Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Writer by Any Other Name

Over at Wyrdsmith's 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 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 Tate Hallaway. 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.


Alma Alexander said...

You should probably draw a line between the concepts of a writer and an author. A writer is someone who writes. An author is, well, a published writer. A SUCCESSFUL author, is, um, I don't know, Neil Gaiman or J K ROwling (or at least those are the names that Joe Everyman on the street will have heard of).

Why is writing such a fraught subject anyway? People ought to be able to admit that they a partial to it without being held to ransom for it...

tate hallaway said...

I have to respectfully disagree. I think I'm as much of a writer as Neil Gaiman or J. K. Rowling. Certainly, they've achieved a level of fame in their work that I haven't, but last time I asked him Neil still had to sit on his a** to write a novel the same as me. ;-)

Neil Gaiman is a writer. I'm a writer. Someone who has written their first finished short story is a writer, too.

There's room for all of us in this profession.

Anonymous said...

I suspect I wouldn't do as well up there as I do down south. And I don't just mean the cold.

Here's how that conversation went in Georgia with coworkers:

Them: Oh, you write?
Me: Yeah.
Them: What do you write?
[Chitchat which could include self-promotion opportunites, which I don't take because I've only sold to online markets where the stories aren't up any more. I don't want to deal with demands to email them stories. Well, surely anyone who'd ever been published would brag about it, so they assume I'm unpublished.]
Them: So, when are you going to decide to get published, Miss Katherine?
Me: Oh, I send things out all the time. I get rejected.
Them: Oh my God! They reject you? Do they say why?
Me: Probably because I'm not better than the 600 other people who sent them stuff this month. :)
Them: Well. All great writers get rejections. That's just part of being a writer, isn't it? I mean, didn't Stephen King and J. K. Rowling get rejected lots and lots of times?
Me: They sure did.
Them: I'm sure I'll be saying I knew you when!

I'm serious about the demands to see stories, by the way. My boss nagged, cajoled, and gave me speeches about how writing is about putting yourself out there for people to read until I sent him a story. My employee begged and whined.

(I didn't want to put them in a position of feeling like they had to be nice if they didn't like it. Especially the employee.)


Anonymous said...

You know, that's interesting, come to think of it. I have zero problem with telling my coworkers that I'm a computer genius. ;) But for some reason, "Read my story!" feels like, "I know you're too nice to say anything negative, so read my story, and then if you don't like it you can feel uncomfortable and lie to me about how much you love it!" LOL!

--Katherine again

Anonymous said...

I'm going to disagree with Alma, too. 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, and derives from the Latin "auctor" which means?

You guessed it: writer.

tate hallaway said...

Yeah, I think splitting hairs about whether or not one is an "author" or a "writer" is still an artifical way of disrespecting the process. I mean, do you really have to introduce yourself at a party as "a writer who isn't yet an author"?

I say, "I write." I am a writer. Published or unpublished -- what I do is write.

tate hallaway said...

Oh, yeah, and Katherine. I could see that. :-)

For me, its about context. At the grocery store, I'm less likely to try to sell someone on my most recent book. But at a convention... sure. Here's a business card, let me get you a free copy of the first one....


jpj said...

I'm still trying to figure out why Tate has to sit on Neil Gaiman's a** to get any writing done?!?

Melanie A. Howard said...

I had an English teacher tell me once, when I wrote in a college paper I was an author (by that time I was published), that I should be careful of that term, because it denoted I was published.

Evidently it was beyond his powers of comprehension to believe a 19-year-old COULD be published, or could have the gall to actually call herself an author.

I think that's why I call myself an author, instead of a writer, just because someone implied I shouldn't. ;)