Saturday, June 6, 2009

When is a writer a writer?

This was inspired by a Facebook post where someone said "not everyone who calls themselves a writer is a writer".

When is a writer a writer?
To write: to form (as words) by inscribing the characters or symbols on a surface.
So whoever puts symbols surfaces is a writer? No. Writing does not make you a writer, or anyone who is literate would be a writer. A person would become a writer when they pay with a check or write a grocery list. That's writing, not Writing.

When most people speak of a writer, they are speaking of someone who has written something in particular, especially a book. But does one become a writer simply by writing a book? I've written a book. Does that make me a writer? It's sitting in submission at a publisher at the moment. I've written more than a dozen short stories, does that make me a writer if none of them are published? What about a writer who's been too afraid to show his work to any other person? Are they still a writer, or does their fear of rejection take away that title?

Does someone have to like your writing to make you a writer? What if you've shown your writing to some people, but none of them have enjoyed it in the slightest. Must we seek a seal of approval to call ourselves writers, or should this writer declare his title regardless if anyone cares for his work?

Are you a writer once published? Most people would agree that people who make their primary income from writing are writers. But what if you've published a single short story? What if you've been published only at semi-pro markets? Token markets paying a half cent a word? No pay at all? Does that make you any less of a writer? Many of history's greatest artists were not appreciate in their time, does that mean they only became artists post-mortem? Until then they were just losers with paintbrushes, and somehow became artists as a side effect of decomposition?

When the subject comes up, I tend to call myself an "aspiring writer". Not because I really think there's much difference, but because that one word avoids the inevitable and awkward follow-up question: Where can I see your work? But once I publish a short story, is that the time to call myself a writer or do I need a longer bibliography? Perhaps there should be stages of writership, novice, apprentice, journeyman, master, grand master. I could try using these as my writing career develops, but unless these terms go into wide usage, people will just think me a weirdo. Which is fine, I am a weirdo and proud of it, but the terms don't provide clarity if no one knows what they mean.

Once a writer, always a writer? What if I won a short story contest in grade school and never write again? Does that mean I can always carry the title? If people ask, I can show them the story collection with the byline "David Steffen, age 7". Does that entitle me to call myself a writer? What of J.D. Salinger, who has not published an original work since 1965? Most people would call him a writer because his wild success of "Catcher in the Rye", but what if the book had been less successful? What if it had been a single short story? Would he still be considered a writer today?

Many similar questions apply to painters. Monkeys can manipulate paints on a canvas, but does that mean that monkeys are artists? I suspect that painters would be insulted by the idea--no lower species could be capable of art. Yet I've seen some abstract art that looks remarkably similar to monkeys fingerpainting. Does that mean that that artist is not an artist because a monkey could do the same?

1 comment:

ColinF said...

I kind of think it depends on your devotion to the art. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with being published or making money (although that would make you a writer by profession. There's a difference there.) I think if you devote a certain part of yourself, your time, your efforts, to your craft be it writing or otherwise, then you should be able to consider yourself a writer (painter, artist, whatever it may be).