Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"So, Which of Your Books Have I Read?"--Five Writing Myths Revealed

I never thought I'd say it this soon...or say it before I had a novel published--but I'm a professional writer. It makes me extremely proud to say it; part of me feels like even if I never write the Great American Novel, I've still already accomplished a very important goal I set for myself. Sometimes I mutter it to myself as I walk down the street, just 'cause I like the way it sounds. People stop and stare at me strangely--unless they hear what it is I'm muttering. Then they'll stop me and say, "oh, what books have you written?"

There are a lot of myths out there about the writing profession. Now that I can officially call myself "professional," I feel qualified to debunk a few. Here are some of the most prevalent ones that annoy me:

You're not a real writer unless you've written a book. Most people hear "writer" and think "novels." But novelists are only a very small fraction of the professional writing community. You've got ad copywriters, scriptwriters, speechwriters, journalists, professional bloggers....the list goes on and on. All of these people write something for a living. Don't think that just because someone says they're a writer, they've written a book--or that you're showing polite interest by asking them what books they've written. To a writer, that's a loaded question; it's like asking an out-of-work actor what blockbuster movies he's been in. Instead, show polite interest by asking them what kind of writing they do.

Writers' block. I saw a post over at Words on the Page today about writers' block, and it got me thinking about how incredibly over it I am. There's this idea that writers are terrified of the blank page; that we sometimes sit down and have existential struggles with ourselves over every phrase we write. And okay, when I was trying to write my first novel in sixth grade--it was about a unicorn--I occasionally indulged in writers' block. But my belief now is that it's a disease of writers who aren't working. I never experience writers' block when working on client projects; sometimes an idea is slow in coming, but that doesn't mean I bang my head against the keyboard and weep to the muses. Instead I brainstorm, go over my interview notes, check out what competitors are doing, and try to learn more about the product--and something always comes. And I've found that now I'm treating my novel-writing like a job, I never get writers' block there either.

You have to be a tortured soul to be a writer. To some, Byron and Poe are quintessential writers; they're dark, tortured souls whose messy personal lives inspired their writing. And maybe some writers can't do their work without some sort of angst to fuel them. But many writers are perfectly normal, well-adjusted people who just happen to have a way with words and a facile imagination. Occasionally when I talk to people about my artistic interests, they get all surprised that I'm not some kind of alcoholic or something--after all, I'm an artiste. But in my opinion you don't have to live conflict to write about it--and if you do, maybe your imagination is lacking.

Anyone can write. It's no sweat. I think this problem stems from the fact that we all learn to write in school--and many people don't read enough good writing to realize their own isn't that great. But anyone can jog down the street, too--and not everyone is a marathon runner. Just because you, in particular, know the alphabet and can construct a sentence, that doesn't mean you can write like a professional can. It takes skill to build believable characters and pace a story correctly, craft a sales letter that inspires people to buy, or even write an educational article that breaks a complicated idea down in a way anyone can understand.

You're not a real writer unless you... get up at four in the morning to write; experience a burning desire to write every day of your life; write esoteric short stories that nobody really wants to read; sacrifice a chicken to the Writing Gods at the full moon....the list goes on. There are all kinds of elitist messages out there about the hoops you have to jump through to be a "real" writer. As opposed to a fake writer. I think it's all nonsense. My definition of a "real" writer is someone who writes well--and I realize that some might consider "writing well" to be a pretty subjective judgment call, but believe me, you know good writing when you see it. I might also add that I believe you're a "real" writer when you're getting paid to write--even if it's not your full-time job. Other than that, all bets are off.


Unknown said...

Oh, amen to all of this! (and thanks for the link love, darlin'!). I couldn't agree more. What gets me is when I tell people what I do write and it's as though I'd just stuck a dead fish in their pants and they don't want me to see how weirded out it makes them.

I write novels for other people, but I do a lot more than that. I'm of the opinion if I'm paid money for my efforts, I'm a professional. :))

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Great post, Jennifer. Even though I do consider myself a tortured soul of sorts, I agree with you on every point. If you think you're a writer, you ARE a writer!

Anonymous said...

Gosh I wish I'd read this post this morning.

That poor chicken.

Yuwanda Black said...

You're so right Jennifer. Especially the part when you say if you're a working writer you'll never run out of ideas.

If it weren't for the shenanigans of my clients, my blog and newsletter wouldn't be half as interesting.

Another "dead on" post from you! Kudos.


Anonymous said...

Terrific stuff. I particularly agree with your final point. One of the beautiful things about being a professional writer and an independent writer is the ability to make your own path, make your own schedule, and generally work in the way that suits you best. I am not a morning person and never will be. When I realized that, I became much more productive, working in my own timeframe. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


I have known professional writers in the corporate world and you definitely pass muster.
I have encouraged you to try the donate now button so I have left you a pittance. Onward.

Mark W.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Lori: You're welcome, as always! I couldn't agree more--if people are willing to pay for what you do, you're a "real" writer. End of story. And I occasionally get the weirded-out look when I tell people I'm a writer, but I always assume it's because they just can't handle my coolness. Sometimes that happens.

@Kathy: Hopefully you're not too tortured--we shouldn't have to suffer for our art!

@John: Yeah; but did you write something good after you did him in? If so, he didn't die in vain.

@Yuwanda: There's something about your next paycheck hanging on your draft that gets those ideas flowing like no walk in the park ever will.

@Rebel: I remember once someone told me that I'd never really be dedicated to my craft if I didn't get up early and write before work. (This was when I had a full time office job.) It turned me into a headcase for a little while, because I tried and I just couldn't make myself focus that early in the morning. Until I realized it was really bad advice.

@Mark: Many thanks for the donation--and the kind words!

Anonymous said...

I found this particularly interesting:
"I might also add that I believe you're a "real" writer when you're getting paid to write--even if it's not your full-time job. Other than that, all bets are off."

What about all those writers who toil, or who have toiled, in complete obscurity - and aren't celebrated as "writers" until after death?

William Blake was viewed as a crackpot, now he is lauded as poetic genius... and who was the person who wrote Beowulf, or any number of anonymous writers over the past thousand, two thousand years?

Doesn't everything come down to a matter of opinion of what a "real" writer or "real" artist or "real" (insert misunderstood profession here) is?

I just found it interesting that you mention how there are so many elistist messages out there and you end your post with an elitist message about writers. Not that I'm complaining. I thought it was really funny - but now, after reading some of the comments here, I'm not sure if you meant it to be funny.

-- blogless, unpaid writer, aka "fake" writer

Jennifer Williamson said...

Actually, if you read the sentence above that one, it says:

"My definition of a 'real' writer is someone who writes well--and I realize that some might consider 'writing well' to be a pretty subjective judgment call, but believe me, you know good writing when you see it. "

People like Emily Dickinson or whoever wrote down Homer's Illiad, unpaid bloggers, or all the other people who right now "toil in obscurity" but who might one day be recognized fall under that category.

Minion said...

Can I just say that working in book publishing I get to see a lot of 'professional writing' that looks anything but! Writers are people who write, and hopefully write well. If you get paid to write-- what a bonus.

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Not to worry, I save most of my tortured ramblings for my poetry, which usually only a select few ever see. I do, however, believe that life tragedies can turn one to writing. The whole writing process has always been a cathartic one for me.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Min: Definitely true--I have read some truly horrible books in my time. There must be someone who likes that writing enough to buy it, though--there are some pretty high-profile writers out there who write a lot of crap.

@Kathy: I definitely agree that personal drama can be a fantastic catalyst for writing--a lot of my best creative stuff is at least partially biographical, or inspired by something that happened to me. What I have a problem with is the assumption that you have to be miserable all the time in order to be a successful writer.

Trish Ryan said...

THANK YOU for laying all of this true! I used to think it was tough to break through all the myths about being a lawyer...but the myths around the writing life are even more pervasive. Still though, it's a good problem to have, getting to debunk them. Congrats on realizing you're a professional writer :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a B2B copywriter who works primarily with software companies.

Every time I see my family, they ask me the same thing: "What is it you do again?"

They still have no idea what any of it means. So they keep asking.

"I think he's some kind of writer," they tell people.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...never thought about making a sacrifice to the writing gods. Maybe THAT'S why I've been in a slump.

Seriously, good post.

Anonymous said...

I find that the snobbiest and most judgmental are the wanna-be novelists.

Writers WRITE.

The only time you can have the luxury of writer's block is when you're unpublished. The rest of us don't have time for it.

Great post!

Erik Deckers said...

Everyone CAN'T write. That's the problem. As a former PR writer at a state agency, it used to drive me crazy when the experts would rewrite my press releases and articles, thinking they were somehow making them better. Big words and bigger sentences do not a better press release make!

They finally started realizing I knew my stuff when I would schedule them for TV interviews, and then record them. The next day, I provided critiques for their performance by pointing out the big words they used, and then how those words never made it on the air.

The smart ones not only learned how to be good interview subjects, they also learned to leave my press releases alone.