While I was in Toronto for work this past week, I had a chance to grab lunch with a writer friend of mine. We got to talking about young writers. He hears from something like 7,392 a day, many of whom are around my age—25—and crazy frustrated. Not enough is happening fast enough for their liking and they wonder if they should quit. We wondered if a lot of them really love writing, or whether maybe they just like the idea of being a writer.
Because dude, if you don't love this, you ain't gonna make it. Like all great work worth admiring, great writing is a great struggle. You have to slave over the words. It’s the only way to build a great story.
For some reason, our talk made me think about my basketball career* and then it made me think about writing and then that made me think about whether or not we should write for free.
* Okay, more like, "career."
It'll make sense in a second.
^ ^ ^
I've always loved basketball, but for a long time, I was too scared to play. The fear began my junior year of high school. I suffered a third-degree high ankle sprain on one ankle. Doctor said it was worse than if I'd broken it. Wore a cast for awhile, then a walking boot, missed a good chunk of the season. Taped it up like crazy for a return in a game at one of our rivals. Within a minute of going into the game, I sprained my other ankle. Second-degree sprain, not as gnarly as the first, but still enough to sideline me for another few weeks.
I came back and because, let's be honest, it was a pretty terrible league, I made something like second-team all-region or something—I forget, exactly—but for a long time after, I was never the same. I didn't even play my senior year because at the time I had a good thing going with baseball that I was really scared of wrecking.
For a long time after that, anytime I played basketball, something in me was just obnoxiously tentative. I was angry and insecure and afraid. Of getting hurt, of looking like an idiot, of getting cussed out by frustrated teammates. I was a little mental.
I've gotten over it lately. It was gradual, but what blasted the fear away was a combination of simply growing up, in addition to, interestingly enough, starting grad school. My university's rec center has six full basketball courts, and they're always full of guys playing pickup. Starting last August, I began playing up to four times a week.
I've gotten good again. Partially because I developed a consistent jump shot ... but mostly because I'm just not scared anymore. Of anything. It's a good feeling. It feels strange but in a comforting way, like if you left home for seven years and finally found your way back.
But I would've never found all that if I hadn't really loved the game. I don't get paid to play, and I don't even get all that much out of playing. Even still, there are days when I can't concentrate on anything else because I knew guys were balling and I just felt like, why should I sit here and tap keys on a computer when I can go hoop?*
* Actually, it's about 2 p.m. on a Saturday, so that's about to happen right now.
In a way, as a writer, that's a good litmus test for you.
How bad do you want to write?
Not be a writer.
^ ^ ^
The best athletes burn for their sport, live for it, put themselves through all manner of pain and absord as much of the game as they can.
It works the same way for writers. Something inside us burns, burns, burns to get better, to consume as much good writing as we can find, to create as many good sentences as we can, so that we can do what we love and make a living by it.
Even still, sometimes we all write for free.
I'll never be one to romanticize going into poverty for love of the craft. Words always have value; let nobody tell you different. If you really love writing and have talent, then someday you should get pretty good at this, and people should actually pay you for it.
But I also believe that if we really love what we do, then there will be times we do it simply because something inside of us won't rest until we do, because we can.