A "real" writer - in 1000 Words or Less
Several years ago, I was a member of an online writing group. As with any activity, finding people with similar interests enhances it so I assure you, a writing group isn’t as incredibly boring as it sounds. In fact, I made a good and enduring friendship with an individual from one of the groups.
During one of our meetings, I referred to writing as a hobby. In doing so, I incurred the wrath of two other members. They were of the opinion that, since they worked hard in an effort to (hopefully one day), make their living as authors, calling it a “hobby” demeaned it. “Hobby” didn’t sound serious enough. I maintained that writing is an enjoyable way of killing spare time but until I made a ba-jillion-dollars, anything that cost more than it brought in, no matter how seriously I took it, must be considered a hobby, not unlike restoring a classic car or indulging a golf habit.
Dennis Lehane is a writer, a man who can create a dark and dangerous mood in no more than three sentences. http://dennislehane.com/
John Sandford writes action-adventure novels that continue to be interesting despite the sheer number.
Michael Connelly is a writer whose crime novels could be used as a Detective textbook or LA road map.
These guys have years of combined experience and most likely define themselves as authors in the same way a teacher, construction worker, doctor (or any other professional), does in day-to-day conversation. I’m not in any way categorizing myself with them, other than to say, I write too. The difference is, I don’t and can't define myself as a real writer and am typically surprised and confused when someone refers to me as such.
…now and then I wonder if there’s an outside chance I could get away with it, mostly because people have started asking me writerly type questions, including the number one question every author gets asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”
It is more difficult to answer than you might imagine—I want to be honest, I want to explain without being boring. Most of all, I don’t want to be flippant because the person asking the question is doing so with genuine interest.
I answer, “Momentum." I take a small kernel of an idea gleaned from a book, or a song, or a newspaper or a movie or TV show, and I write it down. When I do, that one small idea generally makes me think of another small idea…one idea creates another which generates another. After a short while, my subconscious kicks in. Without realizing it, I’m thinking about where these three or four random scraps of ideas might go. So, I write them down.
The other day someone asked me something slightly more complicated: “How do you know when your book is finished?” I had a genuine stare-open-mouthed moment. I had no clue how to answer. I don’t know how to start a new project or how to fill in the middle with something interesting, never mind knowing when it’s finished. Responding, “When it comes to its natural conclusion,” seemed an entirely inadequate response.
Maybe a real writer is familiar with that question and has a canned answer prepared. Maybe that’s something a real writer doesn’t get asked.
Not long ago a friend asked why some authors speak about their fictional characters as if they live and breathe and make conscious choices, as if the author didn’t create them and control them through the writing process, as if he was a biographer rather than a creator. My friend has mentioned this more than once, usually after hearing a radio interview with an author the CBC considers important. It annoys him because it sounds so incredibly pretentious.
I have to agree. When I hear an author (referencing a character in his novel), say something like, “I couldn’t control her. She kept zigging when I wanted her to zag,” I typically think: Quit acting authorly. Your characters “do” exactly what you type on the keyboard. Nothing more or less.
Now for the caveat:
There is an element of truth in this pretension that I understand.
I don’t know what my characters are going to do next because as I write down one idea after another, it’s as new to me as it is to you when you read it. If a character makes a left-hand turn, it’s not that I expected her to go right or continue straight. Rather, I didn’t expect anything at all. I go where each new idea takes me. Momentum.
According to Anne R. Allen’s excellent writing blog, “…if you write and you’re not a wooden puppet carved by an old Italian guy named Gepetto, you’re a real writer.”
I guess that’s true in a purely technical sense. I do have some stuff a person could read if she chose to, so I suppose that technically makes me a writer, possibly even a novelist.
On a day off from my real job, I’ve made a habit of going to a coffee shop and writing for a couple of hours because if I stay at home I’ll find ten different distractions that will “prevent” me from writing. I suppose that technically makes me a writer.
Mostly though, it’s the questions. I can’t imagine anyone but an author being asked questions like those I described above, any more than a teacher would get asked about what happens on a construction site or a doctor about the goings on in a classroom. Perhaps Anne R. Allen is right. But, until the questions don’t catch me by surprise, until I can cover costs, until I spend the majority of my time writing fiction that large numbers of people read, I’m going to have a tough time thinking of myself as a real writer. On the other hand, I do have a satisfying and enjoyable hobby.
When does a hobby become a vocation? An obsession?
Next time, a comment about strong female protagonists.