Friday, October 12, 2007

The Old Real Writer Thing

Since we’re on the subject ... I actually wrote this post a few days ago, but I only post one per day, LOL, so ...

You know that whole "when are you a real writer" thing?

Labels are mostly for others. They want to know where to put you, how to approach you, how to think of you, so they ask for your labels. We’re just ourselves, you know? How often do we really label ourself?

But saying you’re not something--or saying you’re not really something--carries much more power to yourself.

My journey to feeling like I was a real writer is strange.

I "grew up" as a writer in a nice, little bubble. I had one writing friend, one that wrote for the same two little pubs as I did, and that was it. We’d send each other stuff every day, but we’d only tell each other how much we liked it, encourage each other. I felt like a real writer, mostly because I wrote every day, and because I had to write that on my tax forms.

But then I joined RWA.

Oh, okay. I didn’t quite know what to think of all that, but I didn’t want to presume anything so I walked around saying I was a kinda-published author. Seemed fair, seeing as how I wasn’t about to "come out" with my pseudonym.

I still thought I was a writer, but after awhile of saying I was "kinda-published" I stopped feeling like a writer.

I thought, for a little while, that I’d feel like a real writer when I could pick up a book at Borders that had my real name on it. Okay, so that happened, but ... you know, it’s in the table of contents, not the front. It’s on the back, not the side. And it was just an essay, and besides, I was more concerned about hiding my name from the staff than anything else. (It’s my safe little writing haven! I can’t help it! I love my Borders!)

RWA came out with new standards that--I think--say I’m a real writer, but I didn’t feel like one and I just resented them for their segre-- (okay, we won’t go off on the RWA tangent today.) So then I figured I’d feel like a real writer when I sold to a NY-publisher.

So I waited.

I was just sitting and writing the other day. I suddenly felt--or suddenly realized--that good or bad, the words do what I tell them to. I know how to wield these words in my stories to have the effect I want them to have (at least on me, LOL).

(Of course there’s still tons of things I need to work on, tons of things I need to improve, tons of things I need to learn. And I often tell the words to do the wrong things, or go after the wrong effect, LOL ... and I still struggle with affect vs. effect and I still don’t know the difference between laid and lie and lay ...)

But on October 9, 2007, in the middle of writing a paragraph in my local Borders cafe, in the middle of a dull, uneventful day, I finally felt like a real writer (again?). I felt like I could play the page, almost with the same control I can play the piano.

A label is just a label, though. I almost missed the whole event if someone (sorry, forgot who!) wouldn’t have mentioned the ’feeling like a real writer’ issue.

The point is, although labels are usually for the purpose of others (we know ourselves, after all, and don’t need to label ourselves), we can’t let other people label us. I was skimming through a book about politics the other day, and it said that if you don’t label yourself, someone else will (in politics, they’ll do it in a negative way, LOL).

Labels should be what you do, not who others judge you to be. So, I label myself a pianist, piano teacher, and writer (in alphabetical order), LOL. If they still feel like listening, I tell them I study taekwondo (although not so much anymore, because of the foot) and that I live with DH and have four cats.

Do you feel like a real writer? When do you think you’ll feel like a real writer? And how do you label yourself? Is it different from how others label yourself? (I don’t even know how others label me!)

7 bonus scribbles:

Jeremy James 10/12/2007 12:58:00 PM  

My definition of a writer is someone who writes for the benefit of a particular audience.

The benefit can be almost anything someone else appreciates or values: titillation, education, escape, insight, for laughs, whatever...

By audience I mean someone other than just the person writing. If you write ONLY for yourself, the more accurate label would be diarist (which by the way, is perfectly respectable).

I hate labels. I use the label "author" on my website, but only because "Jeremy James" is a common name, and I wanted to imply the content of the site in the URL.

Genre labels, while useful, also cause me angst. My work in progress will probably be shelved in the "sci-fi / fantasy" section of most bookstores, even though it reads more like a thriller and just happens to have a few elements of dark fantasy.

In the long run, the label we use to describe ourselves as writers doesn't matter. All that matters is 1) Are we still writing the best way we know how? 2) Is our audience growing and loyal?

Susan Helene Gottfried 10/12/2007 01:10:00 PM  

You're making my brain hurt, woman! *grin*

Seriously, I'm a writer. A novelist. That's what I write best, although I'm starting to have a nice list of reviews over at Front Street Reviews.

I call myself this despite my lack of fiction publications simply because it's what I do and who I am. I've tried not writing; I turn into something ugly.

I need to write the way others need to breathe. Thus, I'm a writer. The publications ... well, if they don't come, that's sort of okay. My blog's a great creative outlet, and I've got an audience there. Sometimes, I feel like it's greedy to want more.

But sometimes, I feel like it's greedy of us to not share Trevor's magic with the rest of the world.

Karen Olson 10/12/2007 03:27:00 PM  

You are so totally a writer, and I'm happy you've finally settled into that.

I was a newspaper reporter, a professional writer, for more than 20 years. I also wrote fiction in my spare time for a long time before being published. But I didn't call myself "a writer" until I was published, and even then I was still a journalist and it's only recently that if someone asks me what I do, I say I'm a writer.

Mark Terry 10/12/2007 03:49:00 PM  

Well, I call myself a writer and I am. From time to time I'll call myself a novelist. I am, but the reality of that can sometimes be a bit fuzzy, even though I've had three novels and a collection of novellas published. I sometimes wonder just how much of my income would have to come from my novels for me to answer "novelist" before I answered "writer." Maybe never. I'm a writer and that's good enough.

spyscribbler 10/13/2007 06:23:00 PM  

Jeremy, love that comment. Genre labels just make me confused. I have to say a big "I don't know," usually.

I do agree they're useful, though that's a post coming up. :-)

Susan, I'm sorry! :-) If it's what you do, why shouldn't you be a writer? It only makes sense to me. And I really hope Trevor's magic reaches a wider audience, btw ...

LOL, thanks, Karen. Really? Aren't journalists writers, too? Well, I never thought of you as anything but ... :-)

That's interesting, Mark. Novelist. That's a word I haven't much considered for myself, as I'd probably have to call myself a novella-ist and short story-ist, LOL. But you are so totally a novelist. It's hard to just pick one label, though, especially when we're so much more.

Bernita 10/16/2007 02:41:00 PM  

To me, if someone writes, one is a writer.
I usually apply "author" to those who have published.

Angie 10/18/2007 04:13:00 PM  

For me, referring to myself, it depends on the environment. Within fanfic fandom, I've been a writer for quite a while. Steadily for a few years, on and off since I wrote my first Star Trek fanfic as a teenager.

When I was in a realspace writing workshop, it was just assumed that everyone there was a writer. A few people had gotten small things published, most hadn't, but we were all reading and critiquing each other's work and we were all writers, at least when we were together.

Among pros, though, or readers who only read commercially published fiction, I've been willing to say "I write," but not "I'm a writer" until recently. Getting my first story published -- professionally, for money -- is what made the difference. And maybe it shouldn't but it does, so there you go.

In our larger society, there's a strong meme which says you're only a "real" whatever when someone pays you for it. Exceptions are made for devoted amateurs of clearly extraordinary ability, but for the most part if you don't make money at it then you're not real. (Unless you're talking about something which is usually a hobby, like a stamp collector or a knitter or something like that.)

When you first meet someone and they ask you what you do, you probably wouldn't say "I'm a knitter," or "I'm a cook," if you just knit for your family or cook for your friends, no matter how good you were at it. If you say "I'm a writer" when introduced to someone, they automatically ask you what you've written, as though they expect that they might've heard of it, or could run out to Borders and buy it. If you then say, "Well, I've never had anything published," you get an eyeroll or a smirk or an overly kind smile, some response which makes it pretty clear the other person thinks you were trying to get away with something and they caught you. It's snarky and annoying, but again, it's how things are so one deals. [shrug]