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Are You A Writer?
Where the River Splits
When I was "becoming" a writer, merely identifying myself as a "writer" was impossible. Saying "I’m a writer" was almost a sacred utterance. I refused to do it until I got paid for my efforts. I became uncomfortable, embarrassed even, when anyone referred to me as a "writer." Now it seems everyone is calling themselves a writer. Not only that, everyone is "published" and marketing "the book." Maybe most of these writers earn a living by publishing fiction. I don’t know. I only know that, until I can earn enough to pay my way, I have trouble considering myself a legitimate writer.
My focus was always on letting my work speak for me. When I cautiously offered one of my stories to someone, I always prefaced it with something like, "You don’t have to like it." I wanted to put them at ease, not to feel any obligation or discomfort. In a way, this showed confidence on my part. I was fairly sure they’d at least respond, and would be able to understand what I wrote. Only a few times over thirty-five years of "sharing" has someone responded by avoiding any reference to my work, treating it like a borrowed hammer. (There were times of course, after someone complimented me, that I succumbed to boasting.)
For the most part my humble tactic seemed to work okay. But I remember taking a writing class around 1988, and the instructor, a successful author, approached me after class to talk about one of my stories, clearly impressed with my work. I was reserved, thinking that I didn’t want to appear foolish, but also that I was getting the recognition I deserved. I didn’t need to be conversational or forthcoming, my writing was speaking for me. So I didn’t say much. That was a mistake. In hindsight, I should have pursued further communication. I could have learned more, perhaps offered him something in exchange, and gained from a straightforward relationship. But I was close-lipped. I was the silent writer in the wilderness.
What I have learned (or confirmed) is that writing is like any other profession, probably more these days than in the past. More often than not, writers must have University jobs to thrive or survive. (It’s who you know.) You get those jobs through networking, after you’ve gotten your BA in English and your MFA, and maybe published a few stories.
Even though one of my stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, one of my novels published with a small and now virtually defunct publisher, and now that I’ve "made" probably about 2,500 dollars on my writing, I still cringe at calling myself a writer. I still feel awkward. I’ve yet to recoup what I’ve spent for paper and ink, postage, and one edit, not to mention anguish. And countless hours searching for fiction publishers and agents who might even consider my work. A copy ad writer, a technical data writer, a newspaper or news blog writer is more of a writer than I am. They earn a living. They deserve the job title. And, under my criteria, certainly those semi-pornographic romance writers who earn lots of cash deserve the title.
So seize the moment when you might learn more from established writers, if you can afford it get your MFA, experience life and write, teach, work, and write some more. Do not wait to be "discovered." Unfortunately, these days, we must all be marketers like Sherwin Cody. (See my hubpages article Learning to Write Fiction.)
What measure of success earns you the right to call yourself a writer? I am a writer of sorts, but am I a legitimate writer? Are you? We all write but are we all writers?
Logically, I am
What does it mean to be a writer? A writer for Time Magazine, Newsweek, CNN, Washington Post, NPR, those are writers who I admire. In another life perhaps I could have been a war correspondent. Then again, if the stress of running a school for emotionally and neurologically impaired teenagers wore me down, then I can only imagine what combat would have done to my apparently over-sensitized psyche.
Or, perhaps my burnout had nothing to do with the intensity of the experience; rather, more to do with a lack of recognition. Perhaps I suffered, and still do, from the misguided notion, likely a product of the first TV generation, that life is worthless without an audience. Hey, look at me! (Obviously, I would not be the only one with this affliction. How many idle Americans wish the same?) Maybe as the third child, I must compete for attention. That is one theory. Others are equally valid. However, logic can be dangerous.
Logically, I should jump off a high bridge over a frozen river. Or I should wait until I’m 83 and attempt to climb Mt. Everest. Such absurdity can be reasoned easily enough. For example, "Cheerios are good, God is good; therefore, God is a Cheerio." Of course, that’s a faulty syllogism . But determining fault is often difficult. Religious logic, in my opinion, is faulty. But try telling that to a priest, rabbi, or imam. Someone like say, unabomber Ted Kaczynski, or Tim McVey, or Osama Bin Laden had their own special brand of logic.
So, logically, in a parallel life, I am a war correspondent in love with an Afghan feminist who has big green eyes and superior intellect and who will love me despite all my privileged faults. In this life, I am of course young, brave, smarter than an average 28-year-old. I am energetic, my Afghan (woman, rug, or hound, depending on plot) and I make love for hours as the tanks rumble through the streets of Kabul.
Or, logically, I am a narrator, a raconteur, suburban shaman, referring to myself in the third person, a man, or even a woman. Yes, I get to be a woman in this logical life and I stare blankly at a blank, blank page… because, given what I’ve written here, it is apparent, I am not a writer for Time magazine or any of the other respectable, worthy news organizations.
No, I am someone else entirely. I sit alone in a dark room lighted by one small desk lamp, and I have no direction, no assignment, no job. The bills arrive at my door, and I cannot write them away. I am someone who has nothing but the incurable compulsion to create imaginary lives. I am someone who hopes that someday in the distant future (should I still be alive), I will be able to invite others into my world. And we may share drink or two, smiling, discussing, and appreciating my sterling accomplishments, although I will of course downplay them. (Modesty, after all, is also to be admired.) This will give me a sense of worth, a validation for all those seemingly wasted hours in the dark.
Logically then, I am a novelist, and logic can be deadly.