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Pop Culture, The Writer's Life

Time to Cop a ’Tude—We’re Writers and You’re Not!

The story goes like this: a woman walks into a job interview and the employer asks what she’s been doing for the last few years. The woman answers that she’s a writer. The employer’s expression sours. Eventually the interview comes down to, “We’ll get back to you,” and of course, they never do.

My blogger friend Averil Dean[1] talked about how difficult it is for writers to get day jobs on her blog this week, and in reading her account, and the comments of her many followers, it’s clear how writers are generally considered worthless in the workplace. The discussion reminded me of how the public often looks at writers and artists, especially if they’re not famous.

For whatever reason, the average person seems to think of writers and artists as aimless dreamers, unwilling or incapable of buckling down and getting even the simplest tasks done. They dream that pursuing a career in the arts might be fun to do, but not practical, and the workplace is all about practical. Gotta bring home the bacon, you know. We don’t create jobs; we don’t influence the economy. That makes writers, in their eyes, valueless. But why shouldn’t they think this? After all, there’s no requirement for a writer to get a degree or a certificate. We generally aren’t celebrities. It’s all just art, and art can be anything the artist wants, right? We don’t connect to the mainstream world.

How many writers buy into this crap?

We writers know just how hard it is to write, and how much harder it is to be successful at it. It takes hours every day of writing, revising—usually for little or no pay, sweating over every sentence, every word to make what we write entertaining and yet poignant. And if we can train ourselves to do that, then it takes years of this daily effort to establish a career in the field.

But what we don’t do, and what we need to do, in this age of all self-promotion all the time, is develop an attitude about our chosen endeavor. I’m not saying we aren’t proud when we pen a nice poem or story, but we often fail to incorporate that pride into our public image.

“What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a writer.”

“What do you write?”

“Well, I’m working on a novel.”

“What’s it about?”

“I haven’t quite figured it all out yet.”

Sound familiar? Where’s the pride? Where’s the ’tude?

Frankly, I get frustrated with this inability to stand up for our profession. Writers are hard working. We’re dedicated. For the most part we’re pretty darn smart. (Ever notice how many contestants on Jeopardy are writers—a lot.) What we do, 99 percent of the population can’t do. And value? Just remember that in this world, where all that seems to matter is selling stuff, writing and art are often the only things that remind us what it is to be a human being. Trust me, friends, that’s value. But we need to make sure the world knows it and respects it.

Just to be clear, I’m not encouraging the development of an ego. Nothing’s worse than a writer who thinks he’s a great writer. But do have pride and confidence in what you do. Pride to know that you have a place in this society; confidence to understand that wherever you are in your career, you have the dedication to keep at it and get better.

Big business and politicos get to throw big bucks at advertising, all in an effort to get the people to respect and maybe even believe in what they do. Writers can’t spend the money, so our effort to change the paradigm must be grassroots. So be it. Wear your ’tude on your heart when you go out. If more of us were proud of our craft, maybe employers would realize: Hey, this woman has drive and ability. I’ll bet she can handle any job we have. (Maybe we wouldn’t even need those shitty part time jobs, and could make money from writing, but let’s not get into aimless dreaming just yet.)

I leave you with some inspiration:

Zadie Smith: To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require?

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing.)

Richard Ford: Don’t take any shit if you can ­possibly help it.

Gordon Lish: Yes, this is very, very hard work. You don’t need much. All you need are stamina, will, desire, confidence, and courage.

Now get back to it, and the next time someone asks you about your writing, tell them proudly, specifically, about what you do, and make sure they understand it’s not anything they could do unless they were really smart and worked really hard.


[1] Check out her book, soon to be released by Harlequin MIRA. An excerpt is upcoming in Cosmopolitan!

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Time to Cop a ’Tude—We’re Writers and You’re Not!

  1. Thank you for this, Joe. The job hunt has shed a harsh light on my own attitude toward my writing. Until this morning I didn’t even have my writing accomplishments on my resume at all, just a big blank gap where all my creative work disappeared. Luckily, Indy Clause helped me draft a new, skills-based resume which was (unsurprisingly) easy to fill.

    I’m ashamed now to think how little value I placed on my own work. I mean, not to even acknowledge what I’ve been doing the past three years? No wonder the kid thinks I’m idle—he gets that idea from me!

    My attitude about writing is complicated by my family’s attitude and that of the people I encounter, but it all starts with me. From now on, I’m going to recognize my own damn work for what it is: productive, honest, worthwhile, and as deserving of recognition as any other job.

    Posted by Averil Dean | October 26, 2013, 2:29 PM
    • Thanks, Averil. Glad to hear you’ll add writing credits to your resume. I have for some time and I do believe it’s helped. It’s one thing to say you’re a writer, but when people see a publishing history, they’re usually impressed. Best of luck with the job search.

      Posted by jpon | October 26, 2013, 7:06 PM
  2. I’ve done different jobs throughout my professional (money paying) career, but for the past ten years have been a tech writer along with my fiction writing. In one job I applied for years ago, before getting the ten-year tech writing gig, the interviewer actually PERKED UP when I told him I was a writer outside of work. Turned out I never got the job, but not for the GUY’S lack of effort trying to get me. Then, when my ten-year tech writing gig presented itself, this other manager perked up, when I told him I was a writer. He actually offered me the job 3 or 4 times before *I* took it, because it involved moving and we weren’t interested in moving at the time. He finally made the job accommodating to me, and I took it. Only time I had someone come after ME for a job!

    But.

    I will tell you, from what I’ve learned since being a tech writer, many others don’t highly prize the writer experience and look at them as not very skilled and “just do this” to get the job done, and not care about QUALITY of the product working (look at ANY commercial tech manual). It’s what I’ve learned from other tech writers. Those I worked directly for did prize my abilities and champion it, but my experience seems to be the exception! That all said, most of the tech writers I’ve come into contact with were also not very skilled. I could probably list on one hand, over my ten years, tech writers I could call SKILLED at their work. Know grammar, structure, how to actually frigging WRITE. Can’t blame all the actual “tech writers,” though. Part is the poor hiring process, part the not-wanting-to-pay-what-a-real-writer-is-worth part. The lack of care, knowledge, etc on the hiring managers who don’t value the ability, and may think anyone can “write,” so they don’t put much effort into checking out employees. Or, hey, let’s got Gretchen, in coding, to tech write this for us, she WRITES code, so has to know some kind of writing, we keep it in-house, don’t have to hire an additional person…for those in-the-know, no, most coders I’ve dealt with cannot write prose copy. It’s a vicious circle, and doesn’t help “the cause” much, at all…but I just do my best and forge ahead….

    Posted by fpdorchak | October 26, 2013, 3:22 PM
    • Thanks, Frank. I think a lot of the stigma comes from people who have never understood the difference between good writing and bad, or even just good grammar skills and bad. I’ve been working at my part time tech writer job for two years, and since starting I’ve become the go-to guy for anything that involves writing or editing, from the CEO on down. Honestly, it’s the editing that gets people’s respect. I haven’t met too many non-writers who can even compose two sentences without making several grammatical or spelling mistakes.

      Posted by jpon | October 26, 2013, 7:11 PM
  3. Yay! Thanks, Joe, I feel better already.

    In a fit of self-confidence, I made business cards for myself, the writer. I haven’t handed one out in months. I think I’ll start doing that again.

    Posted by girl in the hat | October 26, 2013, 6:20 PM
    • Do it. With your abilities, I’ll bet you could generate a ton of freelance writing and editing jobs.

      Posted by jpon | October 26, 2013, 7:12 PM
  4. Some comments from Facebook friends:

    Christine Purcell: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without writers. We need imagination. And we need to read about worlds that are better than the one we live in so we can get motivated to be innovators and do something about the parts the of our world that are crappy.

    Tanya Chernov: Here, here! I stand with you on this one all the way, Joe. I’m incredibly lucky to have a great day job where my writing skills are valued and my co-workers respect my artistic inclinations, but the amount of dismissive comments and looks I get when I tell people that I’m a writer confirm the stigma of writers as lazy dreamers. When someone says, “oh, a writer–how fun” or “How neat” I’ve taken to replying, “It’s a discipline like any other. I work my ass off every day.” Damn straight, damn proud.

    Posted by jpon | October 26, 2013, 7:03 PM
  5. Hear, hear.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | October 26, 2013, 8:24 PM
  6. Great post, Joe. I think a lot of our culture’s mindset may be tied to the ability to earn an income. That it’s not “real” unless we have $$ to show for it. I know it’s always in the back of my mind, and part of me is slowly accepting that writing will never be more than a fun hobby for me. I guess I’m okay with that. I certainly enjoy the supportive network of the writing community, the joy of creating, the bleary-eyed mornings I spend alone with my laptop before heading off to the day job. I couldn’t imagine giving it up, even if I never earn a cent.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | October 27, 2013, 11:00 AM
    • Thanks Gwen, and I’m glad to hear you’re in it for the long haul. It’s a shame our cultural values are driven by the tastes (or lack of it) of the mass market. It cheapens art, and it cheapens our society. You’re right, writers and artists must get our satisfaction from our networks and our creations.

      Posted by jpon | October 27, 2013, 11:28 AM
  7. Yes, Joe, this is right on target. I don’t know how many times before self-publishing (which was my considered decision after tiring of playing the SASE game) I told a prospective employer in some other but related field of work that I am a writer. The response invariably was, “And what have you published?” This is a fair question in some respects, but it does betray a results-oriented bias that is perhaps more appropriate to other sorts of work. It doesn’t take into account just how hard it is to be a writer published by someone reputable and how long most writers wait in the wings, unless they know someone who knows someone, or etc.

    Posted by shadowoperator | October 27, 2013, 8:19 PM
  8. One more Facebook comment, from Carla Dodd: Okay, now the poet, and we are dismissed plenty, yet we use a love of words, the rhythm and music of language, and emotional connections from the deepest connection to the everyday occurance. Writers connect with people in a way that others do not—and cannot. Those who value and respect our skills know we are worth every word ( and every penny.)

    Posted by jpon | October 27, 2013, 8:58 PM
  9. beautifully put. Working with young Californians, who despite being at a UC campus, have trouble stringing words together in complex sentences (not their fault, but the system has sure let them down), I realize how lucky I and my friends are that we can formulate complicated ideas and render them in clear prose (or poetry). We should represent for sure — since we can do something valuable, and — at this point — fairly rare. party on!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 29, 2013, 12:28 AM
    • Thanks, Stephanie. I still remember my experience as a freshman at Cal State Long Beach: I was an English major in a required basic math class. Because I’d attended grade and high school in NY, I was the only one in the class who could do even the most basic algebra and trig. The instructor thought I was some kind of genius and tried to cultivate my “talents.” I had to explain that my knowledge of math was normal for where I came from.

      Maybe you’ve exposed part of the answer here—our business and political leaders are so deficient in writing (read: thinking) skills, that they can’t realize what good writing is or why it should be valued, and therefore dismiss it. If we writers and artists don’t stand up for ourselves, they surely won’t. And refusing to take a stand for our writing is why so many employers refuse to pay for it (see the NY Times article above).

      Maybe it’s time to start a movement. Maybe a web site with a pledge: I will not write for free. I’m thinking about it.

      Posted by jpon | October 29, 2013, 11:55 AM

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