A Writer or an Author?

There are hundreds of websites out there that will tell you that to be a writer, all you need to do is write. I used to read this advice, nod sagely, and then think “This is pablum.”

All a writer needs to do is write sounds like something you say to comfort yourself because you haven’t made it and you’re gotten tired (and maybe a little ashamed) of telling people that you write because all those non-writers want to know is if you’ve been published anywhere. Right?

I have friend who, frustrated by the lack of tangible success, frustrated by all the time he poured into something that wasn’t taking off, started questioning his own existence as writer, because if a writer writes something and no one is around to read it… well, you get the drift.

This friend made me feel deeply sad.  Friend, I said.  Just go on with your bad self. Write because you love to write. Write because it makes you happy.  If pouring all this love and time and care into this project that takes you away from the rest of your life is making you unhappy, stop. Come back to it when you’re ready, if you’re ready.  But you don’t need a reader to tell you that you’re a writer.  You don’t need someone else to tell you that you’re a writer.

I don’t think he heard me, deep in the lonely pit of self-doubt and inner critics. We all have those pits and sometimes, we hang out there. No one comes out of there until they’re ready, and usually (hopefully) it’s because there’s something that they really, truly want to write.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve conflated ‘writer’ with ‘author.’  There’s the art and the craft of writing, and then there’s the business of publishing.  Writers often become authors, but not all authors are writers. (I’m looking at you, Kardashian sisters.) If you love to write, write, create, make art…

Sounds like pablum, right?  At least, it sounds like something you hope is true, because then you can legitimize your writerliness, but at the same time, it’s something you fear isn’t true, because self-doubt.

Your doubts do not define you. You can be a questioning, self-doubting writer. (Heck, that’s most writers.)

I think the other side of this whole “How can I be a writer if I haven’t published?” is the underlying question of “When can I quit my job?”

The cold hard truth is that it is tremendously difficult to make writing financially viable.  (Creative writing, that is.  Technical writing is extremely easy to make financially viable, but is considerably less fun.) A lot of people do it, for sure, but there are thousands more who are trying, hoping, wondering, waiting.

But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

You have to publish to be an author.  You have to have fans, you have to have readers, you to sell stuff.  To make a living as an author, you have to publish a lot of stuff, or have a lot of fans, and sell a lot of stuff.  Most authors don’t make a living that way, and those that do very often have had to make a lot of hard financial choices along the way.  That’s a lot of life decisions, a lot of compromise, a lot of work, and yes, a lot of luck and timing.

None of that has anything to do with that little voice deep in your soul that says “Please. Create me.”

There are a lot of people, a lot of websites, who give publishing advice and call it writing advice. These are the people trying to become authors. Nothing wrong with that.  I, too, would like to be the author of many more things that people can actually buy and read.

But do not confuse being an author with being a writer. Anyone who can make a buck off a book can be an author. If you are desperate to be an author you can always self-publish your book and sell copies to your mom and all your Facebook friends. (Selling more than that is also very hard, and a totally different topic.) Heck, put it up on your blog for free. That will make you an author.

It’s the writing the book in the first place, the love and care and time and soul you put into it that makes you a writer.

Thoughts?  Comment below.

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The Shit Sandwich.

At some point in learning to workshop and critique, we come across something called the Shit Sandwich.

The Shit Sandwich is basically this: when you critique someone’s work, start with something good (the bread).  Then tell them the problems (the meat… er, sandwich filling).  Then end on a good note (more bread.)

I had another teacher whose method was more of an open-faced Shit Sandwich–go around the room with everyone saying what works, and then go around with everyone saying what doesn’t work.  There’s a nice simplicity to that, though it means things potentially end on a negative note.

I have mixed feelings on the Shit Sandwich.  I like it as a teaching tool.  I hate it as a workshop participant.

One of the things I discovered as I began teaching is how very necessary it is to give positive feedback, particularly for new writers.  Out there, in the big bad world, you really can’t depend on anyone to be positive about your writing.  It’s wonderful if you have have supportive friends and family and (perhaps more importantly) a writing community, but few people have than when they start.  Out there, you are not guaranteed encouragement to keep writing.

The other thing is that the Shit Sandwich forces both teachers and students to think about what is working.  It’s so much easier to see what’s not working–it jumps out at you like a coffee stain on white pants.  You have to actually think about it to really notice the nice fabric that makes up those pants.  (Note to self: wash white pants.)

But the problem with the Shit Sandwich can be illustrated by the time someone said the following to me: “I’m not giving you the Shit Sandwich. I really do like this.”

Since most writers have a really powerful inner critic, it’s hard enough to trust positive feedback without wondering to yourself “Wait, do they really think this is good, or were they scrambling for bread on this Shit Sandwich?”

It’s the formulaic sandwich structure that makes this tool both useful and hard to trust.  You have to come up with bread.  But would it be there if you didn’t have to have it? It’s difficult enough, sometimes, to trust in people’s positive feedback without wondering if they are only saying that because they’re giving you the Shit Sandwich.  Or because they believe they are saying something nice because you are supposed to say something nice.

The other issue with the Shit Sandwich is that so often the negative things take a long time to explain, where as the positives are “Great read!”  Um.  That’s some thin bread around that giant mouthful of shitty filling.

Then there is worrying about how someone will take something so much that you start couching and qualifying your words in a way that only suggests your point rather than actually stating it.  That’s not an unwarranted worry–as writers, we’re all super-sensitive.  But as someone who has been known to miss the point a number of times, there’s a lot to be said for clarity.

Perhaps sometimes we lose sight of the fact that saying that a work needs work isn’t necessarily a negative.  Is “Your basic structure works well; once you fill this out some more it will be fantastic!” really a negative?  Not for me; telling people how you think they can go from “potentially great” to “actually great” is a good thing.  I haven’t really encountered a lot of writers who go into a workshop believing that their work is perfect and only wants people to tell them so.  Perhaps, however, those people don’t frequent workshops; they submit directly to literary magazines and publishers. (I have seen some crazy things in the slush pile.)

I think my overall point here is that you do no one any favours by not being clear and honest in a workshop.

But….

That doesn’t require being mean or negative or being formulaic in how you deliver the message. And feedback means talking about what works too.

Thoughts?  Comment below.  (And no, you don’t need to give me the shit sandwich in your comments.)