Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Are You a Real Writer?

I wrote a post that touched on what makes a real writer on one of my other blogs. This has been making me think lately, and I'm not sure why I'm not done with this subject yet. But I've been thinking about people's perception of writers, the idea out there that "anyone can write," and the barriers some writers set up to separate themselves from people who, for whatever reason, they consider posers. On the one hand, I think it's elitist to say that one person is a "real" writer and another isn't. On the other, if someone tells me that they're a writer and then they show me their writing and it's juvenile, badly-written poetry about their grandmother--well, I'm going to disagree. Privately, of course.

Here are four "you're not a real writer unless..." assumptions I'm familiar with--and my responses to them.

You're not a real writer unless you get published. Okay, I can see why novelists consider this important. And I think a lot of novelists are so under-paid that they take on the idea that, well, at least they're real writers because they're published--as if the legitimate title of being a "real" writer is somehow adequate compensation for...well, inadequate compensation. But what about well-known authors who make a living at it--everyone from Salman Rushdie to Danielle Steele--before they were published? Were they not "real writers" until the moment their books hit stores? But they wrote manuscripts before they were published. Why should something essentially out of their control--i.e., whether a publisher accepted their first novels--define their existence as writers?

You're not a real writer unless you're not commercially successful. On the other hand, there is a sort of elitist attitude among some literary fiction writers--particularly at MFA programs--that says some bestselling writers aren't "real writers" because they sell out and write popular fiction, or their writing doesn't measure up to some standard or whatever. A lot of literary types don't think genre fiction is "real" writing. I think it is; I think you can find great writing, gripping characterization, and stunning language in romance, science fiction, crime and any number of basically formulaic genres. I also feel that a lot of literary short fiction today leaves me empty and bored.

You're not a real writer unless you feel the burning need to write all the time. I remember talking to some visiting writer at some point who said that you know you're a real writer if you can't not write--if you feel compelled to write all the time. I've written on this topic before, and I feel it's a bit cruel to say this to young writers who will experience ebbs and flows in their writing compulsion, as everyone does.

Get up at five in the morning to write. I think it was the same person who mentioned various poets who held down day jobs and got up at five in the morning to write several poems in a zen-like state before going to work. The implication was that if you don't feel the burning need to get up early in the morning to write, you just don't have the drive to make it. I think this works for some people and not others; I never had the ability to focus on creativity early in the morning, and for a while I thought that made me somehow less of a writer. It's a ridiculous idea.

You're not a real writer unless you make money from your writing. Okay, I do think there's some merit to this one. I do think there are a lot of future novelists and other excellent writers out there right now who don't make a cent from their writing; I'm not questioning their legitimacy. But I do feel as though, when I'm talking to someone at a party and they tell me they're a writer, I usually assume they mean it's their job. If I question them further and find out they keep a journal and they wrote their own wedding vows, I'm not really going to think of them as a writer--unless they show me their work and it's fantastic.

Here's the thing. When you tell people you're a writer, your writing better back you up. I remember getting a snarky comment about this on my other blog about how the person in question didn't get paid for his blogging, so he (sarcastically) said I must think he was a "fake" writer. Not necessarily. But I do think you are a "fake" writer if you think you can write, and you can't. There are plenty of sensational writers who write excellent blogs or even poems about their grandmothers that nobody ever sees. I don't think every good writer out there gets paid--but I do think if you get paid for your work, it's an indicator that you're at least decent at what you do--and ergo, you're a "real" writer.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Last to Know

This week I'm reading The Last to Know by Melissa Hill. After I finished Skylight Confessions I've vowed off of reading Alice Hoffman books for at least six months. I thought that Skylight Confessions had some haunting characters, but the overwhelming feel of the book was so melancholy and filled with such loss that I just can't bear to read anything else by Hoffman. Skylight Confessions is a moving book of love and loss through three generations. What begins as a chance encounter between a man who gets lost on his way to a party and asks for directions from a beautiful stranger in the mooonlight turns into a story which charts the destruction of an ill-fated romance. What engaged me about this novel was the illusions to fairy tales and the clever work the author does making each character's story relate to the larger fairy tale theme that dominates the novel.

So, this week I've moved onto something lighter-- hopefully. One of my friends was raving about this book. I'm about a hundred pages in and so far it feels lighter than my last reading selection-- so with any luck this will snap me out of my melancholy funk (which has settled on me after finishing my last book).

I'd also like to take this moment to mention that as I'm on holiday for Easter break I'm going to try to get a few blog posts ready to go so that I can be more consistent in my posting! Phew!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Skylight Confessions

This week I'm reading Skylight Confessions and I'm a little bit in love with it. It's typical Alice Hoffman fare-- a fairytale for grown-ups with some stunning language and beautiful imagery. I've kind of fallen for the whole 'living in a glass house' and being destroyed by stones themes. I'm not sure if I will feel the same way when I finish it-- but I'd love to hear what other people think.