Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writing as Identity: Money or Love?

Today did not begin well. I refuse to accept that as an omen that the day is doomed. I will, however, keep my smoke detector in my hall closet for a little while as a punishment for being so sensitive.

I burned my toast. The entire building now knows. In order to stop my smoke detector from making the piercing horrible noise that is still ringing in my ears an hour later, I had to quickly rip it off the ceiling and throw it in the closet. As I am not a giant, this involves standing on a chair. Unfortunately, the chair almost tipped. It did not, however, and I am taking that as a good sign.

I also got trapped by a train today. The tracks wind sleepily through town and it's inevitable that you have to cross them at some point. There was a train just sitting on the tracks almost the entire way through town and I had to go around. Fortunately, it gave me a chance to listen to more Green Day and nibble on my burned toast and contemplate life.

More specifically, it gave me a chance to contemplate my writing. I read an agent's blog yesterday that made me think a lot. The agent is Nathan Bransford, an agent who blogs fairly regularly. I'm not actually a huge fan of his, not only because he set the record for rejecting one of my queries- twelve minutes after I emailed it- but because, based on his blog, he tends to come across as a little superior and that sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

He had a blog a couple of days ago about "Writing as Identity" in which he said how unsettling he found it when people defined themselves as writers. By this, he was referring to the writers who say "I am a writer. It's who I am." These are the writers who claim that writing is like oxygen, that they cannot live without it. His claim is that people shouldn't define themselves by what they do in their spare time, for example, comparing it to someone who is enjoys reality TV but doesn't walk around claiming "They are a connisseur of reality TV." Well, no, Nathan because that would be both silly AND embarrassing.

However, while my first reaction was to be offended and angry at him, I stopped and thought about it. I know I set up this blog to talk about writing, to give me an outlet so I could write often and regularly yet...was I guilty of the charges he laid down? Am I self-indulgent enough to think of myself only as a writer and everything else secondary?

Given some of my posts on rejection and how personal it feels, I am guilty. Nathan says ofof these writers that, "They've stopped enjoying the writing process, and because writing is so wrapped up in their self-conception, they can't bear the pain of rejection and instead look outward for blame."

He might have a point. I do that at times. Hence the fact that I'm boycotting I don't know how not to feel that I'm disappointing those characters who've charged me with telling their story. I'd say I'd like to be more businesslike about my writing and not make it such a personal thing but, well, what kind of writer would I be then? I used to dabble in journalism and I hated the impersonal nature of it. Anyone can use words to describe facts but not everyone can make those facts interesting and readable.

It's clear from his blogs that Nathan Bransford is a rational creature, one who thrives on the business side of being an agent rather than the creative side. There's nothing wrong with this except his job as an agent is to represent writers. Given some of the comments on his blog, there are definitely writers out there who write because they can, because they can earn money at it, writers who don't have any emotional tie to what they do. I find that fascinating; not because I can't do that but...I don't want to. I thought about it. I've done it. I hated it.

Believe me, I'd sometimes rather love to divorce myself from writing so that I could just do it but not care about it; it would be less draining and disappointing. But...then why would I do it? I like my job in software. I like my friends and family. I have a life outside of writing. But it's writing that gives me that passion, that thrill, that realization that makes me feel like I'm complete. I've had my ephiphany moment where I just knew. From then on, I wrote. I can almost hear Nathan groaning that this is exactly what he meant. I will say that while I could live without writing in my life, that it isn't the oxygen that keeps me going, it does make my life that much brighter, more enjoyable. People don't need sports but it doesn't stop people from dressing head to toe in their team colours, putting up posters and banners, drinking out of mugs while using a mouse-pad adorned with their teams-logo, does it? Sports enhance people's lives. Writing enhances mine. Try telling a die-hard Red Sox fan that their team means nothing, that it's just a stupid hobby. I dare you.

I do tell people I'm a writer sometimes. Most of the time, I don't bother unless it comes up in conversation. This blog is about as nametaggy as I get as to the fact that I'm a writer. I don't go to coffee shops with my laptop so people can see that I write. I don't pull out my notebook everytime I'm with friends and there's a silence so that they can see I'm a writer. I don't carry Stephen King's On Writing with me all the time even though I love that book.

Yet I can't stop my brain from constantly seeing stories in everything around me, hearing an idea from a song on the radio (or, in my case, my iPod). I can't stop myself from filing away news stories for future plot points. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to turn that off. I've actually tried and it doesn't work. I'm still figuring out how to steal something someone told me and work it into a story, even when I think I'm not thinking about writing.

Originally, Mr. Bransford referred to writing as a hobby. He changed that, I think because he realized that saying that was a wee bit condescending. Yes, writing is a hobby for me because it doesn't pay my bills. Yet since I've been watching the Food Network, I've started to love cooking. Yet don't go around thinking I'm a chef and I never will. I consider Mario Batali and Bobby Flay to be chefs just as I consider J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King to be writers. I consider Beethoven, Mozart, Green Day and Andrew Lloyd Webber to be composers and musicians. You know why? Because that's what they are. I guarantee in all of the cases I cited, those people enjoy it, they do it because they have no choice: it's their path in life.

I'm not arrogant enough to suggest I'm in the same league as J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. it because they get a paycheck that we get to say "they're writers?" Is it because they are fortunate enough to get paid for it that they have the permission to be a writer? Or is J.K. Rowling really just a former unemployed single mother who happened to write one of the best children's books and become a multi-millionaire because of it. Is it always about the money?

It would make sense that to agents like Nathan Bransford, that would be the case. It's his job to get writers to the point where they're making money so that he can make money. Yet...where is that line? I suppose he has a point that stamp collectors don't go around claiming to be a stamp collector and making that their identity. Reality-TV watchers don't claim that's who they are. I don't deny that there is a line between claiming to be a writer and actually being one. I am a firm believer that a writer has to write to be a writer. They can't be a coffee-shop dabbler who thinks they are a writer but doesn't do more than read books about it, make outlines and tell people about it. A real writer just writes because we love it. So what should we call ourselves? People-who-have-full-time-jobs-but-have-this-horrible-need-to-go-home-and-make-up-stories? Should I call myself a story-maker-upper-hobbyinst instead of a writer? Or am I allowed to say I'm a writer because...I am? Does making money at what you love grant you the title and identity or is it the thing itself?

I suppose it depends on how you look at it. I like my way better. Naturally. I suppose Mr. Bransford would probably argue that I am one of those writers that he criticized and the reason I'm writing this is because he rejected me. I would argue that's not the case. I just think there should be two sides to every argument. This is mine.

Happy Wednesday!


Nathan Bransford said...

Hey, thanks so much for the really thoughtful response to the post. It sounds like you have a very healthy balance between writing and the other parts of your life, so I don't think we actually disagree all that much. My point, which admittedly wasn't particularly well-expressed, was just that writers who define themselves solely by their writing run into problems because any negative referendum on their writing then because terribly personal.

To be sure, everyone who writes has writing as a part of their identity, and it's hard not to take rejection personally. But there's a fine line there, which I think you did a great job of parsing out in this post.

Samantha Elliott said...

I just blogged in response to this post, because I felt awkward hijacking your comments section and turning it into a mini-Wuthering Life.