Monday, 23 September 2013

Why I'm Not a Writer by Lev Butts

In a recent article on Cracked.com, Gladstone claims that the third most popular lie told on social media is listing hobbies (such as writing) as vocations. He claims this is a lie unless said hobby allows you to "feed [your] kids and pay [your] bills and pay down [your] student loans doing nothing but writing outside of an established organization." At first, I had to agree with him and almost went to my Twitter account to change my description before something occurred to me.

I found at least two problems with his reasoning:


1. By his definition, very few writers can describe themselves as writers. 


Richard Monaco, who as I've mentioned before, was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, no longer supports himself primarily through his writing. He still writes, he still sells novels, and he still receives the occasional royalty check from Parsival. They just don't bring in the amount of money they did in the 1980's. According to Gladstone's article, he is no longer a writer despite his two recent books, forthcoming memoir, and two new novels-in-progress.


I promise I try not to mention Monaco in EVERY post,
but so far I've had no choice. He fits every topic I've written about.
Mary Hood, who's won a whole slew of awards for her fiction, works, I'm told, in a factory to support herself (one of the major reasons she takes so long between books). I'm afraid, she's not a writer either.
Put the book down Mary;
Gladstone says you have an assembly line to work.
Edgar Allen Poe had to lie about his age and join the military because he was unable to support himself as a writer. He died virtually penniless in the streets.
Not a Writer

For most of his life, Nathaniel Hawthorne held other jobs besides writing to support his family.



Also not a writer
The truth is that the chances of making your living writing, especially in this economic climate, are, if I were to make a fairly educated guess, akin to the chance a black man has of surviving a season of The Walking Dead.   The aspiring writer may want to make nice with any well-to-do relatives or consider moonlighting as a CEO.


Spoiler Alert
“The arts,” says Kurt Vonnegut, “are not a way to make a living. If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

And there is a lot to be said for Vonnegut’s opinion. Careers in the arts are rare and mostly poorly paid. 

I know this. I’m a writer and a humanities professor. 

In fact, nothing pleased me more than finding out my son was going to technical school to be a nurse. “You’ll make way more money than I do,” I said. “My retirement is assured.”

However, my goddaughter called me a few weeks later and told me she was nervous about growing up and entering the real world. I asked her what she wants to do.

She wants to be a best-selling novelist.

I told her she’d need something to fall back on while she waits for her novels to be appreciated by the masses. To her credit, she had thought about just that: “I’ll be an English teacher,” she said, “like you.”

Since no amount of logic can dissuade her from this plan, all I can do is be proud of her, too, and wait for my inevitable opportunity to tell her “I told you so.”

However, there's an even bigger problem with Gladstone's reasoning

2. He blurs the difference between "vocation" and "job"

Gladstone says it's a lie to list your hobby as a vocation.

 Vocation: The particular function or station to which a person is called by God; a mode of life or sphere of action regarded as so determined.

vocation
Job: work done for pay in order to live in a fairly dry wooden box, drape oneself in inexpensive fabric, and avoid starvation.  

Job
I've done a lot of things for a living in my fairly short life: drug store clerk, fast food worker, janitor, car auction driver, rental car agent. None of those things have ever defined who I am. They were just jobs I did; by and large, they did not provide insight into my soul. 

In his article, Gladstone claims that even though he does enjoy writing, since he doesn't support himself with his writing, he feels uncomfortable referring to himself as a writer. "Many people," he continues, "don't have that problem. Their [online] bios define them as painter, writer, dancer!"

Go to your local night club, pub, or fancy restaurant, (any place that is likely to provide some form of live music) and ask those performers their vocations. While most of them have day jobs, I am willing to bet they all refer to themselves as musicians. Go to a local poetry reading, ask the performers the same question. They will all call themselves poets.

And why wouldn't they? Isn't it much more satisfying to publicly acknowledge your creative side? Who wouldn't want to be a painter instead of a fast food clerk or a musician instead of an elephant-shit collector?


Yep. It's a thing.
If I spent all my free time volunteering at the nursing home and donating food to the soup kitchen, or helping under-privileged children learn to read, I suspect Gladstone would have no problem with my listing "community volunteer/literacy advocate" as my vocation, even though I would make no money at it. 

Indeed, Gladstone's article itself serves as proof of my point. I have no idea what the man does for a living. Don't even care to. For all I know he could be the world's most effective toilet tester.


Yep. Also a thing.
What I care about is reading his stuff (because, well, it's pretty freaking great). I am fairly certain I am not alone. What fan base Gladstone has is mostly based on his writing, I assume. 

My point is vocations and jobs are very different things. Sometimes they overlap (I do see my "day" job as a college professor as a vocation, too); most of the time, they don't. If someone asks me what I do, I generally say I'm a college professor and a writer; if they ask me what I do for a living, I stop at college professor.

The truth is a vocation is a very personal thing. It gives your life meaning. It fulfills you as a person, and generally makes life a little less crappy for someone else, but more than anything, it defines who you are to yourself. It may be something you do to make your living, it may only pay for the occasional night out (or, in my case, the occasional Redbox rental and bottle of Guinness), it may not make you any money at all. But what it does do is make you feel personal worth.

My point is calling yourself a writer, a dancer, a musician, an artist, or any of a thousand other things that make your little patch of the universe bearable for others and yourself is exactly what a vocation is. Whatever else he does, Gladstone is a writer.

And so am I.

Don't think of my title as a lie; think of it as verbally ironic.

Don't take my word for it, though, check out Gladstone for yourself. He also has a new novel coming out in March; it looks great. 

Oh yeah, I have a new novella out now.



11 comments:

Nick Green said...

What a terrific post. (And very Cracked.com-esque if I may say so).

Anyway, come to that, why should people disparage 'hobbies' anyway? An uncle of mine once had the greatest electric train set I've ever seen up in his attic. The hours, the sheer hours of care and attention and love that must have gone into creating it. Ah, no, but it was just a Hobby.

It makes absolutely zero sense to define ourselves by the way we earn a living. There is earning, and there is living.

Susan Price said...

Totally agree that defining yourself by how you earn a crust is a nonsense. Take my father - he repaired electric motors: a job he was very good at and enjoyed. But he was far, far more than a repairer of motors. He drew, he painted. A self-educated man with little formal education, he'd taught himself a great deal about zoology, archealogy, geology (a subject he was particuarly keen on)ornithology, ecology - in short, he was a highly intelligent, curious, enquiring man. To say, 'He repaired electric motors,' doesn't even begin to describe him. There are thousands of people doing jobs they hate, just to pay the bills. As you say, Nick, the thing dismissed as 'a hobby' might be closer to a person's spirit.

Bill Kirton said...

Great post, Lev (with some intriguing illustrations). I still remember being shown around a new theatre by the director, who'd contacted me with a view to me writing a play for his company. At that time I wrote radio plays. But what makes me remember the occasion is that the director introduced me to a colleague thus: 'This is Bill Kirton. He's a writer'. It must have been the first time I'd had the label applied by someone other than myself and it felt as if I'd been awarded some sort of honour.

Dennis Hamley said...

I nearly wrote, 'That Gladstone, he should have stuck to saving fallen women' but decided just in time that it would be silly. Anyway, thanks for this blog, Lev. It's a mind-clearer and vestigial guilt remover. I've just this minute agreed to go to the meetings of a writing group composed of some of my old Diploma students. They paid a lot of money for their Diplomas because from choice, to be better at what they most wanted to be. They've demonstrated real talent to me, they've done well in competitions but they haven't earned a penny from writing - yet. (Well,one has.) Are they writers? You bet they are. Besides, teaching English and writing are closely allied trades. Was I both at once? Of course I was. Am I still? Of course I am.

Nick Green said...

And Dennis, now I add to your nearly-written comment by nearly writing my response: 'Most of those fallen women probably thought of themselves as writers.'

But that would be silly.

Leverett Butts said...

I am a fan of GLadtstone's column's (And I am looking forward to his novel), and to be fair I suspect his comments about listing hobbies as vocations had more to do with somone who, say, writes in a journal but never lets anyone see listing writer as a vocation. In this case, I think he has more of a point: writing by definition gains more value as its read. If one never puts themself out to be read, appreciated, or critiqued, it's a bit harder (though not, I suppose, impossible) to make the case of a being a writer. Had I not take nt the steps I have to make my work public, I don't know that I could, in good conscience, refer to myself as a writer. Diarist, maybe?

Anyway, I read Gladstone's article, and it sent me down the rabbit hole you see above, but GLadstone himself, was very helpful, provifding me with a better link to his upcoming novel and expressing interest in the post when it was published.

Leverett Butts said...

And I wish I had taken more time to proofread the last comment for typos.

Reb MacRath said...

You know, for a guy who isn't a writer, you're doing a helluva job. Another splendid post.

CallyPhillips said...

Ah, thanks for that Lev. I was wondering what I am now... I was swithering with being a 'writer, retired' but since I'm still writing it seemed inaccurate. But I guess it comes down to retired 'professional' writer and now vocational writer. I earned my living from it, now I don't have to, but I still do it. (And enjoy it more!) Apologies to all for whom the word professional sets their creative teeth a jangle. I only mean it in the terms of 'how one earns a living' In that respect I'm an 'ex' professional writer but 'retired' sounds nicer! I suppose we might say 'a vocation is for life, not just for the next pay cheque!'
Back to work... or vocational activity... thanks for the post. Made me smile.

Susan Price said...

Cally, writers, artists and musicians never retire from being writers, artists and musicians. How can they? They may or may not be paid for it, but you can no more retire from it than you can from thinking or breathing.

Lydia Bennet said...

great,fun post Lev! Very entertaining. But of course you are a writer and so am I and so are the AE cohort. I agree with Susan, you just ARE a writer or artist or actor, musician, composer etc, it's not like a job you retire from - you stop doing it if the ideas stop coming and you just don't want to any more. We have a long proud history of gifted 'amateurs' who have always contributed a great deal to science and the arts. By the 'being paid' definition, Van Gogh wasn't an artist as he never sold a single painting in his lifetime. I've been a writer for many years, I became a 'professional writer' just over a decade ago. Some of the time I've earned well or not badly from it, other times not a bean.