Thursday, October 11, 2007

What Makes a Writer?

I’ll never forget, years ago, when I overheard a classical musician ask a fan if they were a musician. Embarrassed fan would admit that no, they didn’t play anything, but they listened avidly. This musician would then reassure the fan that yes, coming to concerts every week did indeed qualify them as a musician.

That stuck with me, mostly because she was right.

There’s no great divide. Whether you’re on stage or you’re in the audience, whether you’re recording music or listening to a recording, we’re all part of the same community. It takes ... something ... to understand and appreciate the language of classical music. It takes being a musician, even if you’ve never picked up an instrument in your life and can’t read a lick of music.

I remember in college, there were three of us working in a little museum shop. We were discussing the employees (mostly us), and a painter-friend commented that for a car museum, it was strange that all of us were artists. (I’m a musician, too.)

The third friend just stopped and said, "I’m not an artist. I’m a history major."

Both of us stopped and stared at her, completely surprised even though we knew she was a history major. Then both of us said, "Of course you’re an artist."

She listened, she looked, and she was creative. She showed me that history was an art, a creative art. She just was.

But when I started blogging and going to writer’s groups and conferences, things changed. In the writing community, there are polls that ask, "Are you a reader or a writer?" As if there’s a difference. Readers are part of the creation circle, even if they don’t write themselves. And writers, of course, read, even though they write.

To further muddy the waters, there’s all the hullabaloo about whether you’re a writer or an author. And what makes a novelist? When can you call yourself a novelist? When you’re struggling through your first draft? When you’ve finished it? When you’ve had a novel published?

I would not write if there were no readers, and I suspect a hearty portion of writers would not write if there were no readers. Readers are a part of the final product. They keep this whole book thing we love alive.

So, yep ... that girl sitting under a tree, avidly reading a novel? In my book, she’s a novelist, too.

What do you think?

12 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 10/11/2007 02:55:00 PM  

You could have made that into a Thursday Thirteen!

Only 3 weeks til retreat!

Karen Olson 10/11/2007 04:55:00 PM  

I don't think any writer could be a writer unless he/she is a reader as well. Reading is how we learn the craft of writing. A no brainer.

Jeremy James 10/11/2007 05:19:00 PM  

Writing is a process.

Reading is a process.

The former requires output.

The latter, input.

Male and female. Yang and Yin.

Writing for only yourself *can* be somewhat enjoyable.

Reading books without ever writing a word of your own can also be enjoyable.

But like masturbation, as good as it might feel to play all by yourself, it's always better when someone else is involved.

spyscribbler 10/11/2007 05:38:00 PM  

Writenow, I should've! I can't wait for the retreat...

Karen, very true! So correct. One reason why those polls crack me up.

And Jeremy, you really made me laugh! I love the analogy. So, I suppose, until one has done both together, one is a virgin?

Susan Helene Gottfried 10/11/2007 07:39:00 PM  

I'm not so quick to call a reader a novelist, although I can see how someone who gets and appreciates art would be an artist.

I think that's because of the stigma that unpublished novelists have, both from the public ("Oh," they say, disappointed, before turning their backs on us) and from published novelists. I certainly know that there are people I've met who I wouldn't consider a novelist even though they claim to be so.

There's more to it than the desire or appreciation.

It's a contradiction, I know. But novels and art really are different things.

Erica Orloff 10/11/2007 07:45:00 PM  

Hi Spy:
I think art is really a living, breathing entity. It can exist even if no one ever read it, but it becomes something--a shared experience--when the readers becomes involved.

Knowing the blood, sweat and tears that go into CREATING one, I don't know that I'd use the term for someone who reads, just as I might embrace saying someone is a musician who enjoys music--but would stop short of calling them a symphony composer. But is there "something" to the reader being part of it? Year. Like Jeremy said. The yin and yang.

Angie 10/11/2007 08:52:00 PM  

I'm assuming that the underlying issue here is the barely veiled scorn some writers have for readers, or the sneers unpublished writers get from some of those who've been published, or the occasional novelist who looks down on anyone who doesn't have a solo book with their name on it to show around? I agree that the negative attitude is unproductive and obnoxious, and in the case of commercial writers it's pretty darned stupid too, since if there weren't any readers then they would all be out of business. But I disagree that someone who only reads and doesn't write should be called a writer. Or for that matter, that someone who only listens and doesn't play or sing should be called a musician.

There's value in having different words to describe different things. And there are differences between writers and readers, between musicians and listeners. No one with a brain would try to say that readers or listeners (or viewers, for other kinds of arts) are unimportant or unnecessary or unworthy of appreciation. I appreciate the heck out of every single one of my readers, and if they comment to me about one of my stories I give them a personal response, always, because I want them to be absolutely sure that I value their reading and their willingness to share their response with me.

I think we can keep the distinction between readers and writers without devaluing either. There are times, after all, when we want to speak of one or the other specifically, and it'd be nice if we could be sure that everyone knew what we were talking about. [wry smile]

I'll leave the distinction between "writer" and "author" for someone else to tackle. [eyeroll]


spyscribbler 10/11/2007 10:27:00 PM  

I'm outvoted. :-)

Susan, I hear that. I don't like seeing that stigma, for sure. I'm curious, though. Why do you think novels and art are different things?

Erica, what's that philosophy I'm thinking of? With art, I'm in the camp that says it doesn't exist if no one sees it, which is probably why I feel that they are a part of it, why I feel it wouldn't exist without them. But you make a great point with the composer analogy. Hmm ...

Angie, I think you saw my underlying issue, pretty much. There are so many dividing lines. I think I could handle writer and reader, but what bugs me is how people define writer ... you're not a "real" writer until you've done this, or that, or whatever.

It appears, to me, almost obsessive. In music, I have never once, not in all my years in the business, see anyone debate what constitutes a musician, or when people are "allowed" to call themselves musicians.

There are so many divides in the writing world, and so many of them strike me as petty and judgmental. I'm not saying the music world doesn't have its pettinesses and judgmentalisms, its just this particular one alternately makes me laugh or annoys me.

Edie 10/11/2007 11:30:00 PM  

All I can say is ditto to Erica's comment. She said it much better than I could have. I liked Jeremy's comments too. *g*

Ello 10/11/2007 11:46:00 PM  

I agree with you and Angie about the underlying problems with these false delineations. There seems to be an inherent snobbery in publishing that tends to bother me. LIterary high brow versus genres. Like I understand why Stephen King feels totally underappreciated by the writing community even though he is like one of the most successful and prolific writer of our time.

But that is a different rant!

Susan Helene Gottfried 10/12/2007 01:08:00 PM  

Novels and art are different because of the level of appreciation the consumer brings to it. With a novel, things are pretty much spelled out for you. As a novelist, that's my job: to make you see my vision and engage in the story I've chosen to tell.

Art, however, is open for interpretation. And it's through that act of interpretation that allows a viewer to become an artist.

Get it? It's sort of hard to explain, but it has to do with the amount of interpretation put into it.

spyscribbler 10/13/2007 06:17:00 PM  

I agree, Edie! They do have a way with words.

Ello, I agree. That really bothers me, the classifying and segregating and separating. I guess I'm too much of an idealist.

Susan, I understand your point, definitely. I think novels are as open to interpretation as art, though. It's just like art. You take a Norman Rockwell print, and things are pretty much spelled out. Other stuff? Not so much. Just like some novels spell stuff out, other don't. (I tend to only like the ones that do, though, LOL ...)