Saturday, May 30, 2009

Are You a Writer?

I was asked if I was a writer the other day at the Barnes and Noble checkout. I was buying a writing magazine that I hadn't seen before in hopes of gaining a little more knowledge and, at the very least, something to blog about. He took a look at the magazine cover and then pierced me to the core of my soul with such alarming alacrity that I nearly stumbled backward in agony. This may seem like quite the overstatement, but in all honesty I can't readily remember a time when I was so completely floored.

"So, are you a writer?" The words were spoken with curiosity and kindness, but my heart crouched low in my chest in some barbaric, instinctual response.

I was completely embarrassed. The truth is that according to some, I am nowhere near being a true writer; a mere hobbyist, I only flirt with the idea of becoming a writer and haven't the slightest clue what it means to perfect the craft. While others would argue that, as a gardener should not only be characterized by one who plants in pots or carefully tended rows, a writer is any man, woman, or child who cares to throw words to the wind -- eagerly watching the tendrils sprout and take shape into a wild, wild forest of creative desire. I suppose that's a pretty way of saying that only the author themselves can determine whether they are a writer or a mere hobbyist.

And here I stand, a rope tied to each arm, surrounded by two angry mobs engaged in my own mental game of tug-of-war.

It was there in front of the checkout counter that I heard Peter's rooster crow three times as I answered. "It's more of a hobby, really."

As if a hobby would cause me to lust after a magazine filled with information I likely already know. As if a hobby would be enough to justify the dreams and the longing for acceptance or the constant desire to buy new notebooks and fancy pens to write with! But, for one reason or another, in that moment I lacked the courage to call it what it is... an obsession.

"Oh? Are you taking any courses?" He asked.

Courses? No. Did Mark Twain take a course? Did Edgar Allan Poe? How about Walt Whitman or Charles Dickens, did they attend writing conferences? Hell if I know... All I know is that I like to write, that I am unhappy unless I do write, and that I have a hard time reading many bestselling novels without noticing some apparent flaw that slipped through the cracks. Did your background character miraculously switch genders between some 150 pages or so? I noticed. (That goes out to you Brian Jacques - loved the books as an early teen by the way. You always made me so hungry with your descriptions of roasted fish, tarts, and cordial!) And the elitist writers look down their noses at me and mutter their disapproval. -- "Oh how the little man hurtles insults to the heavens," I hear one say in hushed tones.

It turns out that this kind fellow behind the counter just wanted to talk about a subject that he loved, one that he hoped that I obsessed over just as much. But I just couldn't find the urge to own up to my obsession. So I balked and shrugged it off as a passing fancy, a hobby to get me through the long work hours of the summer, I had said. Why? What's all of this about?

The truth is that I have yet to have anything published, save an article for the Hilltop Times when I was in the Air Force back in 2000 or so. (In which I spelled Stephen King's name wrong... Sorry, Mr. King...) I have recently submitted a flash fiction piece to Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast, with no success, and I sent The Boy in the Window to Fantasy Magazine last week but they weren't interested. This post and that conversation aren't about rejection, though, it just boils down to the fact that I haven't been published yet.

The turmoil I feel inside is a mixture of wanting to write a compilation of short stories that I can put into an eBook and offer for free - allowing for donations if readers feel inspired to do so, and the idea that I must prove myself worthy through the rites of publication. It almost feels like any deviation from protocol is a weakness.

"Sure, of course that sounds like a great idea, but only because you're afraid that no one will ever publish your stories. Just give them away and hope that a few people will throw some coin in your direction so you can justify doing it again. But why would they want to read your stories when you can't even get published?" Such is the internal dialogue that plagues me.

So I suppose when he asked if I was a writer, it was as if he echoed the question in my own mind. Am I a writer? Some people will say yes, others will say no. In the end it is only what I say that matters. To many people of his time, Picasso wasn't a real painter, and yet he painted and in doing so he changed the world.

Creative Writing Prompt:


Jim Murdoch said...

It took me a very long time to be able to say with a straight face, "Yes, I'm a writer," and that was over thirty years after I had my first poem published. I had the same problem saying that I was a man. I'm fifty now so I guess one day I stopped being a boy and became a man only it's never that simple. I blogged about this a while ago if you remember, the one on Imposter Syndrome, and the simple fact is that, although I can keep my face straight, I can't stop squirming on the inside and I don't expect I ever will.

Jena Isle said...

Hello Brady, You're a writer only you are not yet given the appropriate "break". I know when this comes, it would be "pouring like rain" or they would be "pouring like rain."

May I invite you to my soon to be published book? I'm still postponing the deadline to June 10-15 to accommodate other writers.

I don't like to name drop but Just so I can convince you : Ken, Francis and Jim are with me, care to join us? The date of publication would be August of this year.

You can contribute your
"The boy in the window" or any article you would like to. The goal of the book is to bring out the positive in people, or to contribute something positive.

I think your story contributes something positive ( hope, desire to dream, etc).

Feel free to send me your article through the mail, Thanks.

Aywren said...

Yep. From this post alone, I'd say you sure sound like a writer. We all seem to have kindred reactions to certain things in life and particular doubts that only other writers share. I identified with your internal questioning at once.

Being a writer is less an occupation/something one does/something someone has achieved. It's more a state of mind and being. IMHO

Dave King said...

I know that particular embarrassment very well. There is another, similar one, when I tell someone that I have a blog. They invariably ask how many hits I get per day - never what it is about.

Duluk said...

I think I'm a little too strict (but maybe not reading Jim Murdoch's comment), but I've always thought I can't respond positively to the question until I'm paid for what I write. But I tend to use more specific words than writer. That is, I won't say I'm a poet until someone (actually not just anyone, a "serious" publication for some definition of serious, TBD) pays to publish one of my poems. I wouldn't say I'm a novelist until I've published a novel. But that's just how I look at it for me.

But I think in a more general sense, you are a writer because you are writing. (but less general than the lawyer who is writing lots of briefs calling himself a writer) But that includes a plethora of people out there. Then the question becomes more qualitative than merely descriptive. That is, what kind of writer are you? Are you a good writer or a bad writer? And that's even more problematic than the original question...are you a writer? :)

Maybe we think the question implies a sense of the professional about it. So that what someone is really asking is, "Are you a professional writer?" But that ties to the getting paid thing, which Jim Murdoch seems to dismiss in his struggle with the question. (shrug)

In short, I think the question is too vague. :) Next time ask, "What do you mean by writer?" :D

Margaret said...

Ah -- have you read any of Christopher Paolini's work? He's self published and perhaps that's the route you should also look into.

Breaking into publishing in this day and time is tough and takes a tough person to keep at it.

At least that's what I've been told having no experience myself.

Alisia Leavitt said...

Just because you haven't been "published" doesn't mean you're not a writer. If you write and enjoy writing, then you're a writer. People ask me what I do and I tell them I'm a writer. Sometimes they are genuinely interested in my life and sometimes they ask more about it in a more mocking way. Either way, I really don't care. I do what I love and what makes me happy. So rock on, fellow writer!

Unknown said...

@Jim Yes, Jim, I do recall that post of yours. It was a very good one and struck me on a very personal note. Sometimes I think you might be an older, Scottish version of me. Ha ha, just kidding. But we do seem to have quite a bit in common.

I'm only 29, but I'm still waiting to grow up as well. I just feel like a taller version of me, and at 5'8", I'm not really that tall!

@Jena I got an idea for another short story last night. The Boy in the Window has been resubmitted to another magazine, so it is sort of out of the running at the moment.

I believe I could probably get it finished and polished up by the 15th, if you are willing to wait for me? I do have to do a little research on one key element that the story is based around, but it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what I need to know to make the story work.

@Aywren Thank you for the kind words! Sometimes I read those "How to write" / "How to be published" books and cringe when some elitist authors refer to writing as some elicit craft that only the refined and seasoned are privileged enough to be a part of.

I think, in my wishful thinking, that I subscribe more to your view that being a writer is a state of mind.

@Dave I hear ya, Dave! I think that question betrays a hidden disregard for the content in an attempt to quantify success. To some of us, though, success isn't measured in hits per day or number of RSS subscribers.

@Duluk Ha ha! That's some fine theory work right there! I know the guy was just trying to strike up a conversation about a topic that he, himself, is very interested in and was in no way accusing me of not being a writer. It's just that I had already been voicing the question in my head.

@Margaret Yes, I have read Monsieur Paolini's work. I must say that he has accomplished quite a lot for his age and while having a father to help with publishing your first novel is convenient, his success can only be attributed to the product of his writing.

@Alisia It's funny how some people get so snooty about writing, isn't it? I mean, I do understand that so many people blurt out, "I'm writing a novel" without ever following through with it.

But people do that about all sorts of topics. I wonder how many basements go partially unfinished... and yet, people don't generally roll their eyes and look down their noses at you when you say, "I'm finishing my basement this summer."

Jena Isle said...

Hello Brady,

Yes, I'll wait for you. Thanks for accepting the invitation, it would surely be something to look forward to.

All the best.

Laura Brown said...

That's where I am. I've had a bit of stuff in print. One of them being a zine so, does that even count? If you count stuff online I've got a ton of stuff published. But no one here (my family in particular) counts that, not really. I don't think of myself as a writer when I think of others who are doing so much more than I am. But, no matter how low I feel about the whole thing I keep writing. Almost like some dirty habit you have to hide from everyone.

Ken Armstrong said...

It's a thoughtful honest post, this one. We all get this, we struggling writers (that's what I figure I am). I am less of the opinion that one needs the validation of publishing, production and payment to brand oneself a writer. I think the day you can look in your heart and be pleased with the writing work you have finished... well it may not be the day we can call ourselves a writer but perhaps it's the day when we feel maybe we could.

Keep writing, you, every day. Write.

zorlone said...


That was a tough question to answer. I would probably shudder and look around to see if that guy was asking somebody else. If there was no one else, I'd just murmur something in my native tongue to pretend I didn't understood. At least you had the courage to admit that you write even if disguised in the words of a hobbyist.

Yikes! Did I sound like I admit that I am a writer? Sorry, I am not, maybe just writing stuff, but not a writer yet. Now where did that courage of mine go? I better go back and look for it somewhere.

If asked if I were a poet. I would say, "self proclaimed, yes." hehehe. Then, I'll pray that I wont be asked any further questions. LOL


Jena Isle said...

Hello Brady,

You can send your story for the book through email. I will wait for it till the end of the month. You can send some pictures too if you want. Thanks.

cindystubbs said...

I remember reading that Asimov sat down with a book at a writer's conference and then looked up a minute later and 2 hours had gone by, writers have things in common & you sound like one. I hesitate to call myself a writer 'cause people seem to think I am bragging or outright lying, I just don't do it very often. King said he wrote his first books entirely on instinct but didn't he have a degree???? I am 52, so many wasted years, glad to see someone got an early start.

Mariana Soffer said...

Good post, I like this.
Always labels, they have to put labe,s otherwise they do not consider themselves reporters or critis in real life. They are just a bunch o mediocres trying to hold to any truths that they can find (but they often got confused and hold on to stupid lies).
There is a saying that says: That the difference between a writter other people consits in the facts that for writters is harder to write than for the rest.

Stef Howerton said...

You know, I had the very same thing happen to me in an English class the other day. When this guy asked me if I was a professional writer, I couldn't help but laugh. It was gut instinct. Here I am, attempting to weave a word or two together, and the guy mistakes me for a professional author?? Laughable.

But what it all comes down to is that everyone is a writer. If you put pen to paper, if you formulate sentences then you are a writer. That might be a bit over-accepting for some, but I'm all for it. :)

Love your blog. Keep at it!

If you want to try some ways of getting the creative juices flowing, take a look at my blog:

It's a whole bunch of creative writing exercises. Pretty fun if you ask me. :)

LP said...

You are a writer Brady--and the sooner you get comfortable in that skin, the more successful you'll be. Courses? We don't need no stinkin' courses ;)