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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Do you refer to yourself as a Writer?

…And if not why not?

OK, it’s hardly a new question, and if you do refer to yourself as a writer, what stage were you at before you did, and what were other people’s reactions?I’ve recently decided to think of myself as a trainee-writer instead of a wannabe-writer. Why? Well I suppose it’s just a slight change of mind-set. I have had some limited success in getting paid for short stories. I’ve also had very encouraging feedback (but no deals) from publishers, and pretty much all reviews I’ve ever had seem to think I’m doing more things right than I am wrong, with most people liking the stories. I still know that what I have achieved commercially so far is nothing to write home about and I certainly still wouldn’t dare refer to myself publicly as a ‘writer’ brackets and all!
Now you may think this is all just me contemplating my own navel. But I do have a wider point, and that is about our perceptions of ourselves and of how others view us.
It somehow seems to be thought ‘silly’ or at best a waste of time to want to be a writer by most people. Then there are those who say "who will buy it" and "you will never be as good as…" and then name someone who isn’t necessarily all that brilliant technically, but very successful. People will say this even if they haven’t read a single book by the person they name!

So all this led me to reconsider how I see myself. I’m under no illusions that I am ever going to be a ‘great’ writer. But I have technically improved significantly over the years. And this is the crux of my internal change in status. At this stage I really just want people to read what I’ve written and hopefully like it. I feel much more confident in submitting my work to the world in general, and that is a big hurdle for anyone who wants to write.

My question is, why do people generally assume the ‘big names’ are the standard and are by default ‘very good’ writers, without reading a word. Whilst at the same time practically dismissing anyone starting out as ‘rubbish’ again without reading a single word?
These perceptions do seem to be fairly ingrained with some people when it comes to books, especially fiction novels.

You just don’t get the same prejudice in other fields. I’m a programmer by profession, and you don’t get clients coming up and saying, "I only want the older experienced people who worked on the biggest systems in the past to do my work for me, because all the new ones will be crap." It just doesn’t happen, and would sound ludicrous if someone did. But in the fiction book world it seems to be the ‘normal’ or at least mainstream readers default perception. Of course the marketing machines churning out the same old spin for the same old people and books don’t help it.
Now if I’m sounding bitter, I’m not, and I don’t intend to. I have no illusions about the industry, and if I never make it past this stage, then that’s ok. Maybe I’m just not good enough to go any further. What does get me is the often snobbish attitudes people have to books, combined with a sneering attitude to wannabe writers, even (or sometimes especially) those people who don’t even read!
So where has this attitude come from?


  1. This is a very interesting blog entry. There is strong prejudice out there. I do feel like a writer even though I don't make a living by writing. I think being a creative writer has to do with looking at the world from a different perspective. It has to do with bringing insight and new reflections to our world. Writing makes me feel alive and I take it very seriously, so I do get frustrated when people don't take me seriously. I like reading experienced writers too, but I also enjoy good quality writing by new/emerging writers published in good literary journals.

  2. Hello Julia,

    … and thank you, it’s always nice to be interesting.

    I agree with you that there is prejudice out there, but from most people I don’t think it’s an intentionally bad thing. I think people who write see writing very different from the general public. We know it is 90%+ a learned craft. And it has to be looked on as a long-term job, although a very low or unpaid one for a lot of people, before you can ever hope to get good. Writers do tend to appreciate the writing of others and not look for a ‘name’ before looking at something.
    I think people in general see the industry spin and hype machine and think of writers as the very successful few. It’s the same attitude as someone saying they want to be actor. They get scoffed at. If they say they want to be a film-star they would probably be thought out-and-out loony. But my wife went to college with someone who became a very well know film star, and ‘they’ won’t laugh now. Indeed, now ‘they’ buy the posters and action figures… yes the person is that famous, and no I don’t personally know them!
    It’s a similar thing with writers. You write a YA fantast novel, and you must obviously want to be J. K. Rowling in their eyes, whom they have been told is great, a single mom who just sat down one day and wrote Harry Potter! Maybe I should try sitting in the same mystical café, it isn’t all that far from me…
    Then, suddenly you are just a ‘normal’ person with idiotic ideas way above your reach. Although in reality this is proven wrong time-and-time-again or there would be no new ‘stars’ in anything. When you add the fact that, like most actors, most writers are relatively obscure and can live their daily lives without being constantly recognised, and you have the mainstream all-or-nothing perception that is backed up by the mass-media marketing machine, because it’s in their interests to hype their cash-cows. And there are obviously both good and bad points for anyone in that position. Personally I’d love the money without the fame please, but unfortunately even at the lowest level you have to market yourself! People want a ‘name’ not just something good to read… which is a shame really.
    I don’t think this can easily be dismissed as a jealousy thing ether. Most people aren’t jealous of people wanting to be actors, or writers, musicians, or pop-stars; they have been somehow conditioned to smirk. They have been conditioned to think, or assume, that people in general don’t have the talent to do this, even though this is proven wrong all the time.
    I would like to know where that perception comes from.
    Why is it different from saying you want to become a doctor, professor, merchant-banker, or a teacher? And why would you be scoffed at for saying you want to become an astronaut? Whats the link?

  3. I agree, and even when you have chosen one of those careers, you can still feel a passion for writing or art or whatever, and are still willing to take it seriously. You may like to read The Element, by Ken Robinson. I believe the root of the problem starts in school. Schools tend to kill creativity and they tend to enclose us in rigid patterns of learning. Our imagination is ignored instead of being celebrated and potentiated by following all our true personal motivations. I love writing since I was nine years old, but no teacher ever cared about that... And I could write so much more on this. It's a fascinaing subject.