Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Being a Writer

There's a riddle I learned from a book or a magazine when I was about eleven years old.  Goes something like this:

A truck driver was going the wrong way up a one-way street.  A policeman saw him, but didn't stop him.  Why?
The answer hinges on a couple of bits of linguistic sleight-of-hand.  One is the careful ambiguity of the verb--you can substitute the word travelling for going but cannot use the word driving.  Because the answer is, of course, that the truck driver was walking.

The second bit of linguistic sleight of hand hinges on the nature of titles that are derived from verbs.  Truck driver is a job description and thus one can be called a truck driver even if one isn't actually driving a truck at the moment.  Truck drivers also do things like eat, sleep, watch television and, occasionally, walk places in between the business of driving trucks.

To be known as a writer is a good deal more glamorous than to known as a truck driver.  When somebody asks you the ice-breaking question of "so, what do you do?" if you answer "I'm a truck driver" the best you can hope for is an empathetic nod and a remark that it must be hard work.  If the answer is "I'm a writer" the questions that follow are numerous but tend to veer towards tactfully phrased versions of Are you rich?  Are you famous?  Have I heard of you?

Being a Writer punts you to the top of the Geek Hierarchy.  Being a Writer means you can look the gods of literature in the eye and talk shop with them.  Being a Writer means your name can potentially endure long after your death.

Or, at least, that's the popular myth of Being a Writer, a myth that dazzles people to the point that Being a Writer is more important to them than the act of writing itself.  People who want to Be Writers don't always write--they talk about the great ideas they have for novels, they compose acceptance speeches for awards in their head, they do everything short of actually sitting down and facing the blank page and putting words together.  Because that's when the hard part shows up, when the brilliant ideas come out crushed and mutilated in the transition into words.  Or, worse yet, seem brilliant at first and then reveal their clumsiness as one's skills improve with practice and the Dunning-Kruger Threshold is crossed.

My brother-in-law, Peter David, once received an angry missive from a young man who was furious at a certain plot point that Peter had introduced into a comic book series he was writing for.  The young man said that his dreams of "being a comic book writer" had been dashed because his brilliant notion for some particular character was now ruined by this revelation.  More recently, Quentin Rowan was found to have plagiarized nearly his entire debut novel from other works and confessed that the fame of being a writer was more important to him than making the effort of writing his own words.

As I write this, I have not yet ascended to the ranks of the professionally published.  (Give or take a couple of poems in anthologies and, oh, yeah, I have this ebook thingy.)  I have a virtual trunk of unpublished (and mostly unpublishable) novels.  Am I qualified to claim the title of writer?  I honestly don't care if I am or not.

The verb matters more than the noun to me.  I write.  It's what I do.  I'm a lot happier writing than I ever could in trying to Be a Writer.


Collin Kelley said...

Happy Holidays!

Adam J Nicolai said...

Eh, screw that. I say the "e-book thingy" counts. I have an e-book thingy, and I'm quite proud of it. I put a lot of work into it and a lot of people have read it. Not millions, not thousands, but enough that I can feel like I've honestly shared my work.

I read somewhere recently (I wish I could remember where) that you're a writer if you write. Period. How much success you require is a matter of personal preference... but how will anyone ever call you a writer if you don't call yourself one first?

I'm a writer.

So are you.

Sheila O'Shea said...

how will anyone ever call you a writer if you don't call yourself one first?

I don't actually care whether or not people 'call me a writer' or not. That's the whole point.