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