wish it were the former.
My mentor tells me to get a day job because it will improve my writing. I know she’s right. As a craft, writing, like anything else, takes years to refine. But I feel like I don’t have years, I have hours. I’m older than Tavi Gevinson is right now, and the same age Lena Dunham was when Girls was picked up by HBO. And the think pieces keep on coming. The traditional media industry is transforming, but nobody knows into what. In order to be successful, it is imperative to get ahead of this transformation, because the one thing we do know is that it is unlikely that there will be enough jobs to go around.
This pressure has shaped a generation of confessional writers in the truest sense of the word. Our fears, our loves, our pain, laid out for anyone to read, asserting our uniqueness. Look, I am raw and bruised and I feel just like you, it says. I left my diary at a friend’s house on the other side of the country for two months, and I felt disassociated from my own life, like I was wasting my time waiting for something important to happen. When I started writing again I realised that I gave my experiences significance by documenting them, rather than the other way around.
The ubiquity of these personal essays online has changed the way we live, and the way we write. I spend a lot of time reading about strangers who joined cults on my phone. I pretend it’s work. I cut corners and get exasperated with basic journalistic tasks like sourcing photos or fact checking. The transition between working with editors that will publish a piece without so much as a comma placement correction, and those that want rewrites, research and citations is whiplash-inducing. If I calculated exactly how much I make per hour spent on a well-researched essay, I’m sure wouldn’t write it. But then again, it never was about the money.
Millennials face constant accusations of vanity, and our obsession with documenting every second is held up as proof. This translates into disdain for memoir and personal nonfiction in general. As Leslie Jamison wrote for The Atlantic, ‘confessional has become an unwelcome label – an implicit accusation of excessive self-absorption, of writing not just about oneself but for oneself.’ It doesn’t help that our need for validation is similarly immediate due to social media. Our vanity requires constant external reinforcement, leading to writing that behaves in the same way. How many likes does a piece of writing need in order to win a Pulitzer?
And what distinguishes an 800-word reflective piece about the time I moved to New York from the approximately 562 tweets I wrote about it? In The New Yorker, Dani Shapiro argues that solitude and privacy are necessary to the work of memoir: ‘The years of silence were deepening ones,’ she writes of the aftermath of her parents’ deaths. ‘My story burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my being until it became a story I could turn inside out, hold to the light like a prism, craft into a story that was bigger than it is small, sorry details.’ But that’s not what the internet wants, not right away, anyway. The internet wants your soul, and it wants it now.
In a second-hand bookshop in Peru, I found a collection of poems by Chelsea Minnis called Poemland. It was the only poetry there in English, so I bought it, and I read the whole book twice in one afternoon. ‘Poetry is like waking up drunk in a lemon yellow room’, she writes, and it is. Trying to write anything that is real and true is like that. The difference between a good collection of words and a mediocre one is intangible, but you know when you read it. It punches you in the heart, or the stomach, or the brain, or wherever your feelings are. You can read and write and rewrite infinitely, but sometimes the thing you wrote will never be any good. That night I met a guy in a bar who told me he had already written three books and I crumbled into a sand pit of self-doubt.
So I guess this is just another personal essay. But isn’t that what we’re all trying to do; to take our little stories and use them to make sense of everything else? I believe in the ‘confessional’, the self-absorbed and the personal, rather than the universal. But a whole other question is whether anyone is willing to pay for it.