where the writers are
Not a Writer

This was originally a Facebook response - and then formed part of a note to a writer friend. It engendered a lot of (civil) discussion, so I thought it might be a useful blog post: 

"I'm not a writer. I say I'm one in the spirit of "Elinor agreed to it all because she didn't think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition" and because words are, at times, terribly imprecise.

Like you, I am a prolific reader and I write, but that doesn't make me a writer. I'm not compelled to write. I don't see it as a vocation. I don't like talking about writing, which I feel is highly subjective and mostly nonsense. I don't like the company of other writers just because they're writers, any more than I like the company of brunettes or Californians or professors just because I share those commonalities. If writing is all we have in common, it isn't enough. I like the company of thinkers whether they write or not.

I don't live, like my greatly admired novelist friends, in the company of my characters. I never join writers' groups. I've never taken a writing workshop in my life though I have, possibly hypocritically, given them.* 

I do believe, as a person of Letters, it is one of my missions to help my students write better. It is beyond my (or anyone else's) power to turn them into writers if they are not - though it is a responsibility to help them uncover the fact that they are, if they are. 

I don't actually like writing and I don't carry a notebook to make notes on anything that happens in the world "for my book".

If people ask me what I do, I often (depending on who asks) say I'm a writer, because I do write. I have professional clients for whom I write, I make shopping lists, I write letters. I've had books, essays, short stories, poems, white papers, dissertations, scripts, and much more published and have won a lot of writing awards. But I don't think that makes one a writer either. It makes one someone who writes. Quite a different thing altogether. If anyone ever asked who I am, he/she would get a different answer (again, depending on who asked -and why).

I am something else altogether. I am a priest (of what, it is difficult to say). I write sermons. I pursue perfectedness. I chronicle that pursuit. That's about it. 

Yes, I can write - at times competently, at times well, at (rare) times, inspiredly. But in the last case, I don't feel that I am the one who is writing. I transcribe. I take dictation."

_____

*Neither have any of my highly published writer friends. I do, however, have an MFA in Writing & Literature, which entailed a couple of writing seminars as well as Tutorials. But I had already had two books published when I began that degree. 

 

Comments
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"Quite a different thing altogether."

Was fascinated with this when it was a FB entry, and I wanted to argue with you and say,, "Of course, you are a writer."  However, as I read on, you convinced me.  You are indeed "a person of Letters"  who does write and very well.  However, I have always thought we can be what we want to name ourselves, and I like reading how you do not name yourself a writer.  I do call myself a writer because I am compelled to write.  So I have come to agree with you that quality is not what determines if one is a writer but rather one's intention,  motivation, desire, and self-idenity.  So keep on chronicaling and taking dictation!  And writing letters and shopping lists.

You have much to teach us writers.   You may not call yourself a a teacher either, but you do teach and I liked it that you feel a responsibility to help students write better and for those who are writers "to help them uncover the fact that they are."

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Thank you, Sue.

Really appreciate that you took the time to think about this. And I love your conclusion that "quality is not what determines whether one is a writer, but rather one's intention, motivation, desire and self-identity..." That is the crux of the matter. For me, and for me alone, calling myself a writer feels like calling myself a commuter. Yes, one commutes (I don't now, but I did) but that's just a way to get somewhere. It doesn't begin to describe where I am going, why, or from whence I came.) It just doesn't describe my path, and therefore, it doesn't describe me. I understand that others (sensibly) do not have the same perhaps over-complex response to this appellation, but I do. It has to do with my years as a nun, with my scholarly background, with years of philosophy, theology and astronomy, Latin, Literature, Art, French, etc. - twenty years of conventual and university study in these and other disciplines. But, I would absolutely call myself a teacher/professor, yes. And a philosopher, if it didn't sound pretentious, and a thinker (ditto). But with regard to the profession of writing, although of course I must call myself a writer at times for practical reasons, I always feel the urge to add "but"  - which, I am sure, those who identify with writing as a vocation and have a different definition of the word, do not. I always respect the fact that you have truly listened to what people are saying before you respond to posts - and never more so than now. Thanks again. ~ H

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Simple query

I was fascinated to read through the development of your argument in this thought-provoking blog. But forgive me for possibly being dense on the other side of the Atlantic, as you've elaborated on the aspect of being a non-writer and that you are of this ilk. So, what is a writer then? I'm a tad confused as they might say in Manchester.

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Thanks, Nicholas...

I've spent a good deal of my life on the other side of the Atlantic, so very few cultural dilemmas, here. :) I simply mean what I said above to Sue. I think it is the difference between being and doing. I do write, of course. But I just don't feel it is a badge of identification, of being. All of my academic colleagues write and most of them write well, but if you asked them what they do, they would not call themselves writers. They'd identify as academics or professors. Perhaps it's just where one puts the emphasis in one's life. Perhaps, it's as simple as saying, "I am, among other things, a writer." But I don't think so. I'm certainly an author. That has a clear definition: Someone whose writing is published. I have no difficulty with that. But my doctors have written books and are also authors. My lawyers have written books and are also authors. My priest and rabbi friends have written books and they too are authors. My husband (the former head of three movie studios and a producer/director) and elder son (a designer/design professor) have written several very highly regarded books. But none of them would answer a question about who they are (or even what they do), by responding, "I am a writer." Nor would I. I'm still thinking this one through, but I hope this short musing helps answer your question. I think, however, that Sue Glasco answered it best. :) Thank you for responding, Nicholas. I appreciate the input.

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Writing Distinction

Thank you, Harrison (if I may) for taking the time for such a thoughtful and well-considered reply which I greatly appreciate. 

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Distinctions...

You may, of course, and it was my pleasure to have the opportunity to explain it to myself by attempting an answer to your astute question. :)

 

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Thanks, Harrison

Dear Professor Harrison:

You make me think.  I suspect that is what good philosphers do.  Thank you for your ever present encouragement to me.  That is what good teachers do, of course. 

Sue

 

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Sue...

You couldn't have said anything more pleasing. Thank you.  

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Identities...

I get what you are saying, Harrison, about not wanting to be identified as a writer. But, is such identification always an identity? You have mentioned several other aspects about your vocations, interests and persona that identify you or others may identify you with. For some of us who are primarily exposed to your writings, you are a writer, who is also many other things. It raises the point about perception again. “What am I?” as opposed to “Who am I?” ‘What’ is open to interpretation, whereas ‘who’ is the essential self one chooses to be more than any other, or more than any other at a given time.

Although I have never attended any writing workshop, or camp, and have not participated in any contests (and I do not even feel the need to write about the writing process, mainly because I have none that would make sense), I do carry a notebook – or borrow paper in restaurants, or scribble on napkins, not for “the book”, but because I need to. Those words might be lost soon, but when I have penned them they seem very important, indeed.

Does that make one a writer? Does being published qualify? You have answered these questions quite lucidly. For me, the writer persona supersedes all else because there is little else! I don’t, and possibly can’t, do anything outside of writing. Most major occurrences in my life have taken place because of my writing. Yet, I have used “not a writer” on occasion much in the manner one denies other ‘community’ identities, when you get slotted with the group and individuality gets axed for the affiliation that one might not necessarily feel.

Quite a ramble, this, but got me thinking. I am sure if we were to meet, it would not be as a writers’ bloc!

~F

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Sesame Street...

Thank you for your always valuable and ever engaging thoughts, Farzana. Is identification, identity...? Not if it comes from others, as you indicate. To those who know one in a certain role, that role is an identification. I remember the first time I heard a little boy say, in reference to me, "That's Christopher's mom." It seemed so odd at that moment - one of those crystal clear seconds that seem to carry valuable lessons. It wasn't that I didn't know (and cherish the fact) that I was Christopher's mom - just that being defined by my relationship to someone else was a little thinking moment for me. (And of course someone must have said in the past, 'That's Richard's daughter" or "this is my student", but you know how those moments are - they're not logical - they just pierce the day with thought.)

 Your reponse made me think of a little sketch in Sesame Street, so many of which I loved to watch with my children when they were young, about relative identity. It was a profound song for very young children which included lines like "To my teacher, I'm a pupil"; "to my neighbour, I'm the paperboy"; "to my mother, I'm her son..." etc.  The singer concludes he is all of these things and more but that the most important thing is that he is big enough inside to encompass all of them and more because he is himself.  This all makes perfect sense. I was referring to self-identity though - just (at first) a passing thought that despite my profession and activity, I am uncomfortable self-identifying as a writer because it doesn't seem honest. And again, only for me.

Also, to be clear, I also always have a small tablet and pen with me - but not one (like other writers I know) dedicated to writing my book in case I get a sudden attack of writing in the grocery store or concert hall. Mine is just for practical reasons - facts, a stray thought, something to add to a "to do" list, an address, a new word. Sometimes an idea. Yes. Or a response to Art. Thank you for this, Farzana. I don't know the answer to your questions. I don't know the answer to my questions. But I do like exploring them and if we were to meet in person, I agree - we most definitely would not have writers' or any other kind of bloc/block! I'll look forward to that. ~ H

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Harrison, you have really

Harrison, you have really started something here! Very interesting blog and the comments are equally so. I have to agree to Farzana when she states the, What am I? or the, Who am I? Also, I have never been comfortable with the writing workshop camp per se. I do tend to say that 'I write' as opposed to 'I am a writer'. Somehow the latter makes me uncomfortable. I too, jot my words down on napkins and in notebooks and they do become precious and more meaningful to me because of that. You have given me and the others food for thought and if I may say so, comfort, if that makes any sense at all. mx

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Three things...

AS Byatt's story, "Raw Material" in her Little Black Book of Stories, Isaac Asimov's short story "Profession" in his Nine Tomorrows, and the nonfiction work, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, in which there is a forked road and an academic/intellectual/literary/writing decision made. These three wonderful stories (both fiction and not) comprise a decent answer to my own question...and I wouldn't have thought about this odd trilogy as a trilogy without the engaging discussions here and on Facebook. "I write" is a perfect solution, Mary. Though, I can imagine a conversation going like this:

"What do you do?"

"I write."

"Oh, so you're a writer..."

"No."

My own personal solution, since I can hardly answer the initial question with a request to read the three pieces above, is to simply say, yes, I'm a writer and continue to feel uncomfortable. But to my friends and to my colleagues and fellows in the profession of writing, I feel a little more candour is in order. Thank you for your thoughts - the comfort does make sense. The relief of being seen for what one is, makes up for the discomfort of being it.  Or so it seems. ~ Hx

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Point of view

Harrison, as always, you have generated a deliciously complex thought process. 

My answer to the question depends on who is asking me, rather than what I think - except for the last example (below). This possibly reveals a little fragile vanity on my part.

For example, if I am in a social setting, I will generally say that I am a writer, and if pressed, provide a brief overview of what I produce. In a business setting, I am specifically a business content writer, and to educators, I create readers.

When I meet a writer whose work I admire, I am at a loss. Under those circumstances I never, ever volunteer that I am a writer. Perhaps that is wrong - generally if these idols of mine can drag it out of me, they are the most encouraging of all.

Now, however, I am compelled to mull over what this all means, and will enjoy doing so based on what you have provided as spice.

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Relative truth...

The answer "depends on who is asking me, rather than what I think..." yet all are true. Very Alice in Wonderland and very useful. I think in your last example, Mary's solution would work: "I write." Elegantly simple and not uncomfortable. This was all so much easier when I was a nun. In those days, at that time, everyone understood that this label meant a great variety of occupations - teaching, writing, singing, contemplation, studying, the pursuit of perfection (not expecting to come within any measure of range of such a thing but just a dedication to the pursuit of philosophical/spiritual/intellectual mastery in some field of endeavour). I suppose I miss an umbrella term. You've found an excellent solution. Having an impossibly medieval strain in my thinking, I'm still looking for mine. :) Thank you, as always, for the kind words. ~H

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Thought-provoking....

Such fascinating thoughts, Harrison, and discussion following.

I’ve held off entering it because I have been sorting through my own feelings about the term “writer”—which I use, in the same way as I use “musician”, as a means of simplifying my activities for others.

I, like some others here, am one of those writers who has never participated in either a writers’ workshop or group. My reason for avoiding them is simple: I had enough public scrutiny in auditions, juries, and master classes to last me several lifetimes. I prefer to get feedback on my writing privately. 

As to writing itself, I enjoy it, at times even love it, especially in retrospect (bowing to the ghost of Dorothy Parker), but I don’t feel compelled to do it. What I do feel compelled to do is express myself, and use words—when they are appropriate—to that end.

My observations of people tell me that the need for self-expression is a deeply human one—not exclusive to those with extraordinary talents or advanced skills.  And so I wonder how many of us who feel uncomfortable with the term “writer,” feel that way not only because of a few of the images associated with writers, but also because of the word’s limitations. As you said, so beautifully, and so accurately, “because words are, at times, terribly imprecise.”

We are so much more than just one….

Thank you for a wonderful post.

B

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A way of simplifying...

This makes sense of course... It is what I/we end up doing. I found this so interesting, Barbara. I don't find the word witer uncomfortable because it applies to the talented writers in the world, but because it also applies to the hopelessly inept. In other professions - lawyer, doctor, engineer, professor, priest, one has to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency to call yourself by the title of your profession. It just seems odd. And mostly because it just isn't true of me, the way it is true for Rosy, to whose spirited post below, I bow in deference. It's not that Rosy and I don't have similar internal observational lives or engage in similar writerly activities. We do. It's just that the impulse to - observation, for example, springs from different sources. I think the word "writer" is a noble one - and well applied to some. I would not misapply it to the vast numbers of bloggers and scribblers who appropriate it to themselves. But be that as it may (there are degrees of excellence or ineptitude in every profession or activity as well as within ourselves), it just isn't the right single word for me. And I will probably keep on using it because, as you intimate, there isn't a better one. You asked me in an interview once about my writing process and my answer to you then is relevant to this discussion:

"I’m honestly not aware of process, largely because I rarely write anything as a process. What I mean is that the process – the composition - germinates and develops in my head and it’s difficult to differentiate that from my usual thinking, which is fairly fanciful at times. Although I have trained myself – and been trained by others when young, to pay attention to what I see before me, it rarely has my full attention. What I am really paying attention to is not what is there – but what appears not to be. When I actually write these thoughts down, they are in almost final form and the writing takes very little time. I’m not really conscious of any elements of my writing, because I feel that I am recording something that has already been written – not actually writing it. I rarely revise beyond proofreading or structural modifications because the entire work seems to be finished before I write it down. I don’t read it aloud to myself, though I “think it aloud” to myself, which is a different thing from thinking it or thinking about it. It’s similar to hearing it – like remembering a song without singing it aloud."

I appreciated that question then - and I so appreciate your input here, now. Thanks, Barbara.

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Impulse

I understand, Harrison. And I had to smile when you used this passage from our interview in your answer. It, and a couple of others, were in my mind as I was commenting. But what a rich discussion this is. I've enjoyed every word. Many thanks again.

B

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Harrison, I *am* a writer :)

I am compelled to write. If I don't write, life descends into chaos. It's a way of cleansing perception, shifting psychic weight, avoiding emotional situations becoming super-charged. Writing keeps me buoyant, even largely fulfilled. It makes me observe the world in detail and plumb a rich abundance of simile and metaphor as well as helping to unravel confusion and conflict. However, I am speaking mainly of creative writing, even if non-fiction.

Hardly anyone reads what I write, H, but I am sublimely okay with that. I may sing, I may paint, I may be a mother, a widow, friend  etc. etc. but I am nothing if not a writer. It may be a modest offering, but it will form my legacy.

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Yes you are, Rosy and this is

Yes you are, Rosy and this is exactly what I mean. Thank you for articulating this difference so perfectly. Life does not descend into chaos if I do not write - writing does not keep me buoyant or fulfilled. I observe the world in detail and examine and appreciate the most minute of observations as well as the larger ones, but it is not writing that makes me do so. It is something quite, quite different.

More people read your work than you may think. I certainly do - and revel in your writing, especially your poems. When you say you are nothing if not a writer, I don't know what to say. I cannot say this. I don't know what it means. I love that you can say it with such vigor - such passion.

As for legacy - you will leave a beautiful one. I suppose I will leave a well-chronicled one. There are a hundred filled journals in this house somewhere. Someone will read these someday - as well, perhaps, as my published work. But this chronicle was born of no compulsion - just longstanding habit. Weeks have gone by without a single entry - and this causes no distress. My world remains as beautiful (or not) and as ordered whether I write or not. I just like to, sometimes. Sometimes I don't. Thank you for this rich and deep description.  Kind of you, and very helpful, to weigh in. ~ H

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Thank you for your very kind response!

I'd just like to add, H, lest there be any misapprehension, that writing is not a substitute for life, and if it is an escape, that escape is a kind of parenthesis in which experience can be digested, chronicled and productively used. Writing, for me, is a way of capturing the moments, a kind of snapshot with subtext, before it is gone. It's a means of celebrating life, rather than taking refuge in an alternative, and I'm sure I function a whole lot better in the world in any capacity because of it. I remember, aged 12 or 13, first discovering the joys of creative writing when confined with illness. That sense of liberation and adventure has never gone, despite decades of struggle to refine the process. My greatest (instinctive) fear, since the year dot, has been that if I 'go with the flow' wholesale, I'll end up somewhere far removed from who I most truly am.

Years of intensive singing did prove that it comes a close second, for similar, but differently configured reasons. I loved it and was entirely smitten by that world. But it requires a huge commitment in terms of travel, rehearsal, times and places, living in another agenda altogether, that is difficult to sustain as Anno Domini creeps on :) And, though it hones the senses, there's little space for reflection.

Thank you for such an inspiring post!

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Understood.

Recollection in tranquility - as Wordsworth said. I'm fascinated with both the definition and the execution of the writing life. For me, the latter doesn't change just because the former is explored. I live a writer's life - it's just why I do that my blog post was exploring.  Your description above gives flight to your first post, but I understood what you meant.  And this is exactly how I feel: "If I go with the flow... I'll end up somewhere far removed from who I most truly am." Beautifully articulated. Or as Timothy said, "If I went somewhere else, and did other things, I'd end up not being me, wouldn't I?" And this was referring to going out into the world with his immense, otherworldly singing voice. He sings bettter than any one I know and he doesn't sing except in Wales and for his own reasons... Well. I foresee a digression so will stop. Thank you for your throughly engaging posts as well. Always a pleasure to discuss our world/s with you, Rosy.

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To write or not to write

Absolutely marvellous blog and what an enthralling stream of comments following from your readers. An exciting existential experience!

In light of what has been expressed so eloquently by you Harrison and others, my final comment would be: I write therefore I am.

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And mine would be...

...beyond a very large "thank you" that this is enviable. Because, by education and instinct, I seem to live in that eternal dialectic, nurtured by a kind of Cartesian revolution, that being (living - or writing about it) isn’t quite true. There is a sense in which I can only think (or write) insofar as I am not. Which is why it is so much fun to engage with all of you. :)

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Viva Red Room

Many thanks to you Harrison, our fellow writers on Red Room and those kind folks at Red Room itself for enabling such an exciting and thought-provoking exchange of ideas to be expressed following your original post, Harrison.

A memorable experience and it's a privilege to be part of this group.

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Seconded.

Thanks, Nicholas - and thanks all. :)

 

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Releasing the sculpture from the rock

Harrison,

Talent is amorphous. Craft can be taught. The convergence of the two is genius.

Thanks.

Jane

 

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Absolutely.

Beautifully said.

Thanks, Jane.

~H

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To twist on Nicholas Mackey's I write therefore I am ...

I am therefore I write.  That's my tagline on my blog.  For me, writing is who I am because I am always writing, just not always on a laptop or a piece of paper with pen.  I write in my head while I'm on a walk or cooking dinner.  So, for me, it's by my existence that I write.  But I do appreciate and respect your shrug of the label of Writer.  Why does anyone need a label?  You are a complex enough person that one label wouldn't be sufficient to describe you any way.  That, in fact, is very clear from your blog and your comments, so why even bother with donning a label.

And if others insist on Writer, then one wants to know what kind of writer and so we go on our way to being pigeon-holed.  I am a Writer, but I choose that label for myself and am content with it.  But I could also label myself a Knitter, a Cat Lover, a Seamstress, a Reader of Many Books, and so on.  And so usually I just identify myself through my name and leave it at that. 

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Many thanks, Marie.

Excellent points.  "Reader of Many Books and Lover of Cats" are two alternatives that I could easily use. I wrote a blog post on that once. :) ( http://redroom.com/member/harrison-solow/blog/the-dubious-skills-we-acqu...) Yes, it isn't self-identification that is the problem - but just answering the questions others naturally ask. And I also write almost entirely in my head. Head-writer. Hand-writer. It does get to be over complex. Not to mention as you said, "then one wants to know what kind of writer..." I wrote a blog post on that as well (http://redroom.com/member/harrison-solow/blog/so-what-kind-of-writing-is...) I appreciate your thoughts. Especially this one: "...I just identify myself through my name and leave it at that." Sage advice. Thank you.

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Titles

As Marie indicated, and others know, you are a multi-leveled being so it seems appropriate to switch titles according to who is asking, which for most people can help them understand at least something about you. It's a starting point perhaps.

When someone asks me, or tells a third party in front of me, that I am a "writer" or a "so-and-so" my internal reaction is one of surprise. It seems that what I do or what I am is not an always-present thought, so I am jarred into shifting from whatever I'm thinking about (probably observation) to figuring out if I really am a "writer" or a "so-and-so". I'm then off and running with other thoughts like, well, I'm a writer but I'm also a visual artist, or I'm a writer of poetry and also plays but not of novels, etc. etc. etc. Then ego starts getting into the act, and then thoughts about being too egotistical, then sometimes thoughts of what would this person like to hear about me, on an on. The immediate personal and present experience with that person is gone.

Thank you for discussing this writer business, Harrison, and for the great responses. Only when I see/hear questions like this do I examine myself and sometimes uncover how I operate, so I am grateful.

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Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing...

...as Kierkegaard said. One seems to will many things as a Person of Letters/literatus, which is the only (and unfortunately pretentious-sounding) label that seems comprehensive enough. I love Marie's idea of making one's name synonymous with who one is and what one does... very appealing. I enjoued your descriptions, Alice. We've been e-friends fo a long time, and you've read my cv so you're familiar with the dilemma. It would probably make sense, if asked what one does, to say that there are multiple answers to the question and mention what one is doing at the moment. Then the conversation can move on to topics of mutual interest. I think you do a fine job in describing your many roles in life, Alice. Poet Laureate is a pretty fine title!

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wrting as avocation

I feel a lot of people who are published "writers" aren't really writers, but hacks.  How refreshing to read about someone who doesn't consider herself a writer.  I, also, do not classify myself as a "writer" though I speak several languages fluently and have a large vocabulary in English.  But my point is I do firmly believe that writing about something--for your own elucidation, is important because after you've taken pen to your splayed, fragmented thoughts, you not only begin to understand the subject better, but sometimes surprise yourself by realizing that what you thought you knew, you didn't.  It refines one's thought process.  And how terrific when it's personal, you can be chillingly honest.  No need for PC silliness here.  As Stephen King says he doesn't know what he's going to say until he sits down and writes.  As a self discipline and personal knowledge builder,  it's unbeatable.  Writer or not. 

 

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A rose by any other name...

I agree with you, Pamela - calling someone a writer (including oneself), doesn't make one a writer. And I agree about the benefits of scriptorial elucidation. I honestly don't have a problem with not calling myself a writer or even calling myself one in certain circumstances. The problem is that the word describes both an occupation and a vocation. Or a profession and an identity. I don't think it can be solved though. I am a writer by profession, and that's what I should probably say when asked. Your points about the discipline and the acquisition of knowledge are well taken. I've always loved research. Thank you for weighing in with these valuable observations, Pamela - and how wonderful to be able to speak several languages fluently!