Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Writer by Any Other Name

Kelly’s open call for questions/comments generated some interesting questions. For instance, Michael asked: When did you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer to others?

Sometimes I still don't.

A friend of mine bought me a great ball cap that says "writer" on it from Writers Store. I was a little nervous about wearing it in public because I knew what was going to happen.

Stranger: Hey, nice hat.
Me: Uh, yeah. Thanks.
Stranger: So are you a writer then?
Me: Yeah, I am. (Internally bracing for the follow-up)
Stranger: Anything published?

Maybe if I lived in New York or, really, anywhere other than taciturn Minnesota, I would probably see this conversation for what it could be: a chance to pitch myself and my work to people I meet on the street. Instead, I find myself blushing because I know what I'm about to say is a great big brag (a no-no in Minnesotan): "Yes," I say. "I've had six books published."

Either people are suitably impressed at this point, or suddenly very suspicious. "Really?" They ask, "Anything I would have heard of?" This is where I start regretting my fashion choices. Yet, at the same time I understand what people are really asking, and what I think is at the heart of Michael's question.

Society only values proved success, not process.

I'm only a writer to the majority of strangers I meet on the street ONLY if I meet certain conditions: 1) I've published, 2) I've had my book published by a credible (in the case of the stranger this means THEY'VE heard of them) New York publisher, and/or 3) I can show success via awards won that they've heard of or best seller lists they know of.

However, I think that waiting until you can meet all of that criteria before calling yourself a writer is selling yourself (and the process) short. When I teach, I tell my students that they are writers the moment they finish their first short story or novel. If you're sending stories out and collecting rejections, you're a working writer.

Still, it's hard to answer when you meet someone for the first time and they ask you what you do. When you say, "I'm a writer," and you have another job, no one believes you. (Oh, they're thinking: it's the whole -- I'm your waiter, but I'm REALLY an actor syndrome.) I don't think that this assumption is necessarily malicious (though it can feel that way), instead I think people understand on a gut level that "making it" in our profession is really difficult. But, because it _is_ so difficult, I think the earlier we embrace the title writer, the better we can cope with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" which is the writing life.

For me, it took joining the National Writers' Union before I could tell people I was a writer. For one, going to meetings of the local chapter meant that everyone I met was also a writer. I didn't have to explain myself or all the ins-and-outs of the writing life about which the majority of the public has so many misconceptions. Once I got comfortable saying, "Hi, I'm Lyda Morehouse. I'm a fiction writer," with my _own_ kind, I found I had less trouble "educating" strangers who turned their noses up the second I said, "No, I'm not published yet."

I wish I hadn't waited so long, but sometimes you have to believe the truth yourself before you can explain it to someone else.

12 comments:

Kelly McCullough said...

A quick addition, the publishing question being the second question is primarily an American phenomena--we are incredibly job oriented here. In Europe the second question is usually "What do you write?" At least that's been my experience and I've heard the same from others. It's an interesting cultural contrast.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Thank you, Kelly, Sean and Lyda.

I guess that I can call myself a writer who is becoming a working writer. :)

I’ve always been wary about identifying myself as a writer until I was professionally published. I think that people who presented themselves as writers even though they hadn’t actually written anything have made me cautious about applying the label to myself.

I also tend to squirm from all of those questions and explanations that Lyda hates. This is especially problematic for me since my first professional non-fiction writing will be in a guidebook about a cult television niche for a small press. I end up taking minutes to explain what it exactly is and people tend to get more confused than interested. I likewise hate talking about my fiction writing. I get tongue-tied when people ask me 20 questions about the entire outline of my in-progress novel.

This has been very helpful to me. You guys are great. This blog is such a great resource.

Douglas Hulick said...

This is especially problematic for me since my first professional non-fiction writing will be in a guidebook about a cult television niche for a small press. I end up taking minutes to explain what it exactly is and people tend to get more confused than interested.

First, congratulations! Second, I'd suggest you come up with a simpler way of describing it. Give them quick, easy facts. If they want to hunt it down, they will ask for more details; if not, you've given them enough to give them the idea that it is a specialty small press kind of thing.

I likewise hate talking about my fiction writing. I get tongue-tied when people ask me 20 questions about the entire outline of my in-progress novel.

This used to get to me as well; then I began putting together either "pitch lines" or "movie trailer descriptions." Basically, a one to two sentence overview of what the book about and who the main character(s) is/are. This saves you a lot of grief and lets you give the same answer to everyone. Again, if they want (or you feel like giving) more, you can spin out from there.

I tend to not go super-deep in to plot if I can help it when talking about a book (unless I am brain-storming, looking for suggestions, or pitching to an interested party in the industry). Most people don't want the guts and gore of the plot anyhow, I find. And if they insist and it doesn't seem like a good time/idea, I politely tell them that I don't like talking about it too much because I would rather write it than tell it (which is true), and I don't want to spoil the story for myself.

In short, don't feel like you have to justify or explain everything about your writing. It's hard not to, I know, but once you get used to it, it relieves a lot of stress. Just make sure you are gracious, since you have to figure you are always talking to potential readers.

tate hallaway said...

Hey, Doug, that's a great subject for a longer post if you have the time to put one together. God knows, even though I do it too, I'm terrible at doing "out loud" pitches. I tend to want to explain everything, which is, as you point out, the exact wrong thing to do.

Oh, and great insight, Kelly. I wonder if the difference isn't the fact that Europeans respect process more? (Note to self: I should have probably have said "American" in my post when I just said "society.")

And, Michael, congrats from me as well!

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Thanks Doug and Lyda.

I’m really excited about this project, and I’m chomping at the bit for it to be officially announced. The small press is known to at least one of the Wyrdsmiths.

Lyda- It’s not just you. I’ve had a lot of trouble explaining Archangel Protocol to people when I’ve been recommending it.

Douglas Hulick said...

Hey, Doug, that's a great subject for a longer post if you have the time to put one together.

Hey, that it does. :) I'll see if I can whip one out in the next day or so (lots going on at home, so I can't guarantee time to sit & process like I normally would). I'll get it up soon, though.

Michael-

Good luck. Let us know when it is "official" so we can check it out.

Muneraven said...

You know, the truth is that most people just don't actually care what you do for a living unless you are rich, famous, or bizarre. I mean they ASK you what you do because it is a social nicety, but rarely does anybody really want to know what you do. When I was an English professor the conversation inevitably went like this:

Him: So, what do you DO?

Me: Oh I'm an English professor over at Podunk U. (tentative smile)

Him: Really? Hahaha I guess I'd better watch my grammar then! I never liked English class much. Hahaha. (Looks around for someone more interesting to talk to)

This conversation happened so often that I began to flinch when meeting people for the first time.

I find that saying I am a writer is just more of the same. Person asks what I do, I tell them, they ask a question, ascertain that I am not rich or famous, politely let me know I am not important to them, and we move on. LOL.

Fortunately I am interested in what everyone else does and I listen well so I still am able to have conversations at parties.

Rick Bylina said...

When I started this journey to literary greatness, I was told, "A writer is anyone who writes, but an author is someone who has published."

For now, I call myself an undiscovered writer.

For five years, my mother-in-law has called me a bum.

Since I don't have a regular paying job and none of my novels have been picked up, I guess both definitions work for now.

It's a situation I have to change soon one way or another. ;-)

-rick
http://www.muse-needed.blogspot.com/

lydamorehouse said...

Someone else on a different blog I posted this to tried to make the distinction between "author" and "writer" to me also, but I think that's just another artifical way of disrespecting the process.

Neil Gaiman may be more famous than me (and thus an "author",) but last time I talked to him, he still had to sit on his a** and write word after word just like I do.

Finished or unfinished, published or unpublished, what we do is _write_. We're writers.

MariAdkins said...

Yeah! What Lyda said!

Sean M. Murphy said...

I'm going to mildly disagree with Lyda, because I think definitions are important in using words, and we all strive to understand those definitions and use our words in corcert with those menaings. I do think that all of us come to some kind of determination about the meanings of words--in my case, "writer" is one who writes (in an ongoing fashion), and "author" is a published writer.

However, before we get too sticky on those points, it's probably important for us to recognize that "writer" is widely defined (and here I mean in dictionaries) as being "one who writes"--occasionally "one who is engaged in writing" and even more occasionally with addendums such as what they are writing. "Author" is defined mainly as the writer of a specific work or works, and derives from the Latin "auctor"--which means?

You guessed it: writer.

Jan Griffith said...
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