Sunday, March 16, 2014

Now You Can Call Yourself A Writer

@jamesscottbell

There was a bit of a dustup recently over the issue of who should be "allowed" to be called an "author." The incendiary post can be found here. A response, here.

Personally, I've always preferred the term writer. But I think it does come with a qualification. That is the subject of this post.

One comment I've often seen is, "Writers write." Or, "If you write, you're a writer." That always reminds me of Jack Torrance in The Shining, and his page after page of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. That ain't writing, it's typing.

If someone takes a nine iron, with no clue how to grip it or swing it in any reliable manner, and goes out hacking up perfectly good grass day after day after week after year, I would not call that person a golfer. To play golf so it doesn't harm flora, fauna or people on the next fairway requires at least minimal practice and instruction.

This kerfuffle over labels reminded me of a journal handed down to me by a family friend, written sometime in the 1940s. It is the unpublished memoir of a pulp writer named William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster, who was born in 1893 and made his bones with the legendary Black Mask. Note: This paragraph is fiction. I made up Armbrewster the other day and typed out the following entry. I like the guy. I may bring him back in a future post. In any event, here's a clip from his journal.


   The afternoon crowd at Musso's was loud and obnoxious, like a haberdasher with a hangnail. I sat in the corner with my typewriter, pounding away at the new story for Black Mask. It was fighting me. It was pummeling me into the canvas. I was a bleeding mess. So I gave the business to my Martini and cursed the page mocking me from the roller. That's when I noticed the kid. 
He was just standing there, holding his hat. He was maybe twenty-two, twenty-three, which made him a kid to me.
"Are you Mr. Armbrewster, the writer?" he said.
"Right now I'm Mr. Armbrewster, the stinker. Who are you?"
"My name's Benny. Benny Wannabe."
"So?"
"May I sit down?"
"If you buy me a drink. See that man over there behind the bar? In the red coat? His name is Joe. Go tell him to make another for Mr. Armbrewster and then you can sit."
The kid romped off like a happy puppy. I looked at my typewriter and tried to make my detective say something witty. But he just sat there, the piker.
The kid came back and set a fresh one before me.
"Now, what can I do for you?" I said.
"Well, I...I'm a writer. I've read every story you've ever written. I think you're the best. Even better than Hammett and Chandler."
I was starting to like this kid.
"And I just wanted to meet you," he said. "Somebody at the hotel said you like to work here, and so I took a chance and here you are."
"You say you're a writer, eh?"
"That's right."
"What have you written?"
"A short story."
"One short story?"
He smiled, nodded. I took a snort of Martini. Then I popped the olive in my mouth, chewed, and scowled.
"Don't call yourself a writer just yet, kid," I said.
"But a writer writes," he said. "So I've been told."
I ripped the sheet I'd been working on out of the typewriter, crumpled it, and tossed it on the pile on the floor. "No," I said. "A writer works."
Benny Wannabe cocked his head, like that dog listening to the gramophone.
"Look, kid, it's fine to want to write. It's a hell of a business, though, and if you want to make any money at this thing, you have to work, and hard. You have to look at it as a craft, not some ethereal vapor dancing through your noggin, and sweat and fight until you figure out how to do it. Then you have to put your stuff out there, get rejected, fight some more and keep on writing and fighting and typing, until you die."
"Gee," Benny said.
I closed my eyes.
"I have my story with me!" The kid fished out some folded pages and handed them to me. I scowled again, then read the first paragraph.

The wind was a torrent that day, the day of my birth, the day of my beginning life's sad yet remarkable sojourn, and the trees were golden with leaves that looked like little pots of gold with rainbows coming out of them, full of the promise of life and song and the iridescence of possibility. Suddenly, a shot rang out.

"I'm going to need another drink," I said.
"Right away!"
When the kid came back I said, "Listen, Benny, do you really want to be a writer?"
He nodded.
"Not just so you can call yourself one. I mean, so you actually have a chance to make some lettuce at it. You do want to make lettuce, don't you?"
"Oh, yes sir. I believe in lettuce."
"Do you have a job, Benny?"
"I'm a writer!"
"Not yet you're not. I mean, do you have any source of income?"
He shook his head.
"What are you using for dough?"
"My savings. I bought a train ticket, then got a hotel room down the street. The last of it I used on, um, your drinks."
"You want my advice, Benny?"
"Oh, yes!"
I took a fin out of my pocket and slapped it on the table. "Buy yourself a train ticket home. Go back and get a job and marry the girl next door. Run for mayor or dog catcher. Join the Elks. Do anything but write."
Benny's face fell harder than Max Schmeling in the second Louis fight. He said nothing, trembled a little, and tears starting pooling in his eyes.
I looked at him for a long time. Fresh-faced kid, right off a turnip truck, but with a dream. Sort of like a kid I once knew a long time ago. Born in Cleveland, dropped out of college to ride the rails and see life, hoping to gather enough material to make himself a real writer, going off to war and coming home and writing for years without a sale, but never stopping because of the hunger for it, the love of it. I could see just a spark of that in the kid's misty lamps.
"Okay," I said. "You'll need a job to keep a roof over your head. Go on over to Al's Market on Sunset, tell him Bill Armbrewster sent you. Only don't embarrass me."
"I won't, sir!"
"Then you agree to meet with me once a week, and write what I tell you to write, for a year. You willing to do that, Benny?"
"Yes, sir!"
"All right then. Now you can call yourself a writer. Take the fin. Go tell Joe we want a couple of egg-salad sandwiches and some soup. And between here and the bar make sure you grow a thick skin."
"Yes, sir!"
I liked it that the kid's enthusiasm was back, but enthusiasm only gets you so far in life. The ones who make it are the ones who can get kicked in the teeth, have all the stuffing knocked out of them, and still get up and come back typing.

If this Benny Wannabe could do that, he'd maybe make a real writer yet.

So what about you? When do you think someone should be called a writer?

43 comments:

  1. Honestly, I don't much care if someone does/does not call themselves an author or writer. If someone calls themselves a writer and they write 2 sentences in 6 months, who am I to say they aren't a writer? If someone writes book after book but doesn't publish them, who am I to say they aren't a writer/author? Ditto if they trad or self publish or hand their poem to their closest friend.

    Now if they proclaim themselves a doctor and have no license, that's a different story. If they call themselves a pilot and have no training, that's a different story.

    But how someone self labels themselves in the creative arts is their business. If, like Benny, they write garbage, it will affect their own pocketbooks.

    Benny, and anybody else who chooses, can call themselves a writer if they want to. The rewards (or the disdain) are theirs to reap.

    BK Jackson

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  3. Other than the fact that the columnist was writing provocative click-bait, he is a calculating troll.

    The best comment was:

    ---------------------------

    And if we don't label and pigeonhole content creators by 2020 society will collapse. We MUST have separate bathrooms for "authors" and "writers" before this gets out of control!

    ---------------------------------

    And since I know very few who "make a living" with traditional publishing, his drivel is doubly laughable. I also love that there needs to be an income force multiplier because "its easier to make money self-publishing."

    Again, an odious little troll throwing out bombs in exchange for page views. His biography made me laugh. If you have to tell me that you "frequently" travel to shows, then you are such a little man. And he calls himself "Editor-in-Chief." Dude, you are a blogger. Nothing more, nothing less.

    As for myself, I donned the mantle of "writer" when I could say it with a straight-face and had to file a separate Schedule C. I guarantee I made more freelancing last week than little-man did with his actual words (his click bait ad revenue no doubt did better than I did.)

    Yawn, next debate . . .

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    1. Mild-mannered reporter for a metropolitan newspaper? I don't think so!

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  4. I recently blogged about this topic, (cathgreene.wordpress.com), in response to noticing so many writers calling themselves 'aspiring writers'

    In my humble opinion ~ a writer writes ~ period.

    We all carry the need to justify & qualify ourselves, and the labels we use either hinder or help us. In a creative context, they can mean the difference between pursuing your path with conviction, confidence, determination etc or hiding in the safety of a 'wannabe' attitude.
    Writing, with confidence etc, reaps skill, which, in turn, can bring success, and this, I suspect, is the real question in this debate: 'Are you skilled or successful enough to have earned the right to call yourself a writer?'

    Skill & success are highly subjective (rejection slips anyone?).

    'Writer', by definition, is not.

    I vote for leaving the 'right to call ourselves writers' out of the debate, it's a tough enough game as it is, without being told you can't sit at the table in the first place, so leave us with the hand we've been dealt; we'll soon see whose cards take the chips.

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    1. "Aspiring writer"....

      That's a weird one. If you are putting words on paper or screen in some coherent form, you are a writer. Now "aspiring professional writer"? That might be different.

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  5. I think you need a special pen. Yes, that's a must. First a special pen. Then a journal. No skipped days in the journal. Probably a year's worth to prove you're serious. Then, of course, you need a Macbook. I thought I was a writer until several friends pointed out that I was using a Dell. Imagine the shame. And a cat. A writer must have a cat. A tabby. None of those fancy breeds and certainly not a grumpy cat. And don't forget the coffee grinder. Did I miss anything?

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    1. Spot on, Mr. Estrada, (and how brave of you to admit to the Dell!), but in my mind I also picture a whiskey glass and an overflowing ashtray. Now the shame is all mine.

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    2. I had a Dell once. It didn't work half the time and the tech support geek made me cry. I wrote a letter to CEO Mike West about how crappy his product and people were. No answer. I threw the thing away.

      To truly be a writer, you need the right desk lamp.

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    3. Oh...and Scrivener. There is no way to write a novel without it.

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    4. Dangit. I fail on everything but the lamp. I guess i'm a nobody...oh, double dangit...I can't even properly capitalize proper pronouns....

      teh failures compound.

      I will cry now.

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    5. Hello. My name is Ron . . . and I use a Dell.



      Hey, dude. Sorry to hear that, but welcome, anyway.

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    6. I'm allergic to cats, now what do I do?

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    7. Don't forget you need a coffee pot. And not one of those silly Keurig-one-cup-making-coffee-spewers like i have. A real 12-cup coffee pot that you can pour from over and over again.

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  6. Ron Estrada just made me laugh so hard on a rainy day. Man I have a lot to do before I can call myself a writer. I'd better stop writing and acquire a pen, a journal and a cat. A Tabby.

    Love it and this post was gold, Mr. Bell.

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  7. To quote a favorite movie, "Throw Momma from the Train," "A writer writes. Always."

    Writing like a madman, sweating out the writing until your sweating blood, writing with a sense of purpose, writing to practice a point of craft until you've internalized it, writing to create the sort of effect you love as a reader, writing each week, despite the ups and downs of life, writing after an absence with determination and drive, writing better, writing with craft in mind, writing as though your life depended on it, writing for joy and on.

    Author is a hat you wear for having written.

    A writer writes. Always.

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  8. Ron Estrada, very funny. And add a mil venti card from Starbucks.

    I don't like aspiring writer. Not yet published writer has just enough pretense to work. I think. Write. Then use whatever name your agent uses, or whatever Amazon or BN calls you.

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  9. "So what about you? When do you think should someone be called a writer?"

    Probably not me because I'd of written that as, "When do you think someone should be called a writer?"

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    1. I think you should be called a "proofreader." Nice catch.

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    2. Typos that happen on the blog stay on the blog. Writer rule #47,392.

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  10. All during your Armbrewster scene I was seeing Gene Kelly singing, "Gotta Dance!"

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  11. Gee, Mr. Armbrewster, thanks. I'll be be back next Sunday to see what you've written. I really have read everything of yours I can find.

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  12. Hey kid. Don’t listen to Silly Willy here. He ain’t no writer and neither is you. My boss, Mr. Bigshot Bestseller, now dere’s a Writer. He don’t bother with outlines and first drafts and stuff like that. No, Mr. Bestseller, he just starts writing and it’s gold. When he finishes, angels start singing and da book is already climbing da New York Times list. But you can’t be like him. Know why? Cause he ain’t human. Never was. He’s a god or something. Not like you hacks. You ain’t got a chance, so don’t even try. Now, I can’t waste no more time with you’s guys. I got to go bow at the feet of Mr. Bestseller, but listen to what I say, kid. Be smart. Tuck your tail between your legs and run home.

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    1. Wild Bill appreciates facetiousness. He's been known to use it with certain studio heads.

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  13. I'm not a writer, because I don't get paid to write. I get paid to write programming code, so they call me a coder or a software developer. However, I do consider myself a published author with a readership at my blog and as also a publisher of a newsletter with subscribers.

    My opinion is so long as one has regular readers, they should be considered an author, whether they are paid or not.

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  14. People will call themselves what they want to, or need to. Where I live, tons of retired people call themselves writers or artists, but either don't produce a word or obra, or don't have any desire to learn how to become better. I can't stop them, nor do I want to. Giving themselves a label, now that they're no longer the Director of Human Resources or whatever it is that they did before retiring is likely a need.

    But I truly believe that a writer doesn't need to be published or paid to be a writer, provided that s/he is committed to becoming a good writer - by working at it - because it may (will?) take years to become a competent and professional writer (in fiction, at least.)

    For the good of the Order, I wish more writers would respect the craft and respect readers by learning how to write before they foist their work on the public. If a writer pursues the traditional route, at least s/he's gaining rejections and, I hope, knowledge along the way, but if s/he gives up on that route or chooses ab initio to self-publish, the danger is that s/he will publish too soon....for the good of the Order, that is.

    Perhaps we should have more labels: Novice, Crappy, Passable, Not Too Shabby, etc., but then we'd get into that "quality" argument, and I've entered that fray far too often to want to engage in that argument again.

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    1. Sheryl, I think you and Wild Bill would get along famously.

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  15. What is a writer? Real writers know the real writer handshake. If you don't, you're not a real writer.

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  16. Where are the creative police? If someone calls his/herself a writer, who can stop them? I call myself a writer, and if pressed, I say I am pre-published since I do have a novel written. I alone have to deal with the approval/rejection of the hearer. To me, the discussion is moot unless there is a way to govern it.

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    1. You do realize there are people watching your house, right?

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    2. And they are making sure everyone uses the correct bathroom.

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  17. My favorite quote by Mr. Armbrewster is "Writers work!" This is very true! As aspiring professional writer (:) ) with a fun day job, I am fully and wholeheartedly confirm this!
    Writers work every time they create with words. They certainly can (and should, at least most of the time) enjoy writing, but this is still work. They can (and often this is quite healthy) have a day job or another regular occupation except writing. But writing is still work. But just like a regular workout it makes you stronger and healthier the longer you practice it.
    Thank you Mr. Armbrewster and thank you James!

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    1. I wanted to say that "I am confirming this!" :) Sorry for the typo. I need a proof-reader too. :)

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  18. To quote the infamous Max Schrek in Shadow of the Vampire, “We don’t need the writer.” If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. It not . . . uh, go see it. To explain it is to ruin it. If you ever hear those words, you’ll know you’ve been made.

    Since we had our “moment” with British writers a few postings back, here’s what a few of them have to say about it:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/14/creative-writing-courses-advice-students


    As for Musso & Frank: I’ve never eaten there. If I ever go off my strict Vegan — no oil, no dairy, no seafood, nothing with a face or a mother — diet, M&F will be the place I go. Their website is amazing.

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  19. I never describe myself as a writer or--even worse--as an author. But when someone asks me whether I'm a writer, I just say I write. This seems to do the trick.

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  20. Love the responses here. Everyone has their own opinion. I have trouble admitting to the writer title as I haven't been published, and well it's the same with author. I just know that I'm doing my best to continue working on my craft and learning, taking the pain of rejection letters, keeping on. I like Stephen King's storyteller idea better, actually. You see, I have all these stories and book after book I attempt to bring home the gold. Or, at the very least, a smile from a reader. Perhaps, that IS the gold we all search for: that someone loves our work.

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  21. I just blogged about this: http://makingbabygrand.com/2014/03/16/i-didnt-call-myself-an-author-readers-called-me-that/ - In the end, readers call me an author. And that's good enough for me. :)

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  22. Very nice. Most days I'm not sure what I am. If we spend too much time trying to fit the mold of everyone's different definitions of author or writer, we forget to actually write our stories.

    "Writers work." Love it. Can I get that on a coffee mug?

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  23. I love this post and the characters you used to bring the point home. There have been times when I couldn't put down "writer" on a form under occupation and feel I was honest with myself. So I didn't. But when I'm working and growing and writing, it would be dishonest to not tell myself this is my title. So that's my personal ruler.

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  24. Honestly. I didn't enjoy the argument about what's a writer, or who's an author nearly as much as I enjoy the story. I guess, maybe, the difference between a writer and a typist is that one sees the story. The other doesn't, and cares to enter discussions and debate.

    I hope the kid made it. I hope he died happy on the slope of the tracks that come down from Cleveland, right at that place where Ole '98 missed the curve and killed only the engineer, but also nailed close to 30 deer. And I hope his wife was with him, wiping his face, tears streaming down her own, just as he breathed his last. He was a good guy, I hope.

    And I hope he went to see Wild Bill in Wild Bill's last fight against cirrhosis, Whether or not the kid ever became a writer is not nearly as important as to whether or not he was a good human being.

    But I hope the kid became a writer.

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