This is a question I have asked myself, not in any rhetorical or philosophical sense, but in utter frustration. Writing is not a profession, after all; it’s an obsession, a long-term sentence in a rubber room of uncertainty and doubt. As much as one does write, it is never enough, never good enough, never enough to stop and admire. The next episode beckons, with even more doubt. Why, indeed. Why not something easier on the digestive and nervous systems, something like, say, neurosurgery or bomb defusing?
The only answer is another question. Well, two, the first being: what else in the world could I possibly do? The second: what else in the world could I possibly do that is half as rewarding? I’m not talking about the usual measure of reward. I have a stock answer to young people who say they want to get into writing. It is: don’t you want to make money? For us writers, a fatter wallet is purely coincidental; we learn early to appreciate the joys of penury. Pass the check, please. Far away. I also like to repeat another truism: I’ve never worked a day in my life and damn if I do the hardest thing a human can do.
Reward in this sense is the chance to tell the story—any story—in a way it has never been told, and will remain the best way it will ever be told. That is our ignition and liftoff; it rouses us from our habitual malaise and self-pity. For those days or months when we tell the story, wrestling over each word and nuance, no one can pull rank on us. Nothing seems more self-renewing than losing our own petty frustrations in someone else’s life. God, we are pre-eminent! What kind of drug or spirit can do that? We don’t even need to be arrogant about it, even though that is our nature.
I am called a pop culture writer, whatever that is supposed to mean. However, bouncing between, say, music and sports, or sports and media, or media and history, I see the same scenery; the same kind of people; the same instincts, motivations; the same dark side of a sunny day; the same object lesson in an event grand or not. My most recent book is technically a biography of a man who happened to be a sportscaster, Howard Cosell. A previous book was technically about a man who happened to be a pitcher, Satchel Paige. But very little of these books were sporty. These were men of transcendent importance who influenced numerous aspects of culture and society.
Satchel Paige, a man raised in a shotgun shack who could neither read nor write nor identify a single politician except the president, heralded a new racial paradigm. Howard Cosell, a Brooklyn Jewish lawyer with a voice like a hinge, stood little chance of cracking the Anglocentric world of TV sports yet became the most widely recognized voice and face in the youth-oriented culture of the ’70s. Go figure.
Men like these, with nothing but talent, pluck, and dare, provide the raw material for us. We do the construction and hope we did it right. As for why, there is really only one answer. So we can say, That’s why.
Mark Ribowsky is the author of seven books, including the New York Times Notable Book Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball. He lives in Plainview, N.Y. Howard Cosell (Norton) publishes in November.