Joining the Fraternity of Writers

Medieval Scribe3


Five Observations from a Newbie


As a second career writer, it is interesting to me to notice the reaction I get when people ask me what I do. I imagine that most creative professionals who are self-employed get a similar response, but it is still quite new to me and thoroughly amusing.

When I was a healthcare executive it was not unusual for the person to whom I was speaking to perk up when I told them what I did. Most could immediately find a connection that they hoped would prove to be of benefit to them. “Who does your taxes?” “Do your hospitals do their own billing and collection?” “Are you looking for IT people?” It seemed that the market value of my acquaintance was relatively high. Fast forward to the present.

“So what do you do, Jim?”

I smile. “I’m a writer.”

“A writer! Wow.” My interrogator looks me up and down, attempting to calculate the value of my jacket and shoes, and tries hard to remember which car was mine. “What do you write?”

“Historical fiction mostly.” I shrug modestly. “And I do a blog as well.”

He arches his eyebrows, feigning enthusiasm. “Really? Cool,” he says through pursed lips. “Have you written anything I would know?”

“Probably not. My first novel is out for a developmental edit now.” He cocks his head as if to say “How interesting.” But, because he doesn’t actually say it, there is an uncomfortable pause and I feel compelled to fill it. “I’ve started working on a sequel. I hope to begin looking for a publisher later this year.”

He looks past me to see if he knows anyone else in the room. “What’s it about?” he asks, his eyes still scanning the crowd.

“It’s set during the Hundred Years War in England and France…”

It may just be my imagination, but when he finally looks back at me I get the sense that he is now trying to figure out what my wife does for a living or whether I’ve inherited a fortune from a rich relative. Unpublished authors don’t wear Polo, he seems to be thinking.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. It’s merely an observation. I confess that before I started writing with real intent I had my own misconceptions about what being a writer would look like. I too bought into the common stereotype that there were two kinds of writers: those who were on the NYT best seller list and those who weren’t. The former undoubtedly spent their mornings sipping tea and pecking out prose in the sun room of a stylish retreat on Martha’s Vineyard; while the latter, unknown and impoverished, spent their days eking out a living at a used bookstore or local Starbucks to finance evenings spent alone writing in a cold and poorly-lit apartment. In either case, though the settings differed widely, it seemed an entirely solitary and introverted existence—some sort of tortured intellectual waging a never-ending battle of words and ideas.

So what has my own (admittedly limited) experience taught me about the reality of a writer’s life? Here are five quick observations from a newbie member of the writer’s community. Perhaps you can relate.

1. The stereotypes rarely fit. Although I am sure that the writers described above actually exist, I still haven’t met them. It’s like the saying goes, “Even a broken clock has the correct time twice a day.” The writers that I have met are perfectly normal human beings. Like a Russian Cold-War sleeper cell, they live among us, blending in so perfectly that you would never guess that they have dreams of writing the next great American novel; unless, of course, you ask them, in which case they would be happy to tell you. Another surefire method of detection is to check their e-mail account and see if there are at least a dozen or so daily e-mails from Writer’s Digest and its “trusted business partners” trying to sell them something—anything—to improve their craft.

2. The market value of a writer’s acquaintance is well below the median. People appear unable to see the professional benefit to be gained in actively cultivating a relationship with a writer unless they too are in the publishing business. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons why writers like to hang out together. Sure there’s the intellectual stimulation and all…But let’s face it, if we’re honest we enjoy the mutual understanding, admiration, and encouragement.

3. Writing isn’t nearly as solitary as it seems. This has been the greatest surprise to me so far. Although there is a part of the process that will always be between the writer and the blank page, it is a far smaller part than I had imagined. Research, technical improvement, editorial feedback, inspiration; all these require some level of collaboration. And few communities are as generous in their collaborative impulse as are writers. Which leads naturally to my next observation.

4. Writers are a generous lot. One would think that, in a business fueled almost exclusively by intellectual property, participants would hold their cards fairly close to the vest. While this may be true of many of the corporations that compete in this space, I have certainly not found this to be the case among individual writers. On the contrary, in my experience, writers, almost without exception, have shown themselves to be open-handed and generous with everything from technical advice and feedback to research and general industry intelligence.

Now it would be naïve of me not to acknowledge that the transitional nature of the current business model which is moving writers to be more focused on their “platforms” is driving a lot of this openness. After all, it can often seem as though one half of the writing community is constantly attempting to sell the other half some kind of advice. To be fair, I think this is to be expected and is a natural consequence of a number of factors including declining advances (less income for writers) and lowering the barriers to entry (more people joining the writing community). In my view it represents a painful but ultimately beneficial democratization of the industry that will benefit us all, producer and consumer alike.

But putting aside the macro discussion, my interactions with individual writers (and for that matter, agents, editors, and others in the business) seem to confirm my original impressions of a natural tendency towards extreme generosity. I would be very sad indeed if someone were to later prove me wrong.

5. No one is expecting to get rich. In spite of the handful of stunning examples of previously unknown authors striking literary gold, I have yet to meet a writer whose goal is to become fabulously wealthy. In fact, I have read interviews with some of those authors who have and they didn’t start with that expectation either. Most writers, at least those I’ve come into contact with, have far simpler expectations. They would like to be able to pay their bills and put their kids through college. Unfortunately, for most, this is not currently an option. Even previously published authors of my acquaintance are finding it necessary to have either a working spouse or to get at least part-time work elsewhere. One would hope that this too shall pass. However, I have my doubts that it will come within my time horizon.

So then why do we do it? I suppose every writer has to answer that for themselves. And yet the fact remains—we do it. There is something glorious about that, isn’t there? I suppose it’s just another thing to love about writers.