May 27th, 2014

Why a creative writer is not a journalist

One of the bizarrest comments I get with regard to writing, especially with regard to what I earn from writing, is “Why don’t you just do some journalism to earn money on the side?” (Note: the bizarrest comment I’ve received ever, about anything, may be when recently someone asked me if I shave my arms [no]).

There is so much wrong with the whole “fiction writing and journalism are the same” idea that I usually don’t even respond to it in conversation, but here in the blog, at my leisure, I figure I can. This is more important than I thought, because when I spent the afternoon with the teens a few weeks ago, I noticed that they didn’t seem to really know the difference between creative writing and journalism either (they asked my advice about journalism as if I, a story writer, should know). The adults who don’t get the divide can live with it, I figure, but I do worry about the teens. So here we go there…for the kids…

1) Journalism is a four-year degree or at the very least a year intensive plus an internship. Seriously, I can’t just intuit whatever it is they learn in journalism program. Yeah, yeah, I have a creative writing degree but there is very little overlap between the two curricula. Both would (I should hope) teach you how to read an efficient and elegant sentence, but beyond that, I do not know how to craft interview questions, how to do archival research, how to investigate a mysterious incident, how to avoid libel, or any of the other dozens of things that come up for real journalists every day. And really, if you were going to spend your time reading an article by me, you’d expect me to be able to do all of the above, wouldn’t you?

2) Journalism isn’t a license to print money. In fact, it’s another highly competitive, low-paying field, almost as bad as fiction. It’s not like people don’t have wonderful and fascinating and even lucrative careers in journalism these days, but opportunities are getting to be less, and competition more. If I wanted to really be a journalist, I’d have to work really hard, and do everything in my power to improve with every piece I wrote, and I still wouldn’t be guaranteed success. I’m already doing that in my creative work, and there are only so many hours in the day.

3) Journalists are stuck with the facts. There’s a reason that I write fiction–well, many reasons, but one is that I find the facts constraining. The hoity-toity version is that I feel better able to tell a larger truth without being held back by tiny truths; the more honest version is that writing a credible, engaging, resonant, and maybe funny story is hard enough without adding more stress about exact quotes and what everyone was actually doing that day… This topic has been extra on my mind lately, since I just wrapped up writing a short piece for Toronto Life. It’s not even journalism, it’s memoir (which is like journalism in which the only person you interview is yourself) but I still needed to get the facts straight, and restrain myself from adding illustrative, engaging incidents that did not actually happen. Very hard. Check out the July issue back page to see how I did.

This is only a short summary of the differences between these two rewarding careers. I should also add that I have the utmost respect for journalists (plus I married one), and I feel I can best show my respect by not pretending to be one.

If you are interested, here is a short list of other things folks have suggested I do to earn money while I write. In brackets beside each, I’ve included the reasons why this is not realistic, since I doubt I’ll get round to writing a blog post on each one. And yes, I do realize that it is very strange that people keep suggesting things for me to earn money, especially since I actually have a rather nice job. I don’t know why it happens.

–teach (as with journalism, this is a very hard job with lots of competition, and it also requires a degree most of the time)
–work in publishing (I actually do this, but when I point that out, the suggester always seems to have meant something else)
–freelance (freelance what? Sometimes the suggester doesn’t actually know, but I think folks usually mean occasional freelance magazine writing, which is actually not a bad idea–but only the memoir-type, where I don’t have to talk to anyone else. It is possible that this is what others mean when they say “journalism” and this is all just a language mixup.)
–write a vampire/erotic/Harry-Potter-esque novel (for every Twilight or Secret, there’s hundreds of terrible unsuccessful rip-offs out there. If I am going to write an unsuccessful book, at least *I* want to like it.)
–go on Oprah (Oprah is currently off the air, and I think the book club was discontinued before that. Also, as if it was so easy to get on Oprah even when it was an actual show.)

One Response to “Why a creative writer is not a journalist”

  • fantasy baseball says:

    That is a great tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere. Short but very precise information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read article!


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