Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Writing what you want to write vs. writing what editors want you to write

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Some years ago, when I was in my last year of university, there was a house party. At this party I got talking to a French girl, who was eloquent and charming. I reached a point where I got talking about journalism, my ambitions, who I’d already written for, and all the fine journalism pieces I’d written — the kind of things you might say when trying to impress a French girl.

She listened with interest but after I had finished my spiel, she looked at me and without a pause said simply: “But what do you write for yourself?”

This memory and those words have stayed with me ever since.

I consider myself a writer first, and a journalist second. So what I am doing limiting myself to just writing within the rigid confines of news and features?

I take my writing and my reading quite seriously (you cannot be a good writer without being a good reader). And it satisfies me no end the development I feel as I work at this craft; the craftsmanship involved in becoming a better writer.

And yet really, what do I write for myself

There are subjects and stories close to my heart; a passion involved with the thought of writing such pieces, which would be literary nonfiction.

But, pitching and writing articles, commissioned by editors is a particular kind of writing, where the reporting and the research take precedence. Journalism is really about transmitting information — news. 

But narrative nonfiction, essays, and a particular kind of online writing are forms in which the writing is imbued with its force due to the authorial control the writing demonstrates. They are pieces where the magic could not exist unless the individual writer exerts a personality and charm evident in its construction.

Joan Didion was a master at such pieces. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a modern exemplar.

Many novelists were/are good at it — John Updike, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace.

Genre forms are especially fertile to such writing: Anthony Bourdain — brilliant food writing; Rolf Potts –insightful and entertaining travel stories; Greil Marcus — 70s music writing at its best.

Many critics produce articles that reverberate through the ages and have huge influence: seminal film critic Pauline Kael; photography essays from Susan Sontag.

Personal favorites include:

Elif Batuman on Vampire Weekend

Thanksgiving in Mongolia – by Ariel Levy

Generation Why? Zadie Smith’s brilliant review of 2010 movie The Social Network and a far reaching exploration of the non-neutrality of software and an excoriating review of Facebook itself.

The tennis essays of Louisa Thomas and Brian Phillips on Grantland.

The wisdom and inspiration of David Brooks and Oliver Burkeman’s life columns.

I could go on. There are certain writers and certain individual pieces of writing that have a firm place in my memory, as keys into a new way of thinking or just diamond examples of great prose.

The key take-away here is that these writers are as much valued for their sensibility as they are for their choice of topics; what have they brought to bear on the topics they have chosen to write about.

The magic lies not only in their writing but the perspective they use to see the world. And the experiences and connections they have wrought from it.

A storyteller can use not only their own experiences, but the experiences of others — Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is an example of the former; Jon Krakeur’s Into the Wild is a demonstration of the latter.

And this sensibility; this individual way of looking is not something that can be taught, at a journalism school or a writing course. It’s something you have to develop.

So what can I write for myself? It is evident that these types of writing are something you have to undertake yourself, without forethought given to constrictions and requirements.

You just have to write what you want to explore. And write what you believe in.

Most of all, write what you care about.

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