More on “the writer”

I got a lot of interesting comments on my post yesterday about how we define the term “writer” and whether we consider ourselves writers, which tells me that I’m not the only one interested in the problem. A lot of people (including me) said something along the lines of, “well, a writer is anyone who writes and cares about the quality of the writing, but even though I do those things, I still don’t call myself a writer.”

Two of the comments helped explain this phenomenon. Kate says, “we tend to think of being a writer as something more exalted than writing when in fact it’s the reverse.” I think this is absolutely true. I have an image of “the writer” as someone much smarter, much more creative, much more driven, and much more talented than I am, and so I will never live up to those standards and be a writer. And yet this is the wrong way to think about the situation; Kate says, “It’s the writing that’s important, not the standing back and taking credit for it. ‘Being a writer’ without the activity of writing is just a pose.”

Victoria explains the skittishness of many when it comes to calling themselves writers by asking, “Perhaps it’s because we want to distinguish ourselves from the authors whose books we read and who we come to idolise/idealise? For example, even if, when I pushed, I admitted that I ‘wrote’ I wouldn’t feel like I *wrote* in the same way that Ishiguro, McEwan and Rushdie do.” This gets to the point a lot of other people made, which is that everyone writes in one way or another, even if it’s just email or a grocery list, so there is a huge range of writing activity that goes on, and calling ourselves “writers” rather than “people who write” places us a little too close to the “writing genius” end of the spectrum that great novelists or poets occupy. Who wants to do that? I think we do, as Victoria says, want to keep some distance between ourselves and the writers we admire; we enjoy idolizing writers from afar and we maintain that hero worship by maintaining the distance. And we also preserve ourselves from accusations of pride and an unrealistically high self-image by maintaining that distance. A number of people said that even though they do get published, they still don’t call themselves writers. The label “writer” is, it seems, most comfortably bestowed upon someone else, not upon oneself.

I like, also, what Kate says about how “we give fiction the exalted place at the top of [the writing] hierarchy even though it is one of the least lucrative types of writing. Or poetry, which is less lucrative still. I’m not sure why that is — perhaps some sort of mystique around the typic of creativity that is involved in these forms.” I think we do privilege forms of creativity used in fiction or poetry and overlook the creativity involved in writing nonfiction and in other less lauded forms of writing such as blog posts. Students in my writing classes tell me sometimes that they hope to do “creative writing” in my class, and I tell them that the class isn’t “creative writing” in the sense of poetry or fiction, but that they can bring creativity to whatever they write, including academic essays. It’s easy to forget that most forms of writing (excluding things like grocery lists) require creativity. I have a strange block against writing poetry or fiction — I couldn’t do it if my life depended on it, I’m pretty sure — but I like nonfictional forms of writing because they allow me to draw on my creativity in a way that feels natural.

Danielle commented on writing in a chatty, informal way, and says that because of this she doesn’t feel she can call herself a writer. And yet it takes talent and creativity to write in a chatty, informal way, and not everyone can do it well. This makes me wonder about the role of hard work in writing. Just because someone can dash off a few paragraphs quickly doesn’t mean that person isn’t a writer, right? Some people we have no trouble calling writers claim that they write quickly and don’t revise (examples are eluding me now … but I know they exist).

Finally, Victoria says she’s a “reader” before a “writer.” Yes, I’d probably say the same thing about myself, but … aren’t the two linked? Don’t we, when we write about books, do our reading as we write? Don’t we, when we think critically about our books, do our writing as we read? That’s the fun of being a lit blogger — it’s a way of connecting the reading and writing we do more closely and deliberately.

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