9 Being a Writer
Once upon a time (yes, it does seem that long ago) I was attending the wedding of a friend, and at the rehearsal the father of the bride kindly came over to talk with me. “I hear you’re a writer,” he said.
That was what he said, but not what I heard. I heard, “I hear you’re a rider.”
Americans often do get mushy with our consonants, a trait not exclusive to dialects different from our own.
“No,” I said. “I admire the animals, but I’ve had very little experience with horses.”
He gave me one of the strangest looks I’ve ever seen.
We had an awkward moment, with a few mutually unintelligible attempts on each side, until finally he made a sign of someone writing with a pen on paper.
“Oh!” I said. “I beg your pardon. Well, I write a bit, but I haven’t accomplished enough that I would call myself a writer. Very kind of you to say so, though.”
We had a little more conversation, less awkward as we progressed, and then he went on to speak with other guests.
I’ve thought about that brief conversation periodically not only for its mixed embarrassment and humor, but also for the pertinent (where it isn’t impertinent) and difficult question it raises.
When can someone say–confidently, accurately, honestly, humbly–“Yes, I am a writer”?
Now and then I’ll encounter an indignant student (usually a teenager, and usually after getting a “B” or something even more intolerably horrible and insulting on a paper) who will argue, “But I’m a published author!” Right: not just a writer, but an author: I certainly do beg your pardon.
To that person author is a term of honor that he or she has won by appearing in the high school’s annual creative publication or from having answered an add in the back of a magazine from a grocery store rack that invites, “Become a published author! Win cash prizes!” The result brings a chance to buy an enormous book with hundreds of willy-nilly poems sent in by others who read the same magazine and couldn’t resist the call to fame and prize money. I don’t condemn anyone for doing that, nor do I intend to make fun of them. Figuring out how to write well and publish reasonably is as hard as or harder than it has ever been, and the only way I know to learn is to try. The attitude is the problem. I’ve worked also with students who have self-published their own books. In a couple cases, the books have been pretty good. I don’t at all blame them for that, and I admire their energy, commitment, and courage, especially if they have produced something fun to read. But that doesn’t make them authors yet. It does suggest to me the possibility that someday they may well become authors: they have work ethic, drive, desire, and the hope to please a reader.
If they aren’t yet authors, they may well be writers–beginning writers, anyway. To me author implies someone who has gained a readership and credibility by publishing over time substantial work that is at least pretty good–the person has probably supplemented his or her income if not made a living by writing. Writer: again that means commitment and practice over time, though it may not imply regular successes. Is a person who writes only for his or her own pleasure, without sharing the work with others, a writer? I don’t see anything at all wrong with that. Writing can provide a means for self-reflection and development while helping a person clarify thoughts–how do I know what I think until I see what I say, E. M. Forster said. To me writer implies commitment to craft, desire to do well, and the ability to make pages–and maybe at some point the intention to share that work.
I’m just now beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I don’t yet think of myself as an author–though I hope to get to that stage, after death if not before. I’ve done many sorts of writing over many years with the aim of sharing that writing with readers, but it has served as part of my profession, not as a sole endeavor or means of making a living. Many readers have said they’ve enjoyed the work; some have said they hated it and me. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: so it goes.
If you are an author: congratulations, and well done! If you are a writer: press on, and let’s do our best together to write well and find our audiences. If you want to be a writer: it takes lots of work, but we gotta do what we gotta do.