Every year, thousands of fresh-faced young aspiring journalists flood our nation's college classrooms, in order to learn how to practice their craft. What should we tell them? This, first: journalism is not about you.
Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, has a piece in the New York Times in which she explains that her "signature assignment" for her students is to write an essay confessing their "most humiliating secret"—when asked why, she replies "Because they want to publish essays and sell memoirs." This confessional is good practice for launching all of these 20 year-olds on careers as 21 year-old memoirists and "Modern Love" columnists.
It is tempting to stop here and dismiss Shapiro, the author of nine(!) "first-person books" including three(!) memoirs, as a run-of-the-mill narcissist whose unfortunate students are being molded in her own misguided image. (Quoth the professor, "You have to grab the reader by the throat immediately, which is why I launched my second memoir with the line 'In December my husband stopped screwing me.'") But let us more generously interpret Shapiro's attitude as not a cause, but a symptom—her own honest reading of the state of the professional writing market today. In a way, she is not wrong, although she is also part of the problem.
Shapiro is, in essence, telling her students that the only way they will get published and sell stories and books and have careers as professional writers is to exploit every last tawdry twist and turn of their own lives for profit. Why, she could be the editor of any number of popular websites! Her takeaway from editors' and agents' demands for interesting stories is, "Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing." She is teaching a gimmick: the confessional as attention-grabber. Her students could just as well include naked photos in their essays, for the same effect.
The demoralizing truth is that there is a huge appetite for first-person essays of this sort. The pages of Salon, and Slate, and Thought Catalog, and XO Jane, and women's magazines, and lowbrow-masquerading-as-highbrow publications like parts of the New York Times, and Gawker Media are absolutely overflowing with them. At their very best, they offer some amount of insight learned through experience. Mostly, they offer run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction. For those who own the publications, they're great—they bring in the clickety-clicks. But for the writers themselves, they are a short-lived and ultimately demeaning game. They are a path that ends in hackdom. And young writers who've paid good money to attend journalism classes should not be set on that path.
Left unsaid in most discussions of this sort of writing is the fact that most people's lives are not that interesting. Certainly, simple math will tell you that a 20 year-old has only a limited store of really compelling personal stories to tell. Most people who decide to base their writing careers on stories about themselves end up like bands that used their entire lifetime's worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up. Sure, you can extract some thoughtful stories of humiliation from a college class. And sure, you can get some of them published. But that is not a career plan. Writing about yourself can be part of a balanced journalism diet, but it sure ain't a whole fucking meal. By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you're spending the principal. Soon, it will all be used up. There is nothing more painful to watch than a writer desperately grasping at ever less-important aspects of their own lives in order to make word counts, until they must simultaneously eat lunch and be writing about eating that lunch at the same time. It is the most small-minded interpretation of "journalism" there is. It is sad.
The good news, young writers, is that your life does not have to be extraordinarily interesting, because there are billions of people in the world who do have interesting lives, and you have the privilege of telling their stories. Even the most productive journalist could not write 1% of humanity's freely available interesting stories in the course of an entire career. Your friends, and neighbors, and community members, and people across town, and across your country, and across the world far and wide are all brimming with stories to tell. Stories of love, and war, and crime, and peril, and redemption. The average inmate at your local jail probably has a far more interesting life story than Susan Shapiro or you or I do, no matter how many of our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends we call for comment. All of the compelling stories you could ever hope to be offered are already freely available. All you have to do is to look outside of yourself, and listen, and write them down.
The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.