Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Being a writer

You’ve all been in this situation before. You meet someone for the first time, in a casual acquaintance type of way. It might be at a party or it might be meeting another parent when you’re picking your kid up from school. Whatever. And they ask you what you do.

Here’s the thing. When people ask me, I never say I’m a writer. Not ever. I say I’m a web designer.

And I am a web designer, of course. I love that part of my life. Building websites is great. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s stimulating, it’s satisfying, and I’m good at it. But it’s not the thing I’m most passionate about. It’s not the thing I dreamed about from, oh, the beginning of high school. (The web didn’t exist back then...) What I always dreamed about was being a writer.

But the truth is, I’m embarrassed to say I’m a writer. I figure that if I do, people are going to ask what books I’ve got out, and I haven’t published any books. I’ve only published short stories. Most people never read short stories. I think that if I call myself a writer, people will think I’m deluding myself. They’ll think I’m full of it.

When someone does get out of me that I’m a writer (usually because my wife tells them), I say I “just” write short stories (or “only short stories”, like I realized I did in the paragraph above), as though somehow they’re not worth mentioning.

But the truth is, I’m damned proud of those short stories. I worked long and hard at them. Editors were willing to pay money for them and print them in their magazines and anthologies. Some of these are really good stories.

If I add up the money I’ve been paid for my short stories, it comes to at least the same amount as the average advance for a first novel, probably more. My stories have reached far more people than most first novels ever do.

And here’s another thing. By not saying that I’m a writer, I’m deprioritizing my own writing. I’m telling myself every time that the writing is not the most important part of my career. I’m telling myself that the time I have for work should always be for web design, and that if I spend some of it writing, I’m doing the wrong thing. That writing time is wasted time.

So, I’ve decided to make a new New(ish) Year’s resolution: I’m going to start saying I’m a writer when people ask what I do. I’m going to say I’m a web designer too, but that’s not all I’m going to say, because it’s not all I do.

And maybe, just maybe, that’ll make me give the writing the priority it deserves.


E.C. Myers said...

I have been in the same situation. When most people ask what I do, I know they want to know where I work, and the fiction writing still doesn't pay enough to qualify even if I don't define myself by my day job.

I find it's even trickier now that my job title is actually "writer" and I find myself saying, "But I also write young adult novels." There has to be a more elegant way to handle this, but I haven't figured it out yet.

Stephanie Burgis said...

I really, really love this entry and this resolution.

Amy Greenfield said...

Cheering you on here in Oxfordshire! I so much admire writers who can write a great short story, as it's something I find very hard myself.

Jenn Reese said...

Great resolution!!! Chris and I are the same way. I've only just started telling people I'm a writer this year, and I still backslide sometimes. Making that switch is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. Good luck!!

Chris East said...

I don't know what Jenn is talking about. I'm not a writer...

Seriously, good on ya for making this resolution. Obviously I need to make it too!

Patrick Samphire said...

@ E.C. Myers - Call yourself a writer-writer. Then everyone will think you're crazy and leave you alone. :)

@ Stephanie - Well, you'll have to police me on it...

@ Amy - Thank you! I do think novels and short stories are really different skill sets, and it is an odd assumption that if you can write novels, you should be able to write short stories (and vice versa). Which explains why some of the weakest stories in certain anthologies come from people who are great at writing novels buy who have no experience writing short fiction.

@ Jenn - well, now you absolutely have to. Probably even if they don't ask. Promotion of the novel, you see... :)

@ Chris - do it. I need someone else to go around embarrassing themself like this...

Miriam Forster said...

Great resolution! I'm trying to do the same thing. The first time I tried it out was at a very grown-up, professional mixer thing. It was hilarious.

RANDOM PERSON: So what do you do?

ME: I write books and I serve coffee.

RP: You what?

ME: I write books and I serve coffee.

RP: You write books?

ME: Yes.


RP: So...where do you serve coffee at?

I swear this conversation happened every single time. They were all so befuddled, it was entertaining.

Anonymous said...

It is a hard thing to get over. It took me a while. Then you get the whole "Do you have books in shops? / What have you written that I've heard of?" question, which is harder to answer.