Real Writer?

Desert Four O’Clock

Long ago, at an Armadillocon, I believe, I was talking to a gentleman who, himself a published writer of mystery fiction, was also teaching writing.  Since we shared similar backgrounds—both professional writers, both had taught writing at the college level—he confided in me.

“The longer I do this, the more I wonder if we’re doing any of these people a favor, acting as if we can teach them to write.”

The funny thing about this exchange was that, by “to write,” we both understood that what he—and most of his students—meant by “writing” was “write well enough, originally enough, to be published.”

More recently, I expressed a similar doubt.  The person I was talking to immediately objected, saying that while it was true that many people lack the vision or talent to produce publishable work, that didn’t mean they shouldn’t write.

I agree… If being able to monetize a skill is the only reason to learn to do it well, then no one should sing or dance or play an instrument.  Paints should stay in the bottle.  Sketch books should never be opened.  Clay should remain in the wrapper.  Beads in the tube.

Unhappily, this encouraging comparison only goes so far because the expectations a writer will face are very different.  I do not think every person who sings, dances, plays an instrument, does some sort of craft encounters what writers always do: the expectation that to be a real writer, that writer needs to be a published writer.

Even if the writer starts out writing for the pleasure, for the excitement and diversion of creating a story, the expectation is that to “really” write, the writer needs to also publish.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been part of some variation of this exchange, either as the subject or overhearing it.

“So, you write?  Are you published?”

If the answer is “No,” “Not yet,” or some variation thereof, the dismissal on the questioner’s face is usually visible.

Therefore, from an early time in pursuing writing, the writer comes to believe that it’s not enough to write and have the pleasure of writing, the writer must also publish.

Let’s go back to our imaginary dialogue.

“Oh!  You’re published!  That’s cool.  Where?”

When the writer replies, then the cycle of interrogation continues.  Short story writers are asked if they’re going to write a novel.  Novelists are asked who their publisher is (with various rankings for small press, traditional publishers, indie pub, academic press, literary press—rankings assigned by the questioner).

(And, believe me, no one can be snobbier than an academic press author who was paid in copies to a “genre fiction” writer who actually makes a living from writing.  But that’s another topic entirely.)

Even if the writer can jump all of these hurdles, the next criteria seems to be public recognition.

“Have I heard of you?”  or even “Are you famous?”

Many years ago, I decided to volunteer at my local library.  I like libraries and, at that time, I was spending too much time alone.  I signed up to shelf read. The very nice librarians welcomed me and asked, “What do you do?”  “I write books.”  “Are you published?”  “Yes.  My first novel came out in 1994 and I’ve had a couple out since.  I also have sold a fair number of short stories, and written some non-fiction.”

Nods and smiles.  Clear disbelief.  It wasn’t until I made a gift of several of my books (mass market paperbacks from an actual New York publisher) to the librarians that they accepted me as a “real” writer.  Having written didn’t do it.  Having published did.

Another example:

I have a good friend who is a talented writer.  When she sold her third professional short story, she was excited almost more because this was her third professional sale (thus qualifying her to join SFWA if she wished) than because she’d sold it to the much-acclaimed magazine Clarke’s World or even because the story was longer than Clarke’s World usually publishes.  Nonetheless, they liked it enough to pay her full rates for a long piece.

Writing is the only art/craft form I can think of where the highest compliment people think they can pay you is to say “Wow!  This would make a great movie/television show.”

What’s weirder is that most of those people would agree that novels and short stories can tell a more complex story than any movie or TV show.  What’s the difference?  Exposure and money.

True, with the appearance of sites like Etsy, more and more hobbiests are being urged to “monetize” their work, with the unspoken hint that not only will this help pay for materials, it will make them “real” (painters, beaders, jewelers, wood workers, whatever).

But writers have been dealing with this practically since the invention of the printing press.  Heck, for all I know, from before that.

The project I’m working on right now is not “pre-sold,” which has gotten me the sideways eyes from some people.  Worse (in terms of my perceived “reality), I might go the indie pub route with it.  (More sideways looks.)  Never mind that I have my reasons for possibly making that choice.  Never mind that (as anyone who has looked at Wolf’s Search and Wolf’s Soul know) my quality control is very high.

Sigh.  I think I’ll just go write and leave the question of reality to other folks.

14 Responses to “Real Writer?”

  1. Martin Brown Says:

    Thank you, Jane. Too often I read comments by published writers which are wholly discouraging to writers who are not published. No one expects a paved path to being published, but it is soul-crushing sometimes to hear the blatant naysayings of some professional writers. We trudge on.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Keep on writing. Try to get better at what you write. Don’t follow a trend, because by the time you do, the trend will be over.

      Follow your heart, because at least one reader is going to be happy with what you’re doing. YOU.

      That isn’t to say you can be sloppy, not revise, not research–at least not if publication is your goal.

      Here’s the thing. Writing is an art/craft.

      Publishing is a business.

      If you write, you’re a writer. If you publish, that means someone else liked your work enough to give you money for it.

  2. Scot Noel Says:

    I hereby propose “Narrative Hobbyist” as a term of pride for dedicated creators of fiction in all areas from stories and plays to games and novels, where development of skill, imagination, creativity, courtesy, and integrity of character is the thing. I’m going to work on this. Excellent article, Jane. I believe it all to be true, because people can be jerks. But not all people are jerks, and there is really no reason to give credence to those who are.

  3. James Mendur Says:

    “(And, believe me, no one can be snobbier than an academic press author who was paid in copies to a “genre fiction” writer who actually makes a living from writing. But that’s another topic entirely.)”

    Have you ever seen one of those charts of “which fandom is cooler”? It’s maybe 30 years old, now, but it “ranked” the type of fan you were to decide how cool you were. Even within F&SF, there were (are) snobs who look down on other F&SF people based on their internalized hierarchy.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I did see that, James. It actually was one of the reasons that when Alan and I were doing Tangents, we did a series on Furries, because I’ve had great encounters with Furries, and I wanted to defuse some of the slander.

  4. greywolf Says:

    Great article. Thanks. I’ve always expressed myself better in writing, and tend to write a lot whenever I have something on my mind. I’ve even done some poetry, but have never even thought of doing any of it for the sake of publishing (until recently) despite being encouraged to. Oh yeah, and then there’s all those term papers I wrote in University… I still consider it to be ‘real writing’, even though I’d probably never call myself a writer. I agree, there absolutely a craft to writing, and it is absolutely a creative activity! No matter what the genre. Even academic writing involves a fair degree of ‘art’.

  5. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    I am a writer. I “publish” every day. It pays me in community interaction and the joy of the occasional perfect sentence.

    Far too much weight is given to the value of money. There are so many more important things in the world. Your beautiful desert flowers are more important, IMO.

  6. Harried Harry Says:

    Wow! Writing is very creative but many people don’t seem to realize it. I’m very happy others are able to create the stories I enjoy reading. I’m not tied to one genre, but the story is what attracts my interest. Having others be creative in their efforts to remove these concepts or ideas from their minds and put them on paper or in a computer to place on the Web is astounding.

    I have read that many people stop writing after they have published a few stories. The reason? They don’t believe they can do better. I suspect they have forgotten the golden rule: Always Believe In Yourself! Others have opinions, but they don’t count.

    For those who write, continue doing so. If you are trying to improve, make sure you have a few friends you trust to review what you have written and then consider their comments. Now, when it comes to grammar, punctuation, and especially using the correct word, ensure you have a person who is very knowledgeable about the American written language. Correct usage is critical to ensure the story flows smoothly.


    • janelindskold Says:

      Writing is the only creative skill that most people use routinely (for grocery lists or e-mails etc). I think that this often leads to difficulty understanding how different the creative form of the skill is, whether used for fiction or non-fiction.

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