Monday, 25 January 2010

Defining moment: N M Browne

It seems pretty obvious to me that a writer, writes. It isn't very complicated you are a writer if you write and a fiction writer if you write fiction and a children's fiction writer if you write children's fiction. So far so good. But what if you are not actually writing - just talking about it? Can you still hang onto that status? We have all I'm sure bumped into the writer who published a slim volume of poetry forty years ago and has dined out on it ever since - can they call themselves writers? Can I?
I am Ok with people saying they are writers even if they are not currently working on something - if they are on holiday , or briefly between books but if the hiatus goes on for too long surely they are ex writers or former writers rather as women of a certain age can be 'former glamour models.' I say this only because I haven't actually written a novel or even really done more than a couple of hours writing for the best part of a year.

I have lectured on writing, run workshops on writing, critiqued writing, given talks about writing, given advice about writing, got into arguments about writing and even assessed other people's writing but I haven't done any myself.
This makes me feel fraudulent. Is an actor still an actor if they haven't had a part for ten years? And what is the cut off point? Am I still a writer now but not if I don't write for another year or two?

I don't think you can be a writer in your heart or head without also being one with your fingers ( or with whatever appendage you use to generate words on a page). I think you can be 'resting' for a while but not for too long or it begins to look like retirement. Sure you can be between books as you can be between jobs but doesn't that kind of make you just unemployed?
Maybe you are different and in your soul you 'just are' a writer, but I didn't start writing until my thirties. I wasn't a writer before then and I fear that I can cease to be a writer as easily as I became one. I am not sure my soul has noticed.

Does it matter? A bit. I like saying rather grandly that I write when asked what I do at parties. It seems more glamorous somehow than saying I hang around for long periods of the day in my dressing gown reading the paper and arguing with imaginary people on t'internet. I would miss the label, but would I miss the activity?
Would you?


Charlie Butler said...

Nicky, I'm in much the same position as you, but I can't say I think it matters. I assume I'll write again at some point: luckily the food on the table doesn't depend on it. If I do, great. If I don't, it'll be sad, but it'll probably be because something else loomed larger, or at some level I didn't want to. Don't worry about labels, at any rate!

Bill Kirton said...

Interesting question, Nicky. I'm inclined to share your (implied?) conclusion that one has to spend some time at the keyboard/pen on a regular basis to qualify for the label. And I include in that notion all those who write but haven't yet been lucky enough to be published.

Writing, as we all know, consists of observing, sitting around thinking, inventing displacement activities (such as this one) and all sorts of stuff that doesn't involve actual word-production. But the label has such resonance. I've always written but I remember being shown round the Northcott Theatre decades ago by Tony Church, its first director. A BBC producer had told him I wrote plays. At one point he introduced me to a colleague with the words 'This is Bill Kirton. He's a writer' and it made me feel wonderful. Maybe we only become (and remain) writers when other people say we are.

By the way - you're still a writer.

Nick Green said...

I think the writer and the person are effectively separate entities. The person Nicky can go off and do whatever she likes, but N M Browne will always be the author of those books, even if no more books join them. Is C S Lewis a writer? Yes, of course. But Clive Staples Lewis, the man, is long dead. Yet we still talk of C S Lewis in the present tense.

Maybe we're ALWAYS lying when we say, 'I'm a writer.' I'm not; I'm a person. The writer Nick Green is some strange distillation of me that I don't really understand, or even know terrible well.

Nick Green said...

TerriBLY, that is.

madwippitt said...

What about that other strange animal, the journalist? Writes but not given the same kudos and credibility as a 'proper' writer, one who creates whole books. I remember proudly showing my old English teacher some short stories and articles I'd written, thinking he'd be proud of what he'd helped to foster ... he was pleased - but spoiled the praise by telling me I should now move on to doing some proper writing ie books!!!
I have written books - but put every bit as much care and effort into crafting every magazine article and story - yet I'm not a 'writer' I'm a journalist. Hmmph.
Incidentally, I think you're very brave telling people you're a writer. I try to avoid it otherwise I get pinned in a corner with someone telling me all about the book they have/want to write and do I know JKR ...

Nicky said...

I'm not so sure; being a teacher is just me in front of a class, being a writer is me in front of a keyboard, being an oil company exec was just me being a bit bored... i don't feel any role is a distillation so much as an activity.

Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho said...

I think about it a bit like Nick Green above.

There's the occupation: writer. That means a person who lives by writing. The defining characteristic of the occupation is being paid.

There's the busy-ness: writer. A person who writes. The defining characteristic is the act of writing, regardless of wether the product is ever published.

Then there's the accomplishment: writer. This is the dreaded state of having written, but I think it is a valid accomplishment once you've actually achieved it, even if it is a rotten motivation. The defining characteristic is having books in or out of print.

Finally, there's the identity: writer. Like religion, I think this is between the writer and his or her book(s).

steeleweed said...

One - Sinclair Lewis's comment to an audience of would-be-writers:
"You dumb sonsabitches wanna write? Well, g'wan the hell home and write!"

Two - Long ago (very), I was writing a lot of poetry most every day and eventually faced a choice of becoming a poet or simply writing poetry. I decided to pay the bills instead. Thus, I no longer consider myself a poet. I'm an ex-poet. But I still understand and appreciate poetry.

Three - When I was writing poetry, it only took a few minutes to write down a poem, but it might have taken hours or even days to get my head in the right place for the writing to happen. Even when I wasn't putting pen to paper, I was a poet, because that was the creative time.

Julie P said...

We are so often defined by our roles in society and what we do aren't we? We aren't allowed to just 'be' we have to 'do'.

I have many roles:mother, school governor, lunchtime assistant, daughter, sister, wife - the list goes on. I'm also a writer whether I write at the moment or not. My profession was a nurse, but as I haven't nursed for two years I no longer sdefine myself as a nurse - I'm an ex-nurse. I think writing's different as a lot of it's done in our heads and you can pick up a pen wherever you are. It's always with you. Whether you're between books, teaching writing, talking about it or planning it.

I didn't come into writing until 2 years ago in my mid thirties *(it seems a common age to begin writing!)

Julie xx

Nicky said...

yes, Julie that does seem to be true for lots of people but I only actively engage with writing when I am actually doing it - the rest of the time I don't really think about it.
When I have a book on the go I think my subconscious is pretty busy but right now there's not much going on but shopping and to do lists...

Bill Kirton said...

Julie's right - we're different things at different times - but mainly (as Sartre would have it - and I agree with him)we're what other people decide we are, and there's little we can do about it. L'enfer, c'est les autres. Maybe that's why I got such a kick out of being introduced as a writer.

Linda Strachan said...

I think Julie is on the right track but 'we're what other people decide we are' I can see why you might believe that- Bill - on the other hand I think we are what and who WE believe we are.
It is very easy to allow others to define who we are and our own insecurities at times can make us say, and believe that we are less than we are.
People often believe what you tell them so if you go around telling people you are not something, or not good at something then the tendency is for word to get out and it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.
I think what I am trying to say is that you have to want to write, and believe you are a writer, to be one. If you are not actually physically writing perhaps it is time to look at why. It may just be a fallow time, or a difficult time. Not writing doesn't always mean that you are not, just that life might have got in the way.

If it gets in the way for 30 years, that could rightly be a different matter... oh I'm going round in circles.

catdownunder said...

Surely we are more than one person?
I am me to me. I am a daughter to my father. I am a sister, a friend, a colleague, 'the one who rides the tricycle/write those letters to the paper' etc. When I explain what I do as a day job I become someone else. If I say I write I become yet another person. For other people I may be what they want me to be for them but I will be something different for someone else - and I am still me.
Our identities are complex - and unique.

Katherine Langrish said...

I think steeleweed has made a very good point. Writing is much more than the act of keying words on to a screen. All the thinking and living and researching and pondering is essential too. I haven't written a word of my new book yet, but I've been thinking about it for months.