Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Defining "Writer"

I like to write. I do a lot of technical writing for my job, I write items for this blog, and I also write short stories, even parts of a novel or two in the works.
I’ve only recently started submitting work for publication. While I’ve not heard from all parties I’ve sent material to, I have had a number of rejections already. I don’t find that discouraging, because the odds of getting rejected are absurdly high. There’s no point in taking that personally.
But I wonder—if I haven’t published anything yet, but I write constantly, does that make me a writer, or doesn’t it? I talk about “wanting to be a writer”, but is that what I’m doing already as a sideline? Certainly writing doesn’t pay the bills for me—I have another job (or two or three) for that. Is money a criterion for being considered a writer? I suppose we connect these occupations with money—I’m thought of as a librarian, or as a digital archivist, or a professor, because that’s how I get paid. But I don’t particularly think of myself as fully identified with any of those things. I would think most writers are in the same boat.

John Foxx made a comment in a recent interview about his career, and he says that he got into music because he knew he wouldn’t be an artist. “There’s no such job.” I would agree with that, and I would also suggest that there’s no such job as being a writer. Sure, you might be hired by someone to produce artwork, or to write articles for a publication. Making a living at either of those things is pretty uncommon, especially in the "personal/creative" sense. Stephen Elliott recently shared some interesting thoughts on this in the Rumpus. There’s a difference between creating what you want, and being paid to create something.

My former husband used to (and for all I know still does) write poetry. He wasn’t bad at it, actually. Prose was difficult for him, unless he was inebriated. I don’t mean that derisively. He would get way too self-conscious about his prose, and it came across that way. The stuff he wrote when he was drinking was much better, very entertaining. He did manage to get a few things published. However, most of the time he was either looking for a job, or doing some kind of clerical work that really didn’t match his intellectual abilities. He was another person who “wanted to be a writer”. In spite of the fact that he had published a few things, I still didn’t consider him a writer. Why not? Because he hardly ever did it. He would write in spurts, and then not write anything for years.

Publishing is another gray area. If I publish a story to my short-story blog, does that count as “being published”? From a rights perspective, yes. Most electronic journals consider publication of a story to a personal blog as your “securing of first electronic serial rights”, and they will consider the item previously published. The Internet and Web 2.0 has created huge changes in the writing field, from journalism to traditional book publishing. Does one need to have a physical “book” to be considered “a real writer”?

It seems that “being a writer” involves some kind of financial exchange for the writing, actually getting something published (perhaps by someone other than yourself), and involves that you write often, not just occasionally when you feel like it. It may also involve writing things you don’t like. I think there are three basic types of writing: technical, journalistic, and creative. You are likely to find jobs and get paid for the first two (well, maybe not the second in this day and age), not so much for the third. So are all creative writers therefore non-writers, unless they manage to get published and noticed?

It’s a tough question. So few authors hit it big and become bestsellers, or even make enough to cover their life expenses by writing alone. Certainly for me, I’m not quitting my day jobs anytime soon. And I do like to think of myself as a writer—maybe soon I’ll be what’s considered a “traditionally published” writer.

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