When is a Life Worth Writing About?

When is a Life Worth Writing About?

If you aspire to write, calling yourself a writer doesn’t make it so. You must first have written a book, compiled a few decent magazine clips, or have a mildly snarky and occasionally read blog to make the leap into the rarefied world of the published author.

When my roommate published his first book this February, we were unsure what to expect. Shortly before its release, we were told that the New York Times Magazine would excerpt the book and wanted him to appear on the cover of the magazine. This was amazing to us, two recent college graduates, sharing eight hundred square feet in Brooklyn, both wanting to write (he writing, I considering). We wondered what could come next. Since the publication of his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, this amazement has become a familiar part of living in our apartment. Starbucks sold the book in its stores—all 5,668 of them—where it was accompanied by bookmarks and green magnets that announced, “Hope has a voice.” It is a best seller on the New York Times nonfiction list.

When Ishmael began his memoir in our dorm room, it seemed like a quixotic pursuit. “Writers,” like “intellectuals,” are a class in retreat, and the use of the category to describe oneself can sound anachronistic or arrogant (even to the ears of someone who wants to be a writer). It would be foolish to plan to write for a living, and if one ended up doing so it would probably be as much a result of luck, than any intentional (intelligent?) design.

Ishmael, however, continued to write. The thin island of paper on our dorm room floor grew into a full-blown archipelago. And now the manuscript has become A Long Way Gone. In our apartment, the Starbucks motto took on an unintended meaning: confirmed literary hope has a voice, and it is my roommate’s.

Of course, a young writer could draw the opposite lesson from Ishmael’s success. Writing about the book in the Los Angeles Times, Meghan Daum imagines “the aspiring young middle-class writer’s worst-case scenario”: “You get to college armed with pages of prose that capture the soul-sucking torpor of your suburban adolescence, only to find yourself in a writing class with a former child soldier who spent years fighting the Revolutionary United Front after his Sierra Leone village was torched and his entire family killed. And the guy can actually write!” Daum’s essay is intended to poke fun at the American coming-of-age memoir, a popular if frequently self-indulgent literary genre. In the article, she re-creates the encounter of a hypothetical first-year writing student with Ishmael, “someone who actually has something to say.” This kind of talk could make an aspiring writer less than hopeful.

A young writer can have many legitimate fears—the uncertainty of getting published, the ineluctable need to make rent, Dale Peck—but failure to have experienced the civil war in Sierra L...