Cary Tennis responds to a letter from a recent college graduate who is distraught that a degree in print journalism has led only to a job serving ice cream. Needless to say — this really speaks to me.
I’ll let his response speak for itself.
Dear Scared Journalist,
If you are a true journalist, the world is going to kick your ass. If you are a true journalist, you are supposed to be having a hard time. This is how the world makes writers. It kicks their ass long enough that they start finally telling the truth. They just finally give up and start bleating out little truthlets.
If we are honest we occasionally wonder why we aren’t starving in the gutter, or dead, or working in a windowless office stuffing envelopes. Though luck has played a part, so have other things. We have been cunning and ruthless. Sometimes this will be an almost spiritual thing; you sit in your room and visualize your eventual occupation while others are furiously pounding on doors. You refuse to show that you want what you so desperately want; sometimes you refuse even to admit it to yourself. And then it comes and you quietly take it to your corner to chew it to death.
A measure of charm has been necessary. A modicum of hygiene has been necessary. A measure of keeping one’s mouth shut and pulling the cart along with everyone else has been necessary. A measure of compromise and pretending has been necessary, as it was necessary in nursery school and kindergarten and first grades through 12, and in college and graduate school and in the innumerable low-paying, humiliating bullshit jobs that followed.
We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and gotten nothing, and then things have been dropped at our feet that we were not sure we wanted but which we accepted because there was nothing else available. We have applied and applied and applied for jobs and been rejected and been forced therefore to work in unsuitable occupations that surprisingly led us to good fortune. We have kept our heads down and crawled forward like G.I.s in Korea. We have alternately railed at the system and begged it for favors and received the same infuriating coolness and indifference either way. We have ranted and we have started movements and we have tried to infiltrate the ranks of journalism as poets and insurrectionists. We have attempted to better our public relations skills. We have tried to network and join organizations. We have bought drinks at bars frequented by journalists and have praised works we detested. We have tried to detect trends and written queries suggesting feature stories about such trends. We have tried to develop specialties and gained immense knowledge of the inconsequential. We have interviewed celebrities and resold the interviews to numerous publications, each paying less than the one before in a vector of diminishment resembling our own entropic trajectory toward death. We have entertained the notion of getting into TV.
We have wondered why the best quit or get fired and the mediocre persevere. We have wondered how mediocre we must be if we are still employed. We wonder why so many brilliant writers remain unheard, and why we ourselves were not thrown out long ago. We wonder why we don’t have a six-months cash reserve. We wonder who will save us from our own foolishness. We wonder if maybe there is a God who is quietly taking care of us. We take note of our increasing store of mediocre ideas such as that one. We think of Sartre. We read Boswell. We picture the harsh levity of a drunken Samuel Johnson and think to ourselves, well, things could be worse. We think of Samuel Pepys on London Bridge getting blown by whores. We think of him singing with his wife and friends in the parlor. We think of him being treated, again, for another venereal disease.
We think of Neanderthals scratching on the walls of caves. We think of their flutes 18,000 years old, the music they must have played, the fears they must have had; we wonder if they thought about us, their descendants, trying to figure out our VCRs. We embark on stories that do not get sold. We spend weeks investigating. We sit in airports waiting for the governor. One of us strikes gold: Look, there’s the governor, returning from Buenos Aires! Look, it works! Journalism works! Hunches pay off! We have played a thousand hunches and not one has paid off but look, there is the thousand-and-first hunch and it paid off! We think plodding away is the solution so we continue to plod away and get nowhere. We change our strategy. We think networking is the solution so we lavish false blandishments on the successful. We share our marijuana with editors who go back inside before our pitch is half done.
We take up music. We go through phases where we are “reading the masters.” We peruse brochures for MBA programs at prestigious East Coast universities. We think about the exponential growth of creative writing programs. Maybe our skills could be useful in detective work. Maybe we could start our own newsletter. Maybe someone will call today about our résumé.
And then, with the irony that cloaks us against utter nihilism, we think, if only we were living in more interesting times! And that is the confounding thing about it, isn’t it? That we stand on the nodal point of a great, creaking, crunching change in historical direction, at the beginning of cataclysmic planetary collapse, at the dying of civilization, at the rising of new empires, at our own meltdown, as a million stories bloom out of the earth like wildflowers in the spring and we think, gee, uh, if only there were some good stories to tell. The stock market just collapsed, the seas are rising, polar bears are dying, a whole generation is transcending its corporeal limitations and creating essentially a new civilization outside the body, a chimerical wonderland of holographic and spiritual representation permanently liberated from face, hands, feet … and rather than celebrating the destruction of the old paper-bound media and assuming with a shrug that no way in hell could it be any other way, instead we cling to our occupations like ox-cart drivers who do not want to climb down from the ox cart. Miracles and tragedies are bursting all around us but we plod through the village in our ox cart, selling vegetables one at a time.
Yeah. That’s the ultimate irony, no? That in the midst of remarkable and unprecedented change, in the midst of the greatest stories to happen all century, we are paralyzed by some changes in the delivery system. Well, we do know, as McLuhan taught us, it is not just the delivery system; paper itself is a kind of message; it tells us that information is permanent, whereas the Net tells us that information is in motion. So the print journalism curriculum may have taught, incorrectly — because it is taught by ox-cart drivers — that information is permanent, not that it is in motion, and you may well be struggling to throw off that teaching, as perhaps you must if you are to tweet your way to victory. We must ask: If information is in motion, does that make it more or less true? That depends on whether you believe the world is in motion. Obviously the world is in motion. So information must be in motion as well.
There it is in a nutshell. No need to read Terry Eagleton, just ask me! But, well, he’s funnier.
And so we add to the list of attributes: a breathless arrogance; shameless comfort with our own ignorance!
So that’s where we’re at. That’s how we are, me included. We stand paralyzed before the fire, like animals watching their habitats burn. I can see what’s happening but am also somewhat paralyzed, doing an essentially 19th-century thing in this 21st century medium. I can scarcely figure out how to download the MP3 of my band from 1983 — but believe me, when I get it together next week, I’ll sell it to you for $1.50 a pop and maybe make enough to pay my cellphone bill.
It’s a weird world but it’s interesting and fun. Fuck the little stuff. Don’t worry about your career. Find a story and write about it, and stay off the streets if you’re drunk.