Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:
Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naïve.
There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).
That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”
I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.
If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.
Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.
Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.
That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.
If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.
You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.
All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.
- Hello, HSC year. [↩]