Yesterday, Author Michael Shean posted an engaging article about the Myth of the “Real Writer.” In fact, you should probably run over there and catch up before I go on. I’ll wait here.
All set? Awesome!
Last night over dinner, my neighbor and I continued this conversation in detail. The central question: “When do you call yourself an author?” It wasn’t long before we realized this wasn’t a simple discussion of semantics.
Though the semantics do matter. What is the distinction between a “writer,” an “author,” and a “novelist?” Are these distinctions meaningful enough to merit clarification? Perhaps more importantly, are these distinctions agreed upon by enough people at large to actually serve a purpose?
One might easily categorize the three terms in orders of descending specificity. All novelists are authors, but not all authors are novelists. Likewise, all authors are writers, but not all writers are authors. As a writer might be defined as “one who writes,” and a novelist as “one who writes novels”… what then is our definition of “author?”
It’s a legitimate question, and one that is not served by looking up Merriam-Webster. People have a sense in their minds as to what an author is. And when a person self-identifies as an author, we immediately prescribe a set of assumptions upon that person based on this sense. And the point becomes relevant when a stranger asks the classic get-to-know-you question: “What do you do?”
It’s a very short, very sticky question to ask anyone. Particularly in the States, we tend to categorize people by their vocation, making the question “what do you do (for a living)?” But what if one self-identifies as an author, yet does not earn enough from writing to pay the bills? Is it fraudulent to represent oneself as an author when one doesn’t yet (and may never) possess the means to support a lifestyle strictly through writing?
Because the odds are that’s the assumption. Movies and TV shows have penned this artificial sense of what an author does. There’s this myth of the “Book Deal” that changes a life overnight, and that once a person gets this “Book Deal”, they are immediately shifted into a full-time position of writing for a living.
That’s fantasy, but it’s a fantasy many people hold as fact. Thus, when someone asks me “what do you do,” I have to weigh in my own mind to what extent I’m violating their assumptions of what an author is. They may consider me a “wannabe.” Is that fair?
Honest truth… I don’t care. It’s the way social interactions work. We all deal with filters from others all the time. We work to navigate around them at times, other times choosing to stampede through them.
But my takeaway from last night’s conversation is this: Most people won’t recognize my lifestyle as that of an author. When I self-identify as an author, I’ll need to brace myself should they eventually contradict that assertion, simply because I’m not sitting at a desk all day whipping out pages, talking to agents and editors, receiving advances and/or royalty checks, and packing crates of hardbacks to my latest book signing.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.