Friday, 16 September 2011

Writers and "Writers"

I haven't met many writers in my life, but when I do, it is a singular thrill. After all, it doesn't happen very often. Here is a person who speaks my language, understands terms such as word count and dialogue tag, and wants to know if my third-person is limited, or omniscient? They shudder at the overuse of adjectives, cringe when someone is doing "good" and not "well", and share the same forehead wrinkles accrued from hours of worrying about fictional people. They are often neurotic, pasty, and shy. They trip over spoken words, stare into space, and you know what? I wouldn't trade any of them for the world.

I just wish these encounters happened more often, but they do not (with the exception of Twitter, a recent addition to my life). However, I do frequently run into "writers". In fact, I've lost count as to how many "writers" I've met over the years.

"Writer": A person who fancies him/herself a writer, but does not actually write.

If you are a writer, then chances are you've met a "writer". A "writer" is someone who identifies themselves as a writer to anyone who will listen. Their qualifications usually fall within these four categories: 

A.)  They once wrote a poem in high school, therefore they are a "writer".  

B.) They started writing a novel at twenty. They are now thirty-five, and on chapter two. They are a struggling "writer".

C.)  They have a Byron, Wilde, or Hemingway quote for every situation. They are a literary "writer".  

D.)  They are dramatic, difficult, or morose. Their excuse? "I can’t help it if I feel things so much deeper than the average person. I am, after all, a "WRITER"!"

I want to make it clear that I do not hate "writers". I think everyone should write, and one poem in high school is better than no poem at all. But I do think there is a romanticism about writing that is often co-opted as an identity, like being a Goth, Punk, or Metalhead (are there still Metalheads? I hope so).

What bothers me about "writers" are not their affectations. I enjoy a good Wilde quote, and I've certainly been known to be dramatic, difficult, and morose. But I do write. Every day. I sit in front of my computer, and I type out a specific word count. I write when I'm exhausted, irritable, or sick. I've written after a brutal twelve hour shift, and on days off. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes thrilling, sometimes stomach ache inducing.

It is rarely, if ever, romantic.

And I think this is why "writers" will never be writers. What's romantic about hard work? What's romantic about self-discipline and self-deadlines? What is romantic about working at a minimum wage job in order to keep the heat on while you write? These are often the realities of the writing life. Sitting in a quiet room, typing. For hours. And days. And years.

Here is a typical conversation that I (and I'm sure you) have had many times, whether at a dinner party or some other get-together. I'm introduced to someone new, and in the course of conversation, I tell them that I am a writer:

"You are?" "Writer" says. "Me too!"

"Really?" I say, getting excited now. Sometimes, it's like spotting a Northern White Rhino. "What do you write?"

"Oh," "Writer" says. "A little bit of everything. I once wrote a short story about a guy who dies and comes back as a crow."

"Cool," I say. "Did you publish it?"

"Well, no," "Writer" says. "But I did get an A for it in Grade Twelve English."

"Ah," I say, as the old disappointment settles in. "What have you written since then?"

"Um," "Writer" says, swishing wine in her glass. "Not much. You know, life gets in the way. College, marriage, kids. But I once wrote a poem for my grandmother's funeral, and everyone really liked it. Would you like to read it?"

"Sure," I say, now totally deflated. Three days later, 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' appears in my inbox.

I hope I'm not coming across as snarky, or God forbid, elitist. I don't believe that writers are better than anyone else. In fact, that attitude seems to be the purview of art house "writers", those decadent folks who delight in their clique more than their own output. But this has always bothered me. Call me crazy, but I'm of the opinion that a writer should, well, write. And to call yourself a writer, when 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' represents your life's work, is unfair to those men and women who take the time, every day, to stare at a computer screen and sweat.

I love Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, and Gustav Klimt. I can smear paint on a canvas, but I am not a painter.

I adore Miles Davis, Sigur Ros, and Iron Maiden. I can rock out on my plastic Rock Band guitar, but I am not a musician.

I would never call myself a painter or a musician, because I have not put in the time and energy to earn those titles. Writing, like music or painting (or ballet or acting or stand up), is a craft which needs to be studied over a period of years. It's hard work. You can smoke the cigarettes, drink the wine, and take long road trips to find the "deep well of your soul" (whatever that means), but are you writing? Are you tapping those keys, scratching with that pencil, growing those wrinkles? 

You'd never expect to meet a brick layer who doesn't lay brick. Why are you so different?