Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Strike three. Are you out?

Just so you know, I'm never going to be able to sustain this all the way to twenty.

3) Have you been outed? Did you out yourself? Are you out with everyone, or only with people you know are cool? Are you even out with yourself? Are you a writer? Do you call yourself a writer in public? Do you tell other people what you do when you're sitting alone in front of your computer?

On the surface, this may seem related to my recent question about whether or not you let your family read your writing. In reality, I know there are people who let family read their writing, who even let strangers read their writing (some of them are published), but who aren't comfortable calling themselves writers.

I know writers who are quite comfortable with the job title when they are online, but would never dream of putting Writer on a their voter registration, or telling their kid's school that they write for a living. I remember reading an essay on Anne Frasier's Static, where she mentally kicked herself for not speaking up after a post office employee gave her a snide, "Writing the great American novel?" when she mailed a manuscript to her publisher. Anne has written nineteen novels (19!) - but just smiled and nodded to the obnoxious postman.

Other writers produce thousands of words a week for their blogs, but insist they aren't really writers. Some writers who have produced scores of short stories - and even novels - will preface their comments on the art and craft of writing with, "I'm not really qualified to answer, I'm not a real writer."

"Long before I published my first book I decided that I wasn't going to devalue my work--which is really myself-- just becasue it wasn't earning any money. I really went through a lot of psychological work to fight off that desperate feeling and make sure that I understood that no matter how bleak it seemed, my work was still worthy of respect and I wasn't going to sell myself short."
- Sara Gran, author of the novels Saturn's Return to New York, Come Closer, and Dope.

I understand the feeling. Many years ago, when I first got out of the army, and before I discovered how hard it was to make a living writing, I started writing and publishing a political newsletter.

My ex-wife and I had built a house that backed up to farmland. Bird hunters frequently fired shotguns inside a stand of trees about a hundred yards behind our house, and since I was both a veteran and a farm boy I didn't give it much thought.

One afternoon, as my oldest son and I loaded boxes of newsletters into the trunk of my car for a trip to the post office, I heard a rifle shot, followed by the distinctive szzzzzzip of a bullet slicing through the air above me. I knew it was no shotgun, and I also knew that whoever fired that rifle had just endangered my family, so I called the Sheriff's office. The deputy that responded combed the woods and found that the shooter had gone, and then he came back to take my statement.

He wondered how I was so sure of the difference between the sound of a shotgun and a rifle.

"What do you do for a living?" he asked.

"I'm a writer," I said.

I was over thirty, but still had a baby face, and was undoubtedly more pompous than my fledgling career could ever justify. I'm sure the deputy already had his doubts when my oldest son, who was not yet 10, said, "I thought you were in the army?"

The deputy snickered.

It took me years to work up the courage to tell anyone else I was writer.

Do you have the confidence to call yourself a writer? If not, why not? Are you published? Will getting published make you a real writer?

When I started my freelance career, I hit my stride immediately, and I think - No, I know - that early success gave me the confidence to own the title: Writer. This afternoon a salesman admiring my attire (a sport coat and jeans) said, "I wish I could dress like that. What you do for a living?"

"I'm a writer," I said, and I realized I was telling the truth. I am a writer.

Are you?

Mark Pettus,
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

31 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Shesawriter, Blogger Lisa Coutant, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger serenity, Blogger Dana Y. T. Lin, Blogger Mayden's Voyage, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Lady M, Blogger Bernita, Blogger Amie Stuart, Anonymous Bill Ectric, Blogger E. Ann Bardawill, Blogger Lady M, Blogger Adam Hurtubise, Blogger Rene, Blogger M. G. Tarquini, Blogger Jeff, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Dennie McDonald, Anonymous Bill Ectric, Blogger JLB, Blogger Erik Ivan James, Blogger Frank Baron, Anonymous Nienke, Blogger M. G. Tarquini, Anonymous Spicy Cauldron, Blogger JLB, Blogger S. W. Vaughn, Blogger September, Blogger wthenrest, Blogger jen.nifer,

Let me know what you think

Leave a comment


at 7:35 PM Blogger Shesawriter said...

I'm a writer, but I don't volunteer the information unless a "muggle" asks. :-)


at 9:10 PM Blogger Lisa Coutant said...

I do call myself a writer but more so because of my day job and freelancing for a local ezine and publication. I don't call myself a fiction writer. I tell people, "I write fiction for fun." Because I know the next questions will be, "Have I read your work? What publication have you been in? Are you as big as J.K. Rowling?" And my answers are, "Only if you work for a big corporation" or "only if you enjoy the theater" and "you probably wouldn't recognize the name" and "Only if you count body fat percentage."

Otherwise I just avoid the follow on questions with, "You haven't seen my work anywhere yet." Just easier this way. And honestly, the reason my fiction hasn't been published probably has more to do with the fact that I send short stories out in bursts. I'll write and rewrite and revise and pummel a piece for a bit and then set it down, only to revisit it months later.

If I was more consistent in my querying then I'd probably have more luck in getting published.

at 9:28 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Tanya - Muggle? Hmmmm...

Lisa - J.K. Rowling? Hmmmm...

Readers reactions are a tough part of owning up - Where can I buy your book? I've never heard of you. Do you know Stephen King? My daughter's third grade teacher's husband's cousin went to school with his wife. I just think he's great. Do you write like him?

I find it interesting that most great books never make the bestsellers list, but the only writers know that. Readers assume you are either a best seller or a hack.

at 9:34 PM Blogger serenity said...

I prefer to say "magazine editor." Then I get oohey-ahhey eyes and fewer questions.

I say I write fiction in my spare time. Which is true. But ... when I'm all alone, I'm a writer.

I giggled when I read that bit about the postman. Once when I was mailing off a manuscript, the postmaster asked me if I needed any insurance on it and added, "What, is it a BOOK or something?" with a decidedly snide look on his face. Now I just leave the money in the mailbox.

One thing I don't appreciate about small towns. The people who work at the post office know me, and they know everyone else in town. I can feel important thinking they're discussing how many letters go back and forth between me and book publishers/magazines, but I feel a little exposed every once in a while when I pull out an envelope with "Collections Department" under the return address.

at 10:17 PM Blogger Dana Y. T. Lin said...

I'm a writer if anyone asks. Took me about decade to decide on that one. I did a lot of other stuff before like a 9-5 job and such, all to avoid having to admit I am a writer. But now, I think I'm over it.

at 10:29 PM Blogger Mayden's Voyage said...

If my husband is asked, "What does your wife do?" He will say, "She is a writer."
I am brave enough to say it in some places, and not in others. You have really pricked something in me with this topic :(
I write a lot, but mostly for things that will not be published for the masses...it is published though. Newsletters for a large church, womens ministry things, and I even made it into a book recently by Billie Cash (Autum Rain) because of devotional I had written. But even so, I know in my heart of hearts, even if I am no CS Lewis, I AM a witer above and beyond everything else...but being a mom seems to get more of my time than my writing does.
Jeesh...you've really got me thinking now!!!
Thanks, I think! -Cora :)

at 12:12 AM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

I wrote something about this a ways back that I couldn't tell people I was a writer. It was private and well, I hadn't pubbed anything so what qualified me as one?

Then when I landed an agent, I finally admitted it some more, but it was still embarrassing to get the surprised looks or the million questions. It's as if writers are oddities and I don't know why.

Now look, I'm sold, and I've only told a handful of friends. Funny thing, now I'm having trouble saying I'm an author...

at 1:42 AM Blogger Lady M said...

I work a grueling job at night, come home and take care of my kid and hubby, play in a band 2 days a week (we suck, don't ask :P), I clean the yard after the dog, sometimes by flashlight or by "squish"... I play with my friends and go out once in awhile, have card and game nights ---- and I write to relax my soul.

Do I say I am a writer? No.

I say that I write.

It shocked me when my daughter stood up and told her class that I was going to be a famous author some day soon. I was like ---- "NO NO NO NO - no, I just write, really, it's no biggie."

She turned around and said, "She's a writer and she's very good, don't listen to her."

I was trying to crawl into a hole, because I'm not published. It felt like I was cheating something. I dunno how to explain it.

Yeah - I do it three to ten hours a night. Yeah... I pound away at the keyboard... Yeah I write poetry, stories, novels, plays... But am I a writer if it hasn't sold?

Can I stand up and smile and say I am writer if I haven't been financially recognized? If no one but someone I hand my work to has seen it, can I justify saying - I'm a writer? If I do not do it full time - can I say it?

I don't have a problem saying I'm an aspiring writer to folks in the business or on the boards. Strange that.

I dunno - but a darn good question.

Have a splendid day Mark!

Lady M

at 7:18 AM Blogger Bernita said...

I wanted to shoot my husband when he bellowed around town I was writing books.
No one realizes how long it takes from ms to print - even when one is lucky in the pool.
I'm a "writer" on my blog, because that's what it's a bout.
If one writes towards publication, one is a writer - no diffident adjectives - such as "aspiring" required.
Besides, I've had non-fiction pieces bought.
Do I think of myself as a writer?
Not particularly.
It's only one of the many, many things that might define me.
Lady M is right.
An excellent question, Mark.

at 9:54 AM Blogger Amie Stuart said...

I'm laughing at Tanya's Muggles but by damn, I think she's on the mark. I don't advertise (however my children do! My son told his reading teacher during open house I'd sold a book. Hard to tell her what it's about with the kids standing there LOL) more because I think most non-writers don't get it and I'm saving myself the headache.

at 11:47 AM Anonymous Bill Ectric said...

Everything is relative. Some people think, for example, that Stephen King is a writer because they've heard of him, and I'm not a writer becasue they haven't heard of me. But, most of those people have never heard of William S. Burroughs, and I consider him a successful writer (I wonder if Stephen King gets tired of people using him for this example, or if he is even aware that we do it).

I sometimes tell people I'm a writer because I hate my regular full-time job and don't even want to admit to it. Well, I AM a writer. So I'm not lying. I'm not as widely read as William S. Burroughs, but moreso than this one coworker of mine who says he has written a novel but is afraid to post any of it on the internet. He thinks someone might steal his ideas. Or, maybe they won't buy his book because they can eventually get it free off the web. I laughed and told him, "Man, you worry about people reading your stuff. Try posting something that you WANT people to read. You'll be WISHING some-damn-body would read it!"

at 12:43 PM Blogger E. Ann Bardawill said...

I figure it's better to say I'm a writer, because if I say I'm a highly paid fashion model, they don't believe me.

at 12:59 PM Blogger Lady M said...

Sheesh Ann - wait until I put down the soda please before you spout stuff off like that.

I really have to clean my computer now!


at 1:14 PM Blogger Adam Hurtubise said...

I'm a writer, but I'm still in the closet. Only my family, friends, agent and blog readers know it.

I haven't kept the secret all that well.


at 4:52 PM Blogger Rene said...

Oh, no, never, ever do I call myself a writer in public. People ask too many questions when I do. DH will tell people but not me. I don't want to talk about it with other people mainly for the selfish reason that my writing is mine. No one else has a part of it, no one else can claim a piece of it. It belongs solely to me. Of course this will come back to haunt me if I ever sell and need to promote myself. Then I will probably crow it to the hills.

at 5:19 PM Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

I've listed it two years now on my tax return under 'occupation', so, yep, I'm a writer.

at 7:49 PM Blogger Jeff said...

I use the term "aspiring writer." :)

at 8:13 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Serenity - I am actually trying to force myself to quit saying I'm an editor (except in situations where the distinction is important). To me, being a writer is a dream job. Being an editor is just a job.

Dana - It's amazing what can happen when you finally decide to be a writer. I got the calling when I was just a kid, but had grey hair before I decided to make it my life's work.

Cora - Hey, if I make you think - not you, personally, but readers in general - then I'm happy. Very happy.

Kelly - Hehe... your last sentence brought on some serious chuckles.

Lady M - Not I'm a writer - just, "I write." Interesting.

I'm not a murderer, I just kill people. Hmmmmm.... The Nile is a river.

Bernita - "one of the many things that might define me." I like your answer.

Cece - I can see how that might pose a problem. Most people probably don't want to admit they read erotica, much less write it.

Bill - I think King is starting to get a break. I'm noticing more and more references to J.K. Rowling these days.

Ann - My exwife taught me how to respond to things like what you posted:

Adam - I'm sure they aren't telling anyone... well, maybe the agent should be...

Rene - Your not the first person here to complain about a loved one telling people that you write.

Y'all quit complaining. It's better than them telling people that you "think you can write."

M.G. - did you have to mention tax returns this close to April. I'm trying to reach a sustained level of denial here.

Jeff - You are in danger of achieving your aspirations, my friend.

To All: I'm off to Universal Studios, Orlando. See you again on Friday.

Go read Anne Frasier's and Kelly Parra's short stories at Flashing in the Gutters.


at 9:34 AM Blogger Dennie McDonald said...

I guess I am weird - everyone I know, knows I write. If I didn't tell them my mom, brother or hubby did (He regrets that now that the guys at work saw the disclaimer on the book: i.e. the pandered sex - LOL!) Some of it keeps me motivated when EVERY time I talk to relatives they say, "You sell something yet?" Now it's, "You sell anything else?"

My son's friend saw his mom using a promo pen I gave her and asked what it was for - she expalined to a degree as he is only 11. When she explained the books had kissing and he couldn't read them he asked, does her son know this - I just laughed!

at 11:12 AM Anonymous Bill Ectric said...

Mark, good point about J. K. Rowling. She may be the new benchmark for unfavorable comparisons of me from my non-writer friends.

at 12:33 PM Blogger JLB said...

Great question... there is so much divergence of opinion on this one!

For myself: yes, I call myself a writer. I have not yet been published, but I’ve been happily writing all manner of materials since I first learned my alphabet. These days I ramble along with poetry and prose, post daily to my blog, and scribble down stories, essays, and other thoughts as I am inspired. I love technical writing and documentation, letter writing, and other business writing... I’ve never met a writing venue that I didn’t like.

Will publishing make me a “real writer”? Nope. As publishing for me has only come as a recent afterthought to my writing, what makes me a “real writer” is that I WRITE. I might not write for a paycheck, and my audience might be rather limited, but that doesn’t detract from my love of the craft.

I also call myself an artist. I don’t show my work at fairs or exhibitions, I haven’t attended prestigious academies (ok, I’ve actually only taken ONE drawing class at a community college, about ten years ago), but what makes me an artist is everything from my writing, to my painting, to my gardening... all the mediums with which I employ my creativity.

What makes me a writer and an artist in my mind is that I love to create. Being liked, published, or otherwise known has no bearing, for me, on my own definition of self.

at 2:30 PM Blogger Erik Ivan James said...

I say, "I'm attempting to learn and become a writer".

at 2:40 PM Blogger Frank Baron said...

Yep, I am and (no longer) have any qualms in saying so. I used to be a little defensive when met with the "well, what do you write?" question, and would smile and say, "words...mostly."

Now I just tell them essays, articles and one book (so far). And as bernita indicated, writing is what I do but being a writer is only a part of who I am.

at 2:50 PM Anonymous Nienke said...

I once read a great blog post about the danger of calling oneself an "aspiring" writer or novelist (sorry Jeff). To aspire is to "desire strongly." I write, therefore I'm a writer. (Easy for me tho because I'm a full-time writer/editor by day).

at 7:58 PM Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...


I HAVE to mention tax returns. It's all I can think about. Tax returns and the highly enormous and very large numbered check that I have to write the feds.

I'm pretty sure I never learned to count that high.

at 7:52 AM Anonymous Spicy Cauldron said...

You think declaring yourself a writer hard? Try declaring yourself a poet! I mean, I have said I'm a writer for years with no qualms whatsoever. But poetry? To say you're a poet? To some, that's the definition of arty-farty, loafer, highbrow, pointless... I could go on. Of course, these are all, usually, ignorant responses but they are always, inevitably, deeply depressing.

I let my family read some of my work, not all. I am my own censor in that regard. And for good reason. They may support me but they don't always understand me and, when it comes to my poems especially, much of the time they have ears of clay and can spend too long looking for rhymes then asking me why I don't always use them.... x

at 6:49 PM Blogger JLB said...

Hey Spicy Cauldron... I totally know where you're coming from with the reactions of others to calling oneself a poet... I've seen the whole rainbow, but I go ahead and do it anyways! I'm happy to tell people that I'm a poet!

I know it's easier said than done, but try to shake off the ignorant responses of others and don't let them get you down: being a poet is precious and important, and reward in itself. :) The rest of 'em just don't know what they're missing!

at 3:39 PM Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Yes I am. Out and proud. Not even officially published yet, but I am a writer.

Do writers get a flag? Rainbow is taken. How about brown? That's the color of the literature pie in the original Trivial Pursuit game.

Going to make myself a brown flag now. :-)

at 5:30 PM Blogger September said...

I used to be shy about answering that way. Then, when I looked for health insurance and the agent asked me what I did, I answered "I'm a writer." He looked at me as if he didn't understand. "A writer?" "Yes, a writer." I suddenly felt very proud of it. And as I mentioned some of my writing accomplishments, it was as if, for the first time, I actually believed it too. Wow! I AM a writer. :-)It was a great feeling. Still is.

at 12:02 AM Blogger wthenrest said...

This was an interesting post for me. I am a writer of thoughts.I suppose that is an obvious comment. What else can a person write? What is the definition of a writer but one who writes? Does it change if you are published? It is still a written work. I am not so sure that JK Rowling would be a good measuring stick for me. Popular or no.

at 6:48 AM Blogger jen.nifer said...

Hi Mark, I finally made it to this entry; really enjoyed reading it. I've actually demoted myself to 'bit of a writer' since I wrote the entry on my blog. Hehe.


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