Monday, 20 September 2010

I'M A WRITER. NEITHER AM I.

(Probably) the first two people to buy my collection emailed me the following comments:

You’re a twisted f*ck, Vowler.

and

I can definitely recommend it. It is extraordinarily entertaining and expertly written, though not for the faint-hearted!

I think I prefer the latter, but the former is a dear friend, and, as he’s mentioned in the acknowledgements, can probably say what he likes.

Anyway, I wanted to talk today about nomenclature. Specifically, when do you call/regard yourself a writer. Speaking personally, it’s not something I like doing, even now, with a book out, a novel doing the rounds with publishers. Despite spending an extraordinary proportion of the last five or six years writing fiction, I still wince a little at that middle-class enquiry: So, What Do You Do? Responses to my confession invariably fall into three categories:

1) Awkward silence, foot shuffling, instant mention of football or the weather.

2) (Probably the most common) Oh, I’m writing book too, or at least I’m thinking about it. I’ve got this great idea…followed by a ten minute description of what is definitely not a good idea.

3) (And this is the one, strangely, I’m most uncomfortable with) Genuine interest, a desire to know about the fickle, absurd world that is writing fiction.

I suppose there are so many remarkable endeavours, selfless pursuits that improve the lives of others, that enrich the world (and some, no doubt, would say art attempts to do this). But there’s still something a little pretentious at announcing you’re a writer, perhaps less so if you’re in gainful employment, writing for the BBC or non-fiction. Perhaps, in an attempt to regard it less affected, I should draw on the words of John Irving, when he says, I’m not an intellectual, I’m a carpenter – I build stories.

I’ve been thinking about all this as a writerly friend has decided to call it a day. After years of utter devotion and commitment, of trying to breakthrough, he’s hanging up his pen and heading off in pursuit of what no doubt will be a sparkling academic career. No longer will he announce himself a writer (and a very good one at that) at dinner parties.

Which probably begs the question: who do we write for? Ourselves, a reader (or, we hope, two or three)? And why? For fame? (I hope not) For fortune? (Good luck) In search of truth? (Back to pretension now).

If you spend most of your time writing, are you a writer, regardless of success or otherwise?

Right, I’m off to dig a shirt out. A book to launch tomorrow.

7 comments:

badas2010 said...

I always chicken out and say I'm a hobby writer.
Stephen King says he tells lies for a living.

Blake Kimzey said...

I just tell people I'm a waiter (because I am). Then my wife will chime in, "He's a writer." She is an artist, so it is a little back-and-forth that we do with introductions. But I like to avoid telling people I'm a writer. And I don't have a back-up plan. Write or bust. I want to be successful and part of what drives me is that one day I want to not just be a college graduate who serves other people food, even though the title I am striving for is a little hard for me to wrap my head around.

Blake

Paul Lamb said...

I've always thought that a "writer" was what I'd let other people call me. I just write. It's one of the things that make up me, and a large thing, but I'll leave the name calling to others.

I do think, however, that anyone who writes anything -- grocery lists even -- is a writer in the strictest sense of the word. Still that hardly compares with a man who has written and had published an award-winning collection of short stories. Now he's a writer!

I once set a standard for myself by which I could judge if I was a writer. I'd have to have published at least 10 short stories or one novel. I'm closing in on the former, and I'm hopeful on the latter, but I would feel a little pretentious about then calling myself a "writer."

Rachel Fenton said...

I've been writing something, every day, for over ten years. I only started sending anything out in the last 18 months - I think it's ok to call myself a writer.

Why do you bury your shirts?

Paul said...

And yet . . . if I made my living as a writer, I don't suppose I would be shy about calling myself one.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Interesting points, y'all.

Tania Hershman said...

Darlin', I just call myself an artiste!

Kidding. It took me years to get past "Umm, well, I write, umm, sort of...". Now, finally, 2 years after the book, I declare it fairly proudly because it helps to follow up with "and my first book is published by..." That's a good end to the sentence, hope that helps!