Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Still Irritated

The more I think about the question my friend asked yesterday, the more I'm irritated by it. (For those of you just tuning in, the question was:)

When people who aren't writers suggest that if you hate certain parts of writing, maybe you shouldn't do it, do you want to wring their necks, or do you just think it's time to be less honest about your feelings?

Yesterday, I answered: wring their bloody necks. Today, I say: do it, twice. It's justifiable homicide.

Thing is, I suspect that one of the reasons my friend is getting this kind of dis is because she's at a place in her career that non-writers simply fail to understand.

For instance, I don't get asked this question, and, Goddess knows, I complain plenty. But, see, I get paid to write. You can complain about your JOB.

My friend is a working writer*, but she hasn't broken out in a way that non-writers get. There is no book spine with her name on it (not yet!) Thing is, there are people in my business who have won major science fiction/fantasy awards (like the Hugo) for short stories, and probably they get the same lack of respect this kind of question implies.

There's a really dismissive hierarchy in our business that we sometime even apply to ourselves that goes something like this: the only REAL writers are those with publishing credits. But to be really real, you need to have published a novel from a respected NY publishing house, and then better if you're a NAME, someone who has broken the NY Times bestseller list, gotten one of your novels turned into a movie, or is an actual, honest-to-goodness household name, ala Dan Brown, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer or J. K. Rowling.

That whole thing is so self-destructive and, frankly, delusional in a way that's extremely harmful to our business and those who work in it.

When I was a working writer without publishing cred, I made a conscious decision to stop saying (when asked what I did), "Oh, I'm a secretary, but I'm really a writer." (or worse, "I really WANT to be a writer.") I started telling people, "I am a writer." When they asked the inevitable follow-up, "Oh? Are you published?" I said, "Not yet." I actually had someone walk away from me at that point in the conversation because he deemed me no longer worthy of his attention.

Not only is that rude, but it's also wrong-headed. I think people feel justified in dismissing working writers because of this inane idea that anyone can write. People think that because they speak English, they can write. They're wrong. Writing so that you can be understood is actually a very specialized skill. Writing a rip, roaring story with a beginning, middle and end is a phenomenally specialized skill. Anyone who has actually put their butt into a chair and started that "great American novel" realizes in a heartbeat just how difficult it is.

People who never have tried think it's easy, and therefor completely dismiss the working writer in the early stages of her or his career.

Other writers have been known to dismiss fellow working writers for the complete opposite reason, which is, because they know how hard it is to break in, they have no respect for anyone who hasn't done it (or, interestingly enough, those who fail to continue to do it as well.) For them, I think it's a knee-jerk (heavy on the jerk) reaction to "there but for the Grace of God," however, this response is also rude and wrong-headed.

* A writer is someone who writes. For me the definition of a working writer is someone who writes, finishes what they write, and sends it out. You have the right to call yourself a writer at any point in your career, IMHO. You should also have the right to complain about your job at any point in your career, IMHO, even if you haven't gotten a paycheck yet.

I know that, for me, one of the pivotal points in my career was when I joined the National Writers Union. I was suddenly surrounded by (mostly journalists, but) people who not only made some kind of living writing, but who also demanded to be paid a decent wage for it. This was an eye-opener for me, because previously, like most Americans, I tended to think of writing as something people just did for the fun of it. I thought I was savvy enough to understand that you didn't get paid very well to write and so I should always think of writing as my bit on the side, as it were. But the National Writers Union taught me the value of my work. I should demand pay for what I do, because it *is* a skill, like any other. You wouldn't expect a plumber to work for free; you shouldn't expect a writer to either.

Which is why, actually, I sometimes have a hard time with what I'm doing right now: blogging. With all due respect to my friend Jo Walton and her like-minded colleagues, I'm NOT one of those pixel-stained radicals that believes information wants to be free. Yet, I understand that the market demands it. I believe, however, that giving content away undermines my value as a writer. I think one of the reasons people feel free to dis my friend and all other working writers like her is because everyone *is* a writer these days. You can read a thousand blogs (and stories and novels, for that matter,) for free, and be fairly entertained. People work a lot harder on their blogs than you might think -- the good ones, anyway. All that labor is unpaid. I think that's a crime, or at very least a bloody shame.

If attitudes about writers changed significantly, I might feel differently. For instance, if people start respecting working writers regardless of a paycheck, then paychecks wouldn't matter.

But they do. I'm afraid, my friend, that money still gets the last word, and that is: you're not a real writer until you get paid to do it (and even then, only the really BIG paychecks count.)

1 comment:

H-Jacobs said...

I just wanted to thank you for putting your opinion of this out. I completely agree with what you are saying, though I do not feel that I am yet worthy of the title "writer", as science is my life and I have only written one short story that needs a lot of work and will probably never be published.

I love your novels and I can only hope that I will be as good as you in the writing world, as I am working on one book, very much in its infancy, that I love the story of, even though it isn't down on paper yet.

Thank you :)