Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70 after another bout with cancer.
In 2002, I asked him to contribute to the first issue of Professor Barnhardt’s Journal, and he accepted immediately, with no hesitation (or pay). He contributed to another issue as well. PBJ got a lot of attention when it launched, and I’ve always thought it was because Ebert was involved. It really meant a lot to me that he took the time to contribute.
Here’s the essay Ebert wrote for that first issue.
WHY I WRITE
by Roger Ebert
I write because it is my job to write, and the only job I ever wanted. I published a hecktographed neighborhood newspaper in grade school. In high school, a mimeographed science fiction fanzine. In high school and college I was editor of the student newspapers. It was never a conscious decision on my part to write. It was what I did, and needed to do.
The experience of writing is another matter, one hard to put into words. I find myself in what is called the “zone,” and the words come out in orderly and quick procession. I am not in a trance, but am riding a train of thought fueled by instinct and long habit.
I think all professional writers sooner or later get to the point where the words appear as the result of a conspiracy between their skill, their knowledge, and their experience, with a minimum of conscious thought about the writing itself. Of course, rewriting and editing are different matters.
When I was 15, I got my first newspaper job, covering high school sports for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. I labored over every lead, endlessly, until my fellow sports writer Bill Lyon (now at the Philadelphia Inquirer) told me: “Why don’t you wait until you get to the end to revise? Until you know how it turned out, how can you know how it should start?”
Using this advice, I found I was not so self-conscious about writing, and was not trying to pre-think every word and sentence. I learned that ideas came to me unbidden when they were needed. The best advice I can give a writer is: The Muse visits during the act of composition, not before.