James Baldwin once wrote, "America is a place devoted to the death of the paradox." He meant that this is a country most comfortable with putting people in easily identifiable boxes. That's why it becomes such a loaded question when someone asks you what you do for a living. We know that our casual inquisitor will draw half a dozen generalizations inside of 60 seconds about our lives, our prospects, our very nature. That's why I love being a writer. To say loudly and proudly that you write is to treat the boxes with delicious contempt.
The emancipating, near-miraculous aspect of being a writer is that it requires no sanction from the outside world. You don't need to go to any particular school or graduate program. There are no course requirements, no need for a W-2 form that consecrates your labor in the eyes of the government. You can work as a college professor or a grave digger or whatever. If you dare to put words to your thoughts for public consumption, then you're a writer.
To write requires nothing other than having the guts to embark on a quest for your own voice. It's a great adventure that's easier said than done. I remember the first sports column I ever wrote for a small newspaper in St. Mary's County, Md. It had to be 800 words and it took me two exhausting, maniacal days to write. I recall with a shudder how I paced the room, with those 800 words to be read by a circulation that would fit comfortably in a phone booth, crushing my senses.
I didn't really realize this at the time, but those 800 words on a topic too tired for even a Jay Leno monologue ("Why I love sports") freaked me out for two reasons: first of all, the act of writing exhausted me to no end. I was like a couch potato trying to complete a triathlon. I had no legs, no tone, and no wind for even those 800 words. Every graph left me terminally distracted: reaching for a drink, making a phone call, or checking e-mail. It terrified me because as the word count ticked off at the bottom of the page, it became clear to me that I had no voice. I tried to write that column like everyone from James Baldwin to Bill Simmons and every sentence was pure karaoke. It takes a lot of bad writing to develop your voice, and I knew that, but it didn't make facing that truth any easier.
But the other reason that little column was such a trial was that I knew subconsciously that to write something that would be unequivocally mine was to become that person: a writer. If I was never able to write again, for the time it took to put those 800 words to paper, this would be what I was and it would be part of defining my time in a writer's skin. But the best part about doing it is that it's a skin you never have to shed. No one can take it from you. To be a writer is to fiercely define yourself, W-2s be damned.
Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation magazine and hosts Sirius XM satellite's "Edge of Sports Radio." Zirin is the author of five books, most recently Bad Sports (Scribner).