What makes me a writer?
Well, it’s been a while, again. And I am reading, mainly, gardening books, which is not exactly my normal blog territory but is professional ground (pun intended) so I have nothing yet to review. I am reading Craig Terlson’s Correction Line and will have a review ready before the end of the month, but until then, if you don’t know what a correction line is, go google and find out – quite fascinating.
And I’m pondering quite what I am. I went to an event earlier this month that I wasn’t expecting to attend, picked up my little badge at the door and it said Kay Sexton: Writer. Fair enough, I thought. Deep in the room was a person I have known distantly, for many years.
“What makes you a writer?” she asked and she didn’t ask it nicely.
The simple answer is that the person who wrote the badges made me a writer. Her badge said Lecturer which I also thought was fair enough. She earns her money through talking to students, I earn mine through writing. Simples, as some annoying mammals on TV commercials say.
But no. She pursued the subject and I knew why. In her eyes she is more of a writer than me. She has, after all, written a masterly doctoral thesis on Henry James, and had it published. Not in English by the way, in case you’re heading off to google my interlocutor (and I suspect I’m supposed to be pedantically furious that google is now a verb, but frankly, my dear, I have bigger things to worry about – like my appalling form in back squats). In her eyes she is a more erudite writer than me. A more substantial writer than me. She doesn’t write mucky stories for money (nor do I: I write complex feminist erotica for money, or at least that’s how I think of it) and she teaches the subject of writing at graduate level.
If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I was a writer. I would have said that writing is what I do, not what I am. I am, by comparison, a mother, an allotment-holder, a cook, and a crossfitter. And yet …
I spend between six and eight hours a day writing and I call it a job. I spend two hours a week doing crossfit and I am the oldest, weakest and slowest person in my box (I may be old, weak and slow but I am fully conversant with the terminology, please note) and yet, if you asked me, crossfit would feature in who I am and writing wouldn’t.
Well it took me a few days to work that out, particularly as my prickly ex-classmate followed up her verbal inquisition with an email to the organisers, asking what criteria they used. She copied me into her request, but I haven’t seen a reply yet.
Her insistent unhappiness with the definitions used by a third party focused my mind on why I wouldn’t have put writer on my own badge, even though it’s my source of income, my daily duty and my main preoccupation.
And the answer is that I wouldn’t have put mammal, breather or rational being on my badge either. I take those for granted and I take writing for granted. Cooking, growing things to cook and crossfitting, by comparison, are activities on which I focus. I can become obsessive about any of them, or all of them simultaneously. I will bore you to death about my deadlift (the only lift I’m any good at) and refuse to talk about box jumps (I have nightmares about them, I will never be able to do one: my personal hell will be full of boxes onto and off of which I will spend an eternity failing to jump). I will post pictures of my Corno de Toro peppers and deny I have ever tried to grow aubergines. I will spend weeks perfecting a recipe for blackcurrant cheesecake meringue – and I will define myself by these actions because they are achievements.
Writing, on the other hand, is necessary. Not glamorous, often demanding but totally, utterly necessary. And that’s what makes me a writer.
Jane Steen19th September 2012
Your “friend” needs to get over herself. If you’re earning money by writing, you’re not just a writer, you’re a professional writer.
Jim Murdoch19th September 2012
I actually think I am genuinely hurt for you. I am prone to bouts of empathy but I really hate people who act like her. It’s goes back a long time this asking what we do as if what we do is who we are. Like you I sit in front of a keyboard for hours every day writing—although she’d probably go all Truman Capote on me and say I’m typing—and I don’t get paid for most of the stuff I write. I’m actually not sure what I would say if someone asked me what I do for a living. I suppose I would take the easiest course and say I was a carer which is true but Carrie needs very little care; I’m a luxury frankly but only because we live frugally. Every one of us is more than the sum of our roles. As far as my daughter is concerned I’m her dad and everything else is neither here nor there. Being able to write is very important to me but being called a writer—or, perish the thought, an author—really isn’t. I’m really ambivalent about it all. I want to write (well, there’s no one stopping me) and I like to be read (and more people have read me now than ever before even if that’s not that many) but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with people oohing and aahing over me as if having written a few novels is that impressive. I’m not ashamed of them but maybe it’s my religious upbringing that makes being proud of my achievements harder than it should be.
A few weeks back I decided to look up a guy who used to be my best friend. We’ve not seen each other for twenty years although we didn’t part on bad terms. Our lives drifted in different directions and one day he didn’t phone when it was his turn (or it might have been me that didn’t phone) and the next thing twenty years had passed. I found out where he is and what he’s been doing—he ran a major airport for several years and owns a yacht for Christ’s sake. He’s achieved, as far as I can see, all he set out to. Success—material success—was very important to him. My daughter asked if I would get in touch and I told her that we were now even further apart than we had ever been. I said to her that if he saw me now he would actually pity me; he would never understand and I didn’t need anyone’s pity.
I’ve just written an article entitled: How long should it take to write a novel? It won’t get posted for ages but in it I compare those who write three or four novels a year to those who take three or four years to write a novel. And the thing is both lots think of themselves as real writers and find ways to look down on the other lot. It’s just people being people.
Kay Sexton19th September 2012
Jane – she’s opened up a really interesting set of questions for me. There was a time when I would have defined myself as a writer, but now I don’t because it’s become too much a part of me to have exterior significance. But yes, she wasn’t easy to spend the day with!
Jim – thank you. I think that your awareness of the different criteria people use to define themselves, and the difficulty in communicating such criteria, goes right to the heart of what I’ve been thinking about.
Vicki20th September 2012
> but now I don’t because it’s become too much a part of me to have exterior significance
This is very interesting to me. I would have thought, myself, that something that is a big part of oneself would therefore have more external significance.
I like how you work through the why in this post and I love the conclusions.
In my social media bios, I refer to myself as a writer, reader, techie, HSP Introvert, and Maine Coon Cat mom. I’ve been a programmer. I’ve been employed as a wiki support specialist. But my “I am” list — the way I define myself — doesn’t talk about what I do to make $$. It talks about what I do when I’m not working.
From your post, I’d say you’re definitely a writer, not because it pays the bills at this point in your life, but because of what you said in the last sentences. It’s necessary. That makes it part of what makes you, you.
Your “friend” needs a different hobby. 🙂
david21st September 2012
It is more than likely, just a time in your life, where you are making objective observations about yourself.
This is good.
You are a writer, I am a poet, I have self doubts about my poetry, but I still write.
Do what you have to do.
Anonymous2nd February 2013
Interesting! I have been a writer and journalist all my working life, and always find it strange how people react to knowing your ‘job.’
I think there are some people who have a deep seated fear of writers, as if what we do is some sort of magic, as if they feel they should be able to do it too, as if by some sort of osmosis, but they know they can’t. I had a neighbour who once asked me if I ‘made up all the words myself?’ I am still trying to work out the right answer to that question! lizziewoodwose