Writers Come out of the Closet

Hi, my Name is Shannon, and I’m a Writer

It’s taken a long time for me to get comfortable with saying, “I a writer.” Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve always written—it’s just something you do…well, something I do. Part of this is due to the looks you get when you say this. Eager anticipation mixes—yes, they really do want to say they’ve met a real author—with half-hidden skepticism, and then you get The Question.

The Question comes phrased one of two ways. It’s either, “Oh, what do you write?” This comes with an implication that maybe you write technical manuals, or non-fiction, or something that means of course you don’t write anything meaningful—as if somehow none of that other stuff counts. (Is this because we’re taught in school that only “literary fiction” is of real value?) Or you get, “What have you written lately?”

Now, no one asks an accountant, “What taxes have you filed lately.” Or asks any other profession to somehow provide credentials to prove your claim. Lawyers do not have to whip out briefs; doctors do not need to show their latest prescription and case file. But a writer…you have to name your books, your stories, and I’ve thought sometimes that I should just carry a resume to show folks who ask. And here’s the thing—you tell them you write romances (or whatever genre, if you’re so lucky as to have a single genre), and you mention your story titles, and you get a blank look back. You’ve kicked their puppy, burst their balloon, salted their punch. Somehow you’ve disappointed. You’re not quite “a name” (or at least not the name they were looking for), yet you’re a writer. You’re not writing what they read, or what they want to tell people they read. The person doing the pop quiz has nothing to take home—no bragging rights for having met “a real author” (of real books, the definition of which changes depending on who is doing the reading).

It’s worse before you publish. It doesn’t get much better after you publish. So you start holding back. You duck the question. You keep it under wraps or wave it off, and you only answer if your significant other brags about you thus forcing you into The Question.

And when it comes time to file taxes, you hover over the words and put either a slash (as in I’m a web producer/writer), or you just put down the day job. Never mind that you’re working at a job that pays way less than minimum wage and doing it for love—those folks used to be admired, and now if you’re not a “professional” somehow you’re not legitimate. And never mind that you’re incurring all the cost of a business (equipment, supplies, training, sales letters, proposals to solicit work). Nope—somehow none of that really counts.

It’s worse before you publish. It doesn’t get much better after you publish. There’s still that edge of guilt—oh, yeah, well a real writer would have _______. Fill in the blank. A real writer would have won awards, been on best seller lists, sold fifty books…it’s like being an alcoholic in reverse. Instead of saying, “Well, I’m not an alcoholic because I don’t drink in bars.” (Or whatever excuse works.) It’s, “Well, I’m not a writer because I don’t write serious fiction.” (Or whatever excuse works.)  The excuse is all about excusing yourself from being a real writer. Meaning you can play around with the craft. Make it a hobby. You don’t have to think of yourself as a craftsman and artist and act that way—you don’t have to own the job.

I did this for a long time—longer than I should have. I had a day job. It paid well. I had a social life. I had family. I had lots of stuff going on. But I wrote at night and sent off manuscripts and took vacations from the writing when it wasn’t going so well. I quit a dozen times and started back at it even more times when the stories wouldn’t leave me alone (and when I got so grumpy from not writing that I couldn’t stand myself). And then I figured out I had to take it—and myself—seriously. If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write.

I got comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer—still hated to say anything. I hung around with “real writers” who’d sold books. I kept at it. And I sold some books. I won awards. And I still didn’t feel comfortable with the title of “writer.” Author wasn’t so bad—I could do that at book signings because I had the dammed books in front of me so if someone asked The Question (and, yes, they did, even with the books sitting there), I could just gesture like Vanna. Here’s the goods—go ahead and give me that look, I dare you! But the rest of the time…

Well, still struggling. After all a real writer makes her living from books. Well, that’s what I do now, and guess what…I’m almost comfortable with the word. And I’m thinking it’s about time I do more than get comfortable with it. I need to own it. Looks from folks be dammed, it’s what I do.

Nowadays, I can talk about what I write a bit better. The looks still come, particularly when I cannot whip out a book to show someone—eBooks are great for a lot of things, but not so much for ego validation. The comfort zone is widening. I still aspire to more…to best seller lists, and to that ever elusive deal that someone will bring the validation I’ve wanted.

But I’ve figured out there’s never going to be enough of that from the outside. No deal will bring reassurance—I’ll always wonder afterwards if I can live up to it, or if they just got the wrong person by accident. No award will be enough, and no lists will make me into what I want to be. If it’s coming from the outside that means it goes away, too—the outside stuff always does.

It’s got to be an inside job, this idea that you’re a writer. That I’m a writer. It’s got to be grabbed and believed and fought for and defended. It’s got to take root so deep that it’s part of saying your name. It’s what you do—it’s who you are. You’re a writer because you write. Good stuff. Stuff to be excited about and want to tell folks about and grin like a loon when you talk—and make it into more than just a hobby, because it’s part of your soul, your heart, your being.

So…time to jump out of the closet and off the cliff. I’m Shannon, and I’m a writer. Now, what do you call yourself?

3 thoughts on “Writers Come out of the Closet

  1. I love this! I still need to come up with a succinct way of saying, “I’m a pro, I’ve been selling fiction to real publishers for 30 years, award nominations yada yada, edited novels and anthologies, and I do not appreciate being compared to X who’s just self-published their first effort at a novel.” Mostly, I just smile nicely.

    Madeleine L’Engle just said, “I write books,” and let it go at that.

  2. Having anything to do with pop literature is tough. Editors have it tough, if you can’t write, you edit, or be a book reviewer or critic, if you can’t do, you criticize, or just tell some people that you like pop literature and there can be much eye rolling, why, they ask, don’t you read the GOOD stuff. For the longest time I read science fiction, and if I told people that I liked sf I’d always get “I don’t read that stuff” and I would do one of two things. I would mention all of the great writers who have written fantastic fiction, or I would ask them what they read. Techno-thrillers? Medical thrillers? Crime novels? So many of these started out as science fiction, and what are those crime suspense novels dealing with forensics, but a form of science fiction. The same is true of romantic novels, they are merely fictions in which an author examines the human interaction between two (or more) people. Don’t the best of thrillers of all kinds often have a strong romantic thread to their plots? Eventually I just stopped trying to justify my tastes, people will always want to shuffle you into a catagory of some kind. If you’re a romantic author, you will always have the last laugh. You got your name in print, and they didn’t, and chances are, long after you’re dead, your work will live on, and somebody will be reading you, and if they like what they read, you’ll live on longer than the snobs and the critics that looked down on you. Don’t look back, and never apologize.

  3. Pingback: The Life of a Part Time Writer « valrfederoff

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