What is “a Writer” and Who Gets to Decide?

If you post the phrase “if you write you are a writer” on social media you will get a lot of likes.

This is because writing as a career is more than difficult, the odds are stacked against you at every turn. It is almost impossible to make a living at it, and it keeps getting harder as publishers consolidate, professional book reviewers disappear, outlets paying in “exposure” replace the magazines that once sustained freelancers, and massive online retailers keep looking for ways to make books as cheap as dirt. On top of this you have the glut of self-published titles, all vying for attention, with few authorities to really sort out their quality. The ease of publishing means book stores and reviewers are inundated, and they are suspicious of anyone who shows up calling herself a writer. This makes marketing books much harder than it used to be.  (And it never was easy.)

So there is a great need for writers, at all stages of their careers, to get some reassurance that even though they have either decided to make writing a part-time job or have taken a self-imposed vow of poverty to pursue it full-time, what they are doing matters. I have had this existential crisis myself many a time, and over the years have found ways to cope with it. The solidarity and reassurance from fellow writers can be a balm, at least a temporary one. So I recognize what people are trying to express when they say “everyone who writes is a writer.”

I still hate the phrase.

I have ranted on this before.

I especially hate it when combined with the sentiment that “you are a writer if anyone reads your work or not.” (You can follow the link if you would like to read my reasons for that.)

These phrases make me seethe.

One of the things that is particularly difficult about assuming the mantle of “writer” is that it is not a career in which you get a diploma that qualifies you. No external authority bestows a title on you. And it has always been true that the most talented are not necessarily the ones who get the most attention. Many a great writer has struggled in obscurity. Moreover, a successful book doesn’t mean that your publisher will necessarily want your next one or your agent will get any interest in your next idea. Each new book is a fresh struggle to get published. It is a career where even some of the most prolific and busy professionals find they can not pay their bills from their labors, so making a living or not making a living is not the mark of a professional. Nor in an era of publishing consolidation is independent vs. traditional publishing a clear-cut way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Some great writers and great books are indies. The question of who is a “real writer,” and who gets to decide, is complex.

That doesn’t mean that there is not a difference between the person who posts a pdf of self-indulgent poems about her break up on a blog (or even writes for herself and publishes nothing at all) and the person who has gone through all those professional hoops and who makes the decision to keep doing so.  The biography or novel that took a decade to craft, revise and market and someone’s unreadable attempts at self-expression are both are written, and therefore under the “everyone who writes is a writer” standard, both writers share the same title. I know of few careers where the aspirant, trainee or apprentice is granted the same status as the master in quite the same way. Not everyone who cooks is a chef.

I am paraphrasing another writer here, whose quote I cannot find at the moment: You do not have a novel in you waiting to get out, the novel is a peak experience that you are entitled to after a great deal of training and work. This, I will add, includes the work of rejections, revisions and even the frustrating marketing process of trying to get the book to its audience. As the uncredited writer put it, “I do not have a Boston marathon in me waiting to get out.”

To say that if you write, you are a writer is like giving the medal at the beginning of the race.

To continue with the marathon metaphor, this robs the person who has done all the training, suffered the aching muscles, hit the wall and kept going, of meaningful recognition. The struggle matters, and the persistence in the face of struggle matters, and that is what makes the medal matter.

When even the most accomplished struggle to make a living wage for their work, recognition as a professional is often the only real currency a writer has.

I do not think it does any favors for the passionate amateur either. If she is already “a writer” from the moment she picks up a pen, the same as a best-selling internationally renowned writer, there is not anything meaningful to work towards. There are no promotions if those at every level are granted the same title.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur or writing for pleasure. The existence of professional ballerinas doesn’t keep people like me from dancing. I move my body to the music from time to time, I just don’t claim to be “a dancer.”

Everyone should feel free to dabble in art of all kinds for pleasure. Art is not owned by the professionals. No one should let the fear of making bad art keep them from making art. Nor do I have any intention of denigrating the work or efforts of those who are just beginning. Your efforts deserve respect. Keep at it, and good luck to you. It’s hard, and when the world fails to acknowledge your work (and it will) it doesn’t render it meaningless. It matters that you create, because you make it matter.

I imagine that there is a heaven somewhere where all of the unread literary works go. Their life of the earth is temporary, but their souls are immortal.

I have no doubt that the platitude about being a “real writer” no matter what you produce will continue to be popular. There are far more people in the category of aspirants than those who have successfully run our metaphorical race. I know that my views will get far fewer “likes” and retweets than the more reassuring and inclusive sentiment. I will continue to hate it.

Thus endeth my rant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Laura, I tried to LIKE your rant…but it turns out, I don’t exist.
    Perhaps Google wants my Gmail email address.

    Anyway, I LIKE this piece.

    A similar rant could apply to artists. A six year old who finger paints will be called an artist by his/her parents.

    I consider myself to be an artist and a “writer.” I think i’m Good at writing. I impress myself and a couple others occasionally. But please don’t refer to me as an “Author.” Author is too big, too important, too deep, too heavy, too…something.

    1. You look like you exist. I think of myself as an author, as I view my main career as writing books. But I think of the title as descriptive, not “important.” Certainly not big. It’s my job.

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