It’s long been argued that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. Long before there were online reputation agencies, mobile wireless stores, and froyo shops, there were hookers. And hookers have been making a lot of money back then and now. It’s a lucrative job, prostitution, depending on what you get in return. But while prostitution may pad the pocketbook and fight for its position as the world’s oldest position, I believe there’s a far older job than peddling your skin. That job is writing. It must be the oldest profession, and probably even the world’s oldest hobby. How would we know today that prostitution is the second oldest profession had there not been a writer close by documenting that fact? He or she might have been within earshot, or some other kind of shot, observing—constantly observing as writers do—making the connection that this bedded-down person is offering their body—selling it—for something in return, maybe a rupee, or a loaf of bread.
That writer may have thought, “This is so good, you can’t even write this stuff.” Perhaps he had been hard at work morphing the words from the mouth of the wise temple elder into interpretable symbols meant to capture the ideology of the people, and took a break. The writer heard these scandalous noises, and with his stylus he went to a different clay tablet, maybe a personal one part of the small collection of private writings he called Soul Food, to imprint the happenings of that very moment so that a record—a timestamp—would remain lest our memories, as they so often do, fail us.
And so that writer wrote on to record all the other professions that had come along. That writer had always been there, you see, long before the hookers. The writer had been, like all people, trying to get stuff out of their head and put it on something. The first writers were actually painters and they used cave walls as their canvas. The stories, histories, philosophies, ideas and dreams—had to go somewhere. They couldn’t stay locked up in the head forever. The writer had to figure out a way to get them from the head to the tablet. That’s a hard job. Much harder than screwing.
With writing being the oldest profession, and now established as being also the most difficult, two paths emerged. Writing for profit and writing to write. That’s where we see writing as being both the oldest profession and the oldest hobby. That scribe recording that civilization’s religion? He got paid. Just like the prostitute. But did payment fulfill the writer? Did that writer go home at the end of the day and say, “I just want to write something else, and I would love to get paid for writing that other stuff.” And just how much did that writer get paid, anyway? If the pay scale was commensurate with today’s standards, it probably wasn’t very much. This is why writers constantly debate whether to put their skills to work for payment, yet become quickly vexed by two realizations: 1) I won’t get paid squat, and 2) If I use my God-given talent for something like ad copy, isn’t that just prostitution?
As the world’s oldest hobby, writing is pretty cheap, so if you’re going to keep at it and not get paid, you don’t have to invest that much. All you have to do is sit there and put symbols down (doesn’t matter if they make sense at first—you can come back and edit) and you just need a stylus and clay tab. That’s it! But as hobbies go, they usually end at your Mom patting you on the back for your hard work, or your wife telling you she’s going to get around to reading that novel of yours one of these days.
And herein lies the fundamental problem with hobbies in general. In the words of his impish character Zooey Glass, J.D. Salinger explained it this way: “Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.” Writers know that their writing isn’t a hobby. It’s a passion. Writers who are using their ego to write have difficulty walking away from writing. It’s an addiction of sorts that’s tough to break.
When writers tell other writers they’d be better off quitting the art, or that they should find something else to do that will make them money, it’s true. Why waste the time on it? Why pour in all that energy and heart and soul and ego for no return? It all goes back to the notion that what’s inside the head needs release. It’s part therapy, too. Any writer will tell you this. Writing lets writers put away what they cannot rid themselves of by any other means. That’s what one writer, Steve Almond, wrote once, and I can’t think any other more sublime way to put it. I haven’t thought of my own way to write it.
The other day I was at a reading by another writer, Jess Walter. Jess read from his new novel, Beautiful Ruins, and afterward took questions. From the packed sales floor at Warkick’s in La Jolla, the inevitable, “What made you become a writer?” question popped up. Jess answered this as any writer would: in a drawn out winding fashion referencing his blue collar family that didn’t pay much attention to the arts, his overactive imagination from a young age, and his undying vision that he would once have a book on a shelf somewhere, ideally next to Kurt Vonnegut’s. Jess has told that story a million times, and to him only it makes sense. Only writers know why they become writers and they also know the difficulty in explaining why to other people. That explanation writers give is similar to their own process of writing: there’s a story there and only I know how to tell it. I decided to do this, to keep at this because I can’t stop. I’m destined to put my thoughts down on something. I’m driven to this.
So, whether that writer choses to share that work, or attempts to put it out there for the world—for profit or not—is another story. It’s a story that again, only a writer can tell. It’s also a decision a writer has to make early on, a quandary we face every day when we set out to compose: will this continue to fulfill me without any type of return, and if I were to get a return, will I be able to maintain my true purpose and not become a whore? After everything, will any of these clay tablets matter to anyone? Anyone at all?