Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Name Calling

Last month I sold my first photograph. I've been taking pictures for about two years now, but just recently began showing them publicly. This was my first show.

This morning I was telling a friend about the sale and she said, "Congratulations! You're a photographer!"

Well, no, not really. I take photographs, and one of them is interesting enough that someone bought it and hung it in his home. But I'm not a photographer.

What I am is a writer. My income comes entirely from my writing. Selling this photograph added a little bit to the pot, but it's the writing that pays the mortgage. Everything in my life is paid for with words.

Why the distinction? Well, this is the tricky part. I'm going to step on some toes here, hurt some feelings, maybe even make a few enemies. But the truth is, I'm tired of people calling themselves writers who aren't really writers. They're people who write.

What's the difference? Well, I like riding horses. That doesn't make me a cowboy. I like writing reviews of the films I get from Netflix. That doesn't make me a film critic. I like taking pictures. That doesn't make me a photographer.

There's an attitude (and I think it may be peculiar to North America, maybe even to the United States) that anything "arty" is fair game. You like to paint? Call yourself a painter! You like to dance? Call yourself a dancer! You like to write?

You get the idea.

Last week I was reading the blog of a perfectly lovely woman whose post of the day happened to be about the writing life. She referred often to "we writers this" and "we writers that." She talked about how the writer's life is so difficult, but reminded us that the rewards of dedicating oneself to the occupation of writing more than make up for the hard times.

Except that she isn't a writer. She's an elementary school teacher. To be fair, she has written a novel. But it remains unpublished. She remains unpublished. In any form. As far as I'm concerned, she's an elementary school teacher who likes to write. She is not a writer.

I can hear you from here. "You're being mean!" "If she says she's a writer then she's a writer!" "Why do you care if she calls herself a writer?"

I'll tell you why I care. Because being a writer is not the same thing as wanting to be a writer, or even the same as working toward being a writer. It is a profession. And if you are calling yourself a writer and it is not your profession, you're insulting everyone whose profession it is.

Listen. I get it. I understand that very few artists actually make a living at their art. I understand that there are a lot of actors working as servers, a lot of dancers working as dog walkers, a lot of writers working as grocery clerks. I know that there are circumstances beyond our control that make it impossible for most of us to do our art exclusively, that force us to be part-time when we want to be full-time. I understand that we call part time artists actors and dancers and writers as a way of acknowledging that it isn't necessarily their fault that they aren't doing this full time.

That's all very well and good, and I don't want to quash anyone's dreams. However.

There's a Jehovah's Witness woman who stops by my house every couple of months. Last time she came she had an older man with her. "This is Clark," she said when I answered the door. "He's a writer like you."

What Clark is is an insurance salesman who has penned a picture book. He wrote it for his grandkids. They think it's brilliant. Clark asked me how he could get an agent.

This happens all the time. When we were buying our house and I had to fill out a stack of forms a mile high, the woman at the title company looked at one of the documents and said, "Oh, you're a writer. I'm a writer too." I forced myself to ask what she wrote. "Poems," she said enthusiastically. "I've done it since I was a little girl."

Maybe her poems are brilliant. I don't know. But I can guess. And yet, she's a writer. Just like I am.

Are you starting to see why this is just the tiniest bit irritating? And believe me, I'm not the only writer who thinks so. All my writer friends do. They just don't want to say so because they're afraid it seems churlish.

Maybe it does. I don't care. I'm tired of people thinking that writing is something anyone can do. I'm tired of everyone who's ever penned a letter to the editor or written an article on rhododendrons for their garden club newsletter telling me they're writers. I'm sick of hearing about some acquaintance's "other writer friend" who turns out never to have published a thing.

Before you start, I realize that defining what does and does not constitute being a "real"
writer is impossible. Is it one published book? Is it five published short stories? Is it ten published poems?

Professional writing organizations have guidelines for membership that vary widely. The Romance Writers of America, for instance, is "open to all persons seriously pursuing a romance fiction writing career." I don't know what "seriously pursuing" means, but there you go.

The Mystery Writers of America are more demanding of their applicants. To be an Active Member one must meet the following requirements.

Active membership is open to professional writers in the crime/mystery/suspense field whose work has been published or produced in the U.S., who reside in the U.S., and who meet specific criteria set by the Board for this category. Currently, some of those criteria are:
  1. The applicant is a professional creative writer of fiction, non-fiction, or drama (including TV, screenplays, radio, and staged drama).
  2. The writer has received payment for his or her work in an amount determined by the Board of Directors of Mystery Writers of America. Proof of payment is required.
  3. The work is neither self-published nor cooperatively published; no monies were required of the writer by the publisher.
  4. The publisher is on MWA's list of approved publishers or eligible to be added to that list; similar criteria are set for dramas, films, and video productions
The Horror Writers Association is even more exacting. Prospective members must have achieved publication credits of varying degrees depending on their genre (poetry, scripts, comics, etc.). For those who write books, the requirements are as follows:

The publication or sale of at least one book-length work, fiction, non-fiction, or translation, sold at professional rates and containing one or more elements of dark fantasy, horror, the occult, or fear. "Book-length" is defined as being in excess of 40,000 words. Professional rates are defined in this case as an advance of at least $2,000 against royalties of 5% or more, OR an advance of at least $5,000 against royalties of less than 5%. Flat-fee sales or royalty rates below 1% of the retail price of the volume do not constitute professional sales. For works not published as independent volumes, such as magazine serials, qualifying rates shall be defined as five cents (5¢) or more per word. "Publication or sale" is defined to mean either publication, or the receipt of payment for future publication; the signing of a contract shall not constitute sale until the first payment has been received.

PEN American Center puts their membership requirements more succinctly:

The standard qualification to become a Member of PEN is publication of two or more books of a literary character or one book of exceptional distinction (i.e. winning a major national prize).

I believe at one time PEN also required letters of recommendation from two current members. I applied years ago, after publishing three or four nonfiction books for young adults. They turned me down, presumably because my books were not "of a literary character."

"Ah ha!" you may be crying. "You know what it's like to be shut out!"

Yes, I do. Which makes it even more annoying when people toss the word "writer" around as if it applies to anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I've worked very hard for the privilege of putting "writer" as my occupation on forms that ask for it. (By the way, there is no option for choosing writer on the tax preparation software I use, as if they decided that no one could possibly make a living at it.) It is what I do. It is what I am.

When you use a word indiscriminately it begins to lose its power. Take fuck. Used once in a while for effect, it's startling. Used over and over, it's tedious. In the same way, when everyone is a writer because they say so, encountering someone who really is a writer is not particularly interesting or, for the writer in question, even remotely pleasant.

Imagine for a moment that you are at a party, chatting to a friend. Someone with whom your friend is acquainted joins the conversation. Your friend says, about you, "This is my friend [insert your name here.] He/She is a writer."

The acquaintance looks at you and says one of the following:

1. "A writer? Good for you. I hope you get published someday."

2. "A writer? Have I read anything you've written?"

3. "A writer? What do you do for work?"

If imagining this scenario makes you grind your teeth to keep from punching your new friend in the face, go off in search of another drink, or triggers a facial tic, you're probably a real writer. If, however, you can respond to those reactions with "Thank you," "Oh, I don't have anything out yet," and "I'm in computers," I'm afraid we have to consider your membership application more carefully.

Again, I'm not trying to be mean here. I wish everyone who wants to be a writer the best of luck. I want you to see your stories in magazines, your books face out on store shelves, your name on the cover of your poetry collection. I really do.

But I also want saying you're a writer to mean something. Like a merit badge in scouting. If you haven't managed to get a fire started using flint and dried twigs, don't sew that patch to your sash. By all means announce that you're working toward earning that badge. Let everyone know, so that we can be excited for you when you finally get it. But don't go sewing it on ahead of time, because that's cheating, and scouts don't cheat.

When I told my friend this morning that I don't consider myself a photographer, she asked what would make me consider myself one. I don't know. I've been asked to do a solo show of my work at a gallery. For that I'll have to produce 25 or 30 prints. Will I be a photographer then? Do I have to sell five of them to be considered a photographer? Ten? What if I don't sell any? I still took them. They're still photographs. But am I a photographer?

Maybe I'll wait for someone else to decide. The one photo I've sold was bought by a real photographer, someone who does it for a living and has published four books of his work. Because he thinks my work is good, does that mean I'm a photographer too? Or will it take something else to make me claim that word? When a reviewer calls me a photographer, maybe, or when my income is comprised equally of money from writing and money from photography. I don't honestly know.

But until I figure it out I'm going to tell people that I'm a writer who takes pictures.

1 comment:

Fred Wemyss said...

As a bookseller who has hoped to become a writer since the age of eight, I say I agree with you. As a provacateur, however, I say, "What about Emily Dickinson?" Was this versifier not a poet before her death caused her survivors to publish her work?