The other evening I was out with a friend and a group of people I was meeting for the first time. At some point I was talking to the twenty-something son of one of the group; the young man is a contractor, living in Texas, and, as twenty-somethings tend to be, quite full of himself and his knowledge of all things. Near the end of the evening, when I suppose he’d run out of things to say that started with “me” or “I,” he asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a writer.
He said, proudly, “Hey, I’m a writer too!”
I said, “Yeah, but I get paid for it.”
He said, “I mean, I write good. I wrote 540 pages of a novel, by hand, but it got burned up in a fire started by some guys after they burglarized my house.” He then went on to tell me of the dozens of short stories he’s started, none of which he’s ever finished.
I didn’t bother to tell him he meant he wrote “well,” because in all likelihood, he doesn’t. I didn’t bother to tell him I’ve written six novels (not to mention hundreds of stories, articles, essays, etc.), all of them paid for and/or published, and that actually finishing a piece of writing is a lot more difficult and important than starting it. I didn’t bother to tell him that the difference between someone who “writes too” and “a writer” is like the difference between a weekend cook and Julia Child.
(My son, who at sixteen is often funnier than me, provided me with the perfect riposte when I later told him the story: “You should have said, ‘I’m a contractor too! I once put together a table I bought at Ikea.’”)
No one ever says, when introduced to people in other professions, “I’m a doctor too, I put a band-aid on my skinned knee,” or “I’m a plumber too, I changed the washer in a leaky faucet,” or “I’m also an electrician, I plugged in my own toaster.” Any self-respecting professional who has spent years learning his or her craft would be insulted by the dilettante or dabbler who claimed membership in their fraternity. Most people recognize that and would never think to compare themselves to the trained doctor or plumber or electrician. But everybody thinks they can write; I’m not saying some of aren’t talented or couldn’t produce publishable prose, but most people can’t, just like they can’t remove an appendix or install plumbing in a building.
(Another related pet peeve is the individual who, upon hearing that I’m a writer, makes this offer: “I’ve got a great idea for a book but I just never had the time to write it myself. How about I give you the idea, you write the book, and we split the money, fifty-fifty? It’ll make a fortune.” To which I respond, “I’ll write the book for a flat upfront fee of $10,000 and you keep all the profits for yourself.” None of them ever say they couldn’t write it themselves, only that they’ve never found the time to get around to it, because, y’know, actually writing an entire book’s not that big a deal. And, FYI, no one has yet to take me up on my counter-offer.)
Just about every writer I know–and quite a few artists, as well–have heard this. I know I should just smile and say, “How nice for you,” but I’ve spent over thirty-five years trying to learn how to do what I do as well as I possibly can (you can debate my level of success amongst yourselves), and I take pride in my work. The idea that just because you can string a few words together to make a sentence that your girlfriend or mother tells you is good puts you on par with my level of experience is kind of insulting. Tell me you like to write. Tell me you do it as a hobby. Tell me you’ve had a few little things published in the community center newsletter…but “a writer”? How about you do the real work and learn the craft before you claim membership in the club.
I don’t say I’m an accountant just because I used to fill out the IRS income tax short form myself. Show writers the same respect, willya?