The Write Life: Definition of a (Real) Writer

The Write Life: Definition of a (Real) Writer
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Photo by Michael Pollak
Photo by Michael Pollak

 “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King

12 p.m. traffic jam on New Main Street, downtown by City Hall next to 99 cent stores and nail salons. Buses, cars – cold, congested hell. A voice coming through the radio says its 24 degrees, as the squad car pulls up across from the corner of Ann Street. A sagging curb is covered in black snow – the same curb that sits in front of the parking garage where a homeless man froze to death in one of the stairwells a few weeks ago. The man hung out at the nearby liquor store where he cut up boxes for a few dollars. There are no newspapers bearing his obituary.

A call came through the police car’s radio about a tripped alarm. It was midday – lunchtime for some – so the call seemed strange. Probably an accident, the officer said, but it could really be anything. As it goes.

12:12 p.m. – a call comes in about an alleged shoplifter. We are driving away from the curb and the parking garage, away from the store with the tripped alarm – a customer had gotten loud with the cashier – to continue on my ride-along tour of the city.

“…Suspect on foot. Just knocked down a lady…Suspect running north…”

And then another call came through:

“…Abandoned car dumped… Caller says it has no tags, no plates…”

And another:

“Hit and run on Locust…”

***

The other day, I was given the opportunity to ride-along with a local police officer on patrol. For several hours, we toured an urban-suburban city in New York, as I took notes, pictures. All in the name of writing.

The ride-along was optional, of course – but the research was not. A project I’m working on requires a ton of information that I felt would be more interesting (and accurate) if it came directly from sources. Sure, I could have just made a few phone calls and sent some emails, or just used an Internet search engine to get the information I needed. I wouldn’t have needed to come out of my pajamas, if I went that route.

But that wasn’t good enough for me – or my writing. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned.

Back in the days of typewriters and (gasp!) notebooks, back before people relied on aggregated, electronic news as told by the stationary bodies who type it, writers went out into the world for inspiration. They discovered and wrote, talked with subjects. Back then, writers had to fully engage themselves with the outside – have a physical interaction between themselves and  subjects – in order to write. In other words: would-be scribes had to really hone their skills before they were given the title of “writer.” But now? Things are a bit… different.

And the culprit is technology.

My feelings toward some of today’s technological advances are mixed. One may argue that technology has made it easier for writers (anyone remember the Dewey Decimal system?). For instance, it’s a heck of a lot easier now to do research online than trek over to a library, search through the dusty, expansive card catalogue (ha!) only to realize the one book you need is… missing. With a few key words, one can have all the information one needs to research and write about any topic – and then some. And if you get desperate enough, you can even buy an already-written piece online (although I loathe this practice). The widespread availability of inventions like the Internet also gives writers so many chances to get noticed. In between procrastinating and doing some actual writing, one can search for writing contests, upload work onto a blog, or even publish a collection of stories.

So yes, technology offers many writers an opportunity to easily produce work than in previous decades. Yes, it’s a great way to promote one’s craft – and find employment.

However, there’s a dark side to the writing world’s advancements in society.

Content farms. Blogospehere. Blurred lines between advertisements and actual news. Mass self-publishing tools (and no editors to police them) via the Internet. Technology has created an avenue where anyone (and damn near everyone) can utilize writing opportunities – with or without any so-called credentials. Those writers who were long considered to be among the “bottom of the barrel” now have a way to elevate themselves to the top – even higher than award-winning authors who deserve to be there.

***

“…Just because you can write doesn’t mean you should. Just because you do write doesn’t mean you’re good. You could call yourself an Olympic diver, but that doesn’t mean you are.

Congratulations on penning that poem, posting that blog post, self-publishing that novel, finishing that manuscript, churning out that personal essay that is sitting on your desk, hard-drive, the internet.

But here’s the question you should be asking yourself: Can I write? Not literally. Not physically. Not technically. Anyone can do that. Can you make the words sing? Does your prose have that certain something? Are you gifted at showing not telling, or telling not showing, or creating an entire world that didn’t exist before that is born again when someone else reads your work?…”

– Susannah Breslin, “Why You Shouldn’t Be a Writer”
 (Published in Forbes, June 12, 2012.)

I’m a writer. Not a nonchalant blogger or a self-published author who lacks writing skills. An actual working writer. A journalist, essayist, creative writer, scribe. Call it what you will, but I am a professional nonfiction wordsmith.

Before I go to sleep at night, I sometimes think about sentences, how I’m going to frame a piece I’m working on. 3AM writing in a notebook by my dresser. I often consult a (digital) Thesaurus for replacement words to supersede the ordinary ones used in casual conversation. Reading is also paramount to fostering my craft – and I definitely have an undying love for buying used books.  I even occasionally stress myself out over typos I’ve made in benign social media posts to my friends.

These things, though fastidious, matter deeply to me. Why? Because I am a “real” writer.

Writing is something I take seriously. I’ve been writing professionally for a decade and have written in my spare time for many years before that. I’ve studied the craft, have a degree in the trade (and another one on the way), published various pieces. In other words: I feel that I have the undeniable right to call myself a writer. No one could argue that fact.

So riddle me this: How is it possible that those with little to no writing “credentials” are able to call themselves writers?

Put it this way: My mother, who is a retired engineer, is not a writer – professionally or otherwise. It simply isn’t her “thing,” and that’s fine. But if one day she decided she wanted to write a book about… oh, I don’t know, botany or something, she could. And if she wanted, she could even draw pictures of plants and flowers, and include them in said book.

Newsflash: My mom doesn’t know squat about botany. Or drawing.
(Love you, mom.)

But here’s my point. Not only could my mother write a book about botany without any prior knowledge, experience or editing, she could even get it published, create a website for the book, promote it – you name it. And on top of it all, she would be able to legitimately call herself (wait for it…) a writer. Why?

Because… why not.

All of the resources are available and ready (for a few fees, of course) so what would be stopping her? What could possibly stop my mother, the plant-loving engineer, from writing and publishing a book about botany – written by her, edited by her, published by her?

Absolutely nothing.

And that’s why I raise an eyebrow.

The phrase “I’m a writer” is thrown around more often than “I love you” (if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say he or she was a writer…) This irks me. Nurses don’t say they’re surgeons (for various reasons.) You can’t receive open-heart surgery from an LPN. One has to undergo extensive training in order to claim the coveted title of “surgeon.” And limousine drivers don’t claim they’re construction operators. What kind of disaster would it be to have the guy who drove you to prom operate a crane to build a bridge?

With all of that in mind, why is it okay for folks to refer to themselves as writers when they haven’t broken a sweat over a dangling modifier or misplaced comma? Why has it become acceptable for a journalist to remain at home on a computer to investigate a story? How is it alright for a person to publish an entire book and market it for sale to the general public without the aid of an editor, the understanding of plot structure?

Reality check: It’s not.

***

…You form a band and put out a record yourself, well, you’re indie. You’re doing it your way. Put out a film, you’re a DIY filmmaker, an independent artist, a guy who couldn’t be pinned down by the Hollywood system. You self-publish a book, and the first thought out of the gate is, “He wasn’t good enough to get it published. Let’s be honest — it’s probably just word poop.”

This is in part because it’s a lot harder to put an album or a film out into the world. You don’t just vomit it forth. Some modicum of talent and skill must be present to even contemplate such an endeavor and to attain any kind of distribution. The self-publishing community has no such restriction. It is blissfully easy to be self-published. I could take this blog post, put it up on the Amazon Kindle store and in 24 hours you could download it for ninety-nine cents. It’s like being allowed to make my own clothing line out of burlap and pubic hair and being allowed to hang it on the racks at J.C. Penney…”
-Chuck Wendig,

  Terribleminds.com

Julius Chambers, who wrote for the defunct New York Tribune in the late 1800s, actually committed himself to the Bloomingdale Asylum – a stately “crazy house” located in Manhattan where Columbia University now stands. As a patient, Chambers would be able to obtain any information about the alleged abuse of patients in the asylum.

Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 and exposed the unsafe work conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry.

Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Mad House in the late 1800s after she feigned insanity at a women’s boarding house in order to be committed to Bellevue Mental Hospital. Her plans were to document patient abuse.

Or even in modern times: Common Ground, by the late J. Anthony Lukas. Show Me a Hero, by Lisa Belkin. Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

I’m not just namedropping here – and I’ve obviously missed many writers who have respectably contributed to the trade. But what I’m trying to say is this: Being a writer is a lot more involved than just having a laptop and a penchant for strong coffee. There’s a desire deep down in one’s soul to inform the world of something: justice, beauty, love, hate. Writing – good writing – requires strong thought and dedication. And let’s not forget skill.

Don’t get me wrong – everyone has to start somewhere. And technology can be useful – at times. My issues center on those who lack substantial credibility and a modicum of talent – but still call themselves writers, still feel they can start from the top, so to speak. Unskilled self-published authors, brain-dead bloggers, lifelong townies who are given a literary soapbox: If it wasn’t for technology, you probably wouldn’t have a page to write on.

“…Most people cannot write well. This is a fact. This is something that is true. This is a hard thing to accept. Most people cannot write well, and that includes you, and what we can conclude from this is that the person we are talking about here who cannot write well is, in all likelihood, you…”
– Susannah Breslin, “Why You Shouldn’t Be a Writer”
 (Published in Forbes, June 12, 2012.)

But hey, what do I know.

Rachel McCain

About Rachel McCain

Rachel McCain is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She has written for The Source Magazine and previously served as deputy editor of Home Town Media Group, a small community newspaper company in New York. Currently, Rachel working on a nonfiction book manuscript. For more information, visit Rachelmccain.net.

Rachel McCain is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She has written for The Source Magazine and previously served as deputy editor of Home Town Media Group, a small community newspaper company in New York. Currently, Rachel working on a nonfiction book manuscript. For more information, visit Rachelmccain.net.

5 comments

  1. Sam says:

    Exactly, what do you know? So you believe that just because of your ‘credentials’ people should listen to your soapbox rant just because what you do isn’t as ‘members only’ as you’d like it to be? And since when did these ‘credentials’ give you the right to pass judgement on other people?

  2. Riley Maldonado says:

    She hit the ‘nail on the head,’ so to speak. A little biased yes, but truthful. When people realise the writing community is too saturated with the likes of people she refers to, maybe writers will get more respect. She’s not judging here but pointing out what’s obvious, and that’s not everyone can be a real writer. And obviously the definition of a ‘real’ writer is subjective,Sam. perhaps you missed that lesson in grammar school.

  3. Charlie Baylis CharlieBaylis says:

    People can call themselves whatever they so wish, be it writer, plumber, train-jacker, whatever, it really doesn’t matter. I can’t see why it would effect your own opinion of yourself and what you do. I’d recommend you read the poem ‘authenticity’ by luke kennard ‘because darling, there is nothing more exhausted, than authenticity’

  4. Guest says:

    ironically this is not always very well written. Some good general obvious points, but interesting that the references to what constitutes good writers from the past, people such as Bly, were independent in their own attitudes. Let’s not forget many books, manifestos and articles have come from DIY publishing just s many terrible publishing houses condone bad writers for their market value

  5. kittyand fox says:

    ironically this is not always very well written. Some good general obvious points, but interesting that the references to what constitutes good writers from the past, people such as Bly, were independent in their own attitudes. Let’s not forget many books, manifestos and articles have come from DIY publishing just s many terrible publishing houses condone bad writers for their market value… Essentially good writing is somewhat -unfortunately-subjective.

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