Why is it so hard to lay claim to the title ‘writer?’ What makes a person feel like doing so is, at best, pretentious, at worst delusional? And is it a problem more common with women? I thought I’d look at my own struggle with the word, and see if it chimes with any of you…
One of my paid gigs – and you’ll see why I crassly inform you that it’s a paid gig, shortly – is writing for a business magazine about freelancing. I write about how to maximise your efforts, grow your business but also, from a freelancer’s perspective, I write about good habits to form and bad habits to avoid. A lot of this is based on my own experience, and there is, I freely admit, a degree of ‘do what I say, not what I do’ involved – I frequently consider the irony of espousing the importance of working reasonable hours and taking regular holidays in an article I’m writing at 2am after a stint of 10-day straight working. (My philosophy in these articles is often, hey, I make the mistakes so you don’t have to). But in the spirit of taking my own advice – which is good advice, it must be, they pay me for it – I am going to implement one of the measures I advise freelancers to do: the annual review and the six-month follow up check. I’ll save the in-depth review for my next post, but re-reading a post from January threw up some interesting thoughts…
In my post, Writer Resolutions You Might Just Keep, I wrote this as one of the resolutions:
Stop being scared of the title, ‘Writer’
OK, this is a personal one to me, but it’s my own bête noire and it’s something I am determined to beat this year. Because, despite the fact that I got my first story published over 20 years ago, I have written for a dozen publications, I have won several writing competitions, have 6 books and a play under my belt and have, in one way or another, been making my living as a wordsmith for the last decade and a half, just because I’m not on the bestseller lists I shy away from the word ‘writer’. I get nervous and fumble my answers if people ask what I do, or about my books, playing it down so that they don’t think I am bragging or laying claim to a title that only belongs to more talented, more famous and more successful people. Well, in 2015: screw that. I am writer, hear me roar…
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, as it’s still something I struggle with, and it comes compounded with a whole load of other insecurities about my writing: about promoting it, about ‘owning’ it, about celebrating it. And while obviously a little humility never hurt anyone, I think constantly disowning the thing that you see as one of the most important facets of what you are as a person and as key part of your career is unhealthy, and I often feel I’m hamstringing my own success. So what’s behind this reticence – and how can I get past it?
‘Everyone’s a writer’
Maybe it’s because it seems that everyone’s reaction when you tell them you are a writer is for them to regale you with tales of the book they will one day write – the myth that ‘everyone has a book in them’ fuelling what are often little more than pipe dreams (this idea may be true, but I’m not sure everyone has a good book in them, or the ability to write it). Maybe it’s that the ubiquity of writing – almost everyone has to do it, even if it’s just in emails or on Facebook – makes people assume it’s easy. Maybe it’s because technology has made it relatively simple for people to publish books, often with little to no quality control involved – we’ve all heard stories of terrible indie authors going nuts because someone has the temerity to point out that their magnum opus isn’t actually very good. I have met many people over the years who have confidently assured me writing is their vocation and future career when they seem unable to construct a decent sentence. So I avoid telling people I am a writer because I don’t want to be lumped in with ‘those’ people: the talentless, delusional horde. Of course this is pernicious on so many levels: it encourages me to judge (and set myself against) other people (who am I to decide if someone else is a ‘writer’? Unless I’m hiring them, or considering buying their book/seeing their play etc, it’s not really my business whether I think they can write well or not); and it sets me up for an equally false measurement: I am scared of saying I am a writer in case YOU don’t think I merit the title. Which leads me to…
I hate to whip out the gender stereotypes, but in my experience this is a very female thing (and I say this not only as a writer, but as someone who has been a female ‘boss’): women tend to be (and are socially conditioned to be) more insecure about their achievements than men (who I’ve often found to be over-confident – in a way that, infuriatingly, compounds their success, so makes that confidence feel justified). I know many incredibly successful women who live in constant fear of the hand on the shoulder, the ‘who do you think you are kidding with this?’ moment. (This is generally made even worse when you add in issues of race, or class – and in arty circles it can often seem that everyone comes from a public school/Oxbridge background, so have connections and polish that you fear you lack). So I worry, sometimes, when I call myself a writer, that everyone is secretly laughing behind my back, going ‘who does she think she’s fooling?’
What does being a ‘successful’ writer mean? Is it getting a publishing contract? Winning an award? (I know people who have done both and struggle to pay the bills). Is it getting great reviews? (You can do that and sell barely a handful of books). Or is it book sales? When I have dared identify myself as a writer, I have had, on more than one occasion, the follow up question to be ‘how many books have you sold?’ (Almost always, interestingly, from men, who seem particularly invested in making you prove your claims to a writing career). Not only is this incredibly rude – would you ask a plumber or a teacher how much they earned? – but it equates being a good writer with selling a lot of books, which of course is nonsense, as anyone who has tried to get through more than half a page of the Fifty Shades books will recognise. I am not sure of many things in life, but I am sure that I’m a better writer than EL James. Then again, I think Lyra the cat is a better writer than EL James. I’m not advocating literary snobbery – one of my favourite writer quotes is Martina Cola blithely asserting ‘the Booker prize money wouldn’t keep me in cigarettes’ – merely saying that writing isn’t just about producing a saleable commodity, so we shouldn’t treat it as such.
Avoiding the drama
Writers can be incredibly insecure – you are, after all, often exposing your soul, so criticism feels very personal – and also, sometimes, toxically competitive. I’m lucky in that I have, in recent years, wheedled out of my life people I have felt are unsupportive of my writing (and I have tried to make a concerted effort to support the efforts of other writers I know, at whatever stage of their careers they are, even if it’s much more successful than me – because it can be very easy to be gracious to those far behind you in the career stakes, much tougher to cheerlead for someone who just landed a great big advance when part of you is thinking, ‘why wasn’t that meeeeeeeeeeeee?’). But it’s very tempting to buy into the idea that success for someone else is somehow bad for you, and for established writers to feel that anyone claiming to be a ‘writer’ without a track record of sales, money, blood, sweat and tears behind that claim is devaluing the title for everyone who has already put the work in. Easier then, often, to avoid the drama by not mentioning it at all.
Not serious enough to be a ‘proper’ writer
This is a bit of a new dilemma for me, but one I have found that, since I started writing urban fantasy books, really bites. (‘Bites!’ Cos, y’know, vampires! See what I did there? This writing thing is a doddle!) My first two books were what you would call ‘literary’ fiction (even now, I am wincing slightly as I type that, fearing you will take it as a grandiose claim for quality) so were ‘serious’ books (though even then, as a woman writer, they were subject to casual dismissal from men who see no women’s themes as serious – I once got a corking rejection letter from a literary magazine that was basically a one page rant about being ‘sick of girls and their feelings’ (!)) But now I have made the switch to fantasy and romance, well, there’s no hope for me, is there? I’m writing silly vampire stories – which everyone knows only appeals to air-headed girls (unless they are written by men, in which case they are a gritty noir inversion of the genre, obvs), so I should just give up now. (My mantra to deal with this is: ‘Terry Pratchett wrote fantasy books’. And since I will fight you with my bare hands* if you dare to tell me he wasn’t a serious writer, I have decided if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.)
*I mean, I’ll lose – I’m a rubbish fighter, and I cry when I break a nail. But I will FIGHT YOU.
Beating the demons
So, how do I fix this? Honestly, I’m still struggling. But I’m trying. Trying by not adding a thousand disclaimers in advance every time I talk about my writing or my books. Trying by celebrating my successes – not just, as in the past, because I need to plug my books or promote my work – but just because I want to start acknowledging my own achievements, instead of apologising for them. Being less judgemental of others – because I’ve realised I’m often just projecting my own issues and false criteria onto them – and to celebrate their achievements, too: recognising we’re in this together, all trying to create something, and we should be proud of our efforts. I want to stop feeling like the world is out to trip me up and call me out, when, in fact, my overall experience has been that most people are positive and supportive (and screw those who aren’t). Wish me luck on this journey – and I wish you luck on yours.
Tracey Sinclair – Writer.