Friday, 18 July 2008

On Being Real - Charlie Butler

I put this up as a comment on another post yesterday, but I’ve moved it into a post all of its own as I’d be interested to see what other people think about the question – the question being, “What is a real writer?”
A writer of adult novels annoyed me recently in an email discussion by defining a Real Writer as someone whose main source of income is writing. Which lets out Shakespeare (who probably made more money as a property dealer and shareholder), to say nothing of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton (civil servants all), and the many writers from Sir Philip Sidney to Jane Austen who lived on a private income. Then there are those such as Emily Dickinson, barely published in her life, so therefore doubly unreal! The list could easily be extended, but such definitions are testicular in all but fertility: whether we define Real as “financially sustainable” or “commercially published”, the main purpose of these shibboleths is usually to prop up the shaky egos of those who apply them. Using the ‘main income’ test in the case of children’s writers is particularly perverse, given that the average writing income of children’s writers in the UK is (from memory) under £6,000. As for publication, all published writers were unpublished writers once: they were none the less Real for that.


Jess said...

I think there are many different kinds of real.
You seem to be saying a real writer is someone who does real writing, something which is valuable in itself. In my head I think I do too, so published or unpublished the thing that matters is whether I rate it. The trouble is that would mean the shelves of Waterstones are stocked with the works of the unreal. I'm not sure I believe they are unreal anymore than I believe in the undead. Is anyone who writes at all, ever for fun or profit 'real'? What do we have to do to count?

Lee said...

And some of us - admittedly a rare breed - intend to stay unpublished. Last time I checked, I was still Real.

Way to go, Charlie! Looking forward to reading other responses.

And for the curious, here's a new interview with me in which I explain why I'm not interested in conventional publication:

The net writers think in terms of hit numbers and downloads, which I find as misguided as income.

Mary Hoffman said...

Interesting, Charlie! I think that definition comes about because it certainly makes one FEEL like real writer. And maybe quite a few writers , though certainly not all, see being able to live by one's pen as a goal.

I have been able to do it only for the last 10-15 years and giving up educational consultancies and teaching evening classes etc certainly made me feel more of a writer.

But my daughter now has a paid day-job four days a week, which she lives on and uses money from writing for holidays and home improvements and I know she doesn't feel any less of a writer, so it's all relative (sorry about the pun).

I knew a very good poet, married to a chap whose brother with a private income always described himself as a writer. "But what does he WRITE?" she would wail.

I think that's the issue between published and unpublished work - no-one else can see what you've done.

Mary Hoffman

Lucy Coats said...

Putting in my two penn'orth, Charlie, I reckon it's very simple. A Real Writer is someone who can't not write. They may NOT write at times because of outside pressures--job, work, family etc--but the not writing will make them feel grouchy, depressed, angry, even physically ill. A real writer doesn't necessarily have to be published or earn money by it--but they will probably have drawers full of stuff that they have written. Writing is the habit, the drug, the fix that makes them tick. When they are writing their head will be in a totally different space, the whole brain will feel different, the body may feel as if it is encased in a fragile bubble of creativity, easily burst by outside interference. (There's a good reason why cranial osteopaths often find that writers are 'off their rockers' by the way. It's because we actually are, physically). I think that 'writing reality' has always been set on shifting sands. In this current climate of fiscal uncertainty, who can say whether any of us will be published again? Would that make us less real as writers? I don't think so.

Nicky said...

Sadly I think that disqualifies me.
I am very good at not writing.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

@ Mary, who said

'I think that's the issue between published and unpublished work - no-one else can see what you've done.'

Not any longer. The internet makes work available to anyone, anywhere - and often exactly where a print book would be hard to come by (or unaffordable).

My YA novel, for example, is read from Vietnam to Mongolia to New Zealand to Uganda to Iran to places I've had to look up on a map; it's downloaded ca. 50-100 times per day.

Sally said...

That's very cool, Lee.

I wonder if the 'real writer' thing is to do with expectations. When you say 'writer', I see someone Byronic, with ink-splattered fingers, living with a permanently open line to the divine muse. They are published, rich, successful, I've heard of them and they live in a study somewhere surrounded by leather tomes, drinking gin with Shakespeare and scribbling on their parchment late into thenight.

When I actually do meet writers and discover that they're ordinary people who look a bit like me and live ordinary lives with ordinary worries, I can't help feel disappointed. Especially if I've never heard of their book. "But you're not a REAL writer!" I want to wail.

I agree with Nicky about the having to write thing. I'm very good at not writing and I'm as real as the next ordinary writer. To me, writing's a job - a difficult job, about which I feel passionate and spend hours trying to get right, but a job none the less. I don't believe that some people are born with a direct line to the muse and some aren't.

Maybe that's why I haven't met any real writers yet ...

Linda Strachan said...

When I was doing research for my new book "Writing for Children" I spoke to several educational publishers to ask what they mean when they say (in their catalogues)that some specific books are written by 'real authors'. As far as I can discover they mean not written by their editors in-house, or written by well-known children's writers. It seems a strange term to use. Surely if a book is written by someone it is written by a real author- not an imaginary one!

Lee said...

Sally, oddly enough, I also look at writing as a job, because it's the only way I can discipline myself enough to do it, though it's something I feel I have to - want to - do (and I certainly didn't write for many, many years). As to 'direct line to the muse', I'm not sure about this one. Obviously there's a tremendous amount of craft involved - years of apprenticeship, as it were - but I've had a lot to do with professional and student musicians, and all the technique and all the practise in the world can't produce a Bach or Heifetz if the gift isn't there.

Keith Ramsey said...

In a previous life I used to spend most of my time dealing with other people's finances and, in eighteen years, I think I only ever came across one person who made a living from writing. The others, in common with most artists and performers, were part-timers who had to do something else to pay the bills. Maybe things have changed in the fourteen years since I returned to the real world, but I doubt it.

For some reason, most people seem to think that all writers make good money, which probably explains why all those people who are so keen to offer you unpaid work are terribly offended when you turn it down.