Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Expiration Date?

Over the years I've seen a lot of writers (editors, publishers, whoever) make statements which imply that there's some sort of deadline for starting a writing career, as though creativity has an expiration date and if you don't use it by then it goes bad. A recent blog comment made me think about this, but the idea has been around for a long time -- I've read similar opinions on other blogs, on journals and forums, in books and magazines, and on BBSs in the pre-web days. It's one of those things everyone just knows, or accepts.

But... seriously? The context is usually some sort of conversation between a writer and a non-writer, where the non-writer says something like, "You know I've always wanted to write a book." The writer thinks (or occasionally says out loud) something like, "No, you don't. If you really did then you'd have done it."

Or maybe it's, "I always wanted to write," and "No you don't, or you'd be writing." Something like that.

Or a comment about how if you're capable of not writing for any period of time, then you're clearly not a writer and you'd be better off going back to your triple-entry accounting or whatever it is you've been doing with your life all along.

I've always felt uncomfortable about these statements, though. For one thing, it's pretty obvious that stepping up to say, "Well, I don't write all the time -- I've gone weeks or months or even years without writing any fiction in the past," will bring about the obvious retort, "Well, you're not a real writer, then. Nyah!" which makes the whole thing sound more like the tauntings of a junior high clique in a lunchroom rather than an actual discussion among adults.

Aside from that, though, there's also the familiar trap of assuming that everyone is the same. It's great that some people hit the ground running -- one of my fellow Torquere authors isn't old enough to drink (or maybe just turned twenty-one?) and has nine stories published already. That's awesome, seriously. But George Eliot started at thirty-six -- what if someone had told her, at thirty or thirty-five, that if she were "really" a writer she'd have done it already, and that therefore she should go back to her knitting? Janet Evanovich's first novel came out when she was in her fifties. Laura Ingalls Wilder's first novel came out when she was in her sixties. Watership Down, Richard Adams's first novel, came out in his fifties.

Some people have other things going on in their lives. Is someone disqualified as a writer because, after having a long career at something else, they turn to writing in their retirement? Does that not count? My own first thought is that someone who's lived a full life probably has a lot to write about.

Or maybe someone has confidence problems and can't quite manage to apply seat of pants to seat of chair in front of a keyboard for a year or three or thirty. Dude's got issues? Maybe so. But maybe living with, working through and resolving those issues will give the older writer -- again -- something worth writing about.

How about the idea that you have to write every day? If you can do it then that's great, and it's tough to support yourself solely through your writing unless you do produce daily. Not everyone can, though, for a variety of reasons. So what? If the writer who bangs out words for two hours a day sneers at the writer who only puts in two hours a week over the weekends, what about the writer who puts in eight hours a day? If a 2/day writer thinks a 2/week writer sucks, does the existence of the 8/day writer mean the 2/day writer sucks?

Different people are different, and fiction writers of all people should know that. It's easy to get caught up in a bit of rah-rah-for-us when we're together with other writers, to talk about what it's actually like to be a working writer versus what the general public thinks it's like, to swap war stories about short sleep and insane deadlines and taking a jackhammer to that writer's block, and brag about how anyone who can't hack brutally honest criticism had better not quit their day job. All that's true, and certainly anyone who wants to have a prayer of being a full-time writer had better be able to hunker down and do the work and produce quantity and quality both, and not break down at a less-than-diplomatic rejection or review.

That's not the only way to be a writer, though, and in the middle of all the bragging and snarking and one-upmanship and war stories, it's easy to forget that the person who has a poem published in a magazine qualifies as a writer too, just as much as the person with a shelf full of novels. And someone else who delays (procrastinates, lazes, dithers) and doesn't even start tapping out their first tentative manuscript until after the social security checks start coming is also a writer.

Someone who says, "I've always wanted to try writing," might not be a writer right now. They might never actually be a writer. But then again, they might, some day, and it doesn't diminish any of us to acknowledge the potential.



Charles Gramlich said...

You make a good point. I hadn't really thought of it from that perspective. Although I can totally understand how someone might have to wait until retirement to really start producing stuff.

Personally, I find that I "need" to write almost every day if not every day, or the first stuff I put down takes longer to gel. But we should all be careful not to judge others by what "we" prefer to do.

I guess it is just that there are many types of writers and there's no set rule about who can or cannot call themselves a writer. When you have a gap like that, people fill it in with what seems normal for them.

I also think that, for some folks, it is a motivation to be told that a writer writes every day, or almost every day. But if they're motivating themselves they shouldn't put the onus on someone else for being different.

Natasha Fondren said...

I'd prefer to do nothing but write for two weeks, then do nothing but read for two weeks.

Angie said...

SS -- that's another way to to it, sure. [nod] So long as what-all you need to do gets done, what order or at what frequency isn't as important.


Angie said...

Charles -- sorry, thought I'd answered you already. [duck]

I guess it is just that there are many types of writers and there's no set rule about who can or cannot call themselves a writer.

Exactly -- it's not like there's a test to pass, or some kind of licensing or certification. To me, someone who writes is a writer. And even someone who doesn't write might start to write and become a writer some time in the future.

I think it was Bernita who made the distinction a while back between a writer, as someone who writes, and an author, as someone who's been published. I'm willing to accept that on principle, in discussions where the distinction is relevant.

It's understandable that someone who's had to deal with misunderstanding or even a patronizing attitude from people who've never even tried (the old, "One of these days I'll take a week off work and write a novel" sort of person) would want to draw some sort of line around what a writer is and maybe even surround the "Writer" space with razor wire to emphasize to people who think writing is easy that it's not a kick-back way to make a living. But there's got to be some way of depressing the pretentions of those who are being actively obnoxious without also tearing the throats out of people who might actually become writers some day but are still dealing with their issues.

I also think that, for some folks, it is a motivation to be told that a writer writes every day, or almost every day. But if they're motivating themselves they shouldn't put the onus on someone else for being different.

Agreed. [nod] Heck, I'd love to write every day. I make resolutions to that effect every New Year's. [wry smile] Sometimes it just doesn't work, though. I feel more or less creative (ambitious, optimistic, focused, whatever) depending on where my brain chemistry is at any given point, and I've learned to deal with that. Other people have other situations they have to learn to deal with, and while I admire to death the people who are able to pull their crap together and focus on the WIP for eight hours a day, and agree that people who just need the encouragement or discipline to do so should be able to find that encouragement, the assumption that the situation is the same for everyone and that therefore the same solution will work for everyone -- with the corolary that if that enshrined solution doesn't work for someone, they're obviously not a "real" writer -- benefits only the egos of those who make it. :/


writtenwyrdd said...

Good points, Angie.

1. You do not have to write every day to be a writer. If you want a blazing career, I'd say that's a requirement, though!

2. You can start writing at any age. I plan on going full time as a retiree, and my present efforts are desultory at best due to a job that eats my life and free time.

3. Rules and lists thereof are for the birds. Including this one! :)

Why do we always feel the need to 'rank'ourselves anyhow? Fooey on that.

Steve Malley said...

The Muse is a shy, snuffling, cantankerous, foul-smelling beast, biting whom he will, when he will.

The bite carries a venom for which there is no cure...

Brett Easton Ellis and Steven King, Isaac Asimov and the Bronte Sisters were bitten young. So were FItzgerald and Hemingway, founders of the Modern Cult of Writer as Rock Star.

George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wilkie Collins, James Ellroy and Robert Heinlein were not bitten until they were much further down the road to adulthood.

Frank McCourt might be the ultimate retiree-turned writer.

And as for the Cult of Writer as Priest, daily tending their tiny Electronic Shrines to the Art of Story, I have to confess I'm one of these guys. I write every day, rain or shine, birthday or not, until the draft is done.


Given their results, I'd be happy to follow WHATEVER schedule made Thomas Harris, Donna Tartt, John LeCarre and Henry Miller wrtie like that!

Come to think of it, Harper Lee wrote one book and called it a day. Does that make her 'not a real writer?'

Maybe she just found the cure for Muse Venom...

Great post!

Angie said...

WW -- sure, if you want to live on your writing income, every day or at least 5/week like most other people is a really good idea. [nod]

About the ranking, I suspect it's because a lot of people who know nothing about the publishing industry imagine that writing is an easy job. And there are folks who do pour huge amounts of time and work into writing and submitting and promoting and want some way of differentiating themselves with people whom they don't believe have "earned" the right to claim the same label. It feels like a long, drawn-out game of Haze the Newbie, actually, except that in this industry the preferred outcome of that game is to make the newbie leave completely, rather than just making them go through a memorable rite of passage before being accepted. :/

Steve -- great examples! And yes, I should've remembered Harper Lee. Clearly a flaky wannabe. [cough/eyeroll]


laughingwolf said...

you nailed it, angie... :D

unfortunately, HOLLYWEIRD immediately rejects most scripts not written by anyone under 35, with 'no track record' grrrrrrrr

Angie said...

LW -- if that's accurate it's yet another reason why I have absolutely no interest in being a screenwriter. :P


laughingwolf said...

it's true, though wga won't confirm it... snoop around, and you can see for yourself