January 15, 2011

What Makes a Writer?

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:31 am

As some of you know, I am a member of a large, extended family of mystery lovers, the incomparable listserv, DorothyL. I have discovered more new authors to read there than I have space to list here.

Broken PlacesOne great read was BROKEN PLACES by Sandra Parshall, and the way DL works, or at least the way I utilize it, is that once a name has become familiar to me I tend to go to that person’s post first amongst the many that come in on any given day. So it was that I was drawn to Sandy’s blog recently wherein she was questioning her validity as a writer.

If this author, whose book I had read and enjoyed, was questioning her right to that title, then what was I? Much less than a writer, surely. Maybe just a…w?

Anyway, as I was wrestling with the question Sandy raised, another author and DL member wrote this very poignant reply in return, demonstrating that all writers, at every level of accomplishment and ability, will struggle with this issue.

Margaret Koch has her own merit badge in this discussion, having wrestled with the best way to get her own work out there, in this brave new world of publishing. You can check out Margaret’s novels here and here and here.

And once you do, please read the exchange by clicking on Sandy’s blog post and then glancing over Margaret’s reply below.

I’ll be interested in hearing what all the writers–and all the w’s–out there think.

Sandy wrote that she finds herself between award-winning books and wonders if her income from books falls short of the threshold for being a real writer. I think she wrote it at 3:00 a.m., when the goblins crawl out of the wall sockets, grab us by the throat and shake us until our confidemnce runs out our ears and puddles on the floor.

You are a wonderful writer, Sandy. You grace the page upon which you choose to place words.

But let’s talk about anyone’s — anyone’s at all — entitlement to say they are “something.” My plumber is a plumber even if he goes bankrupt because he can’t solve my toilet, or others like it. The Kardashians are celebrities because they’ve said that they are celebrities so often that now people pay to look at them and hear about their hair removal. My banker’s a banker even if he runs off with a bunch of the money. Nobody calls him an ex-banker, or a non-banker, even in jail.

Sandy is a wonderful writer, an award-winning writer, a self-questioning writer. She hasn’t sold out, nor has she sold her soul. She writes her own books and works hard to make them better. She doesn’t sit idly on her awards and reviews.

So why are we writers (myself included) so hungry for proof that we are good enough, profitable enough, popular enough, to—what? To take on an identity that will likely punish us more than it rewards us? I think it’s because every piece of fiction is a projective exercise. We’re putting pieces of our own self out there for judgment, consciously or unconsciously. It just leaks out. We can’t be flip about exposing ourselves, fiction or not. There are few defenses that work for that feeling when you let other people comment on what you’ve written.
Sandy has written some wonderful books.

And in the middle of the night, the goblins get Sandy just like they get the rest of us.

That’s why we DLers are so valuable. We read books and talk about them as if they matter…as if the writing of them matters. Sandy’s writing matters.

So does mine, even as I swat a cheeky goblin who came out early tonight and tried to unplug my computer (I’m starting on my fifth in the Barb Stark series). Right after I swatted him, he sneered and said, “Sandy’s more of a writer than you are, cookie.”

–Margaret Koch


  1. I sat at Sandy’s table at the Malice Domestic banquet last year. I remembered she did a kind of “poo poo” thing when I said I thought she was one of the best writers in that room (a room full of marvelous writers, too). But I did NOT say that just because I was sitting with her, I really meant it! She hasn’t gotten national acclaim, but she’s well known to her many loyal readers, and to writers who marvel at her abilities.

    DL, Sisters in Crime, the wonderful Guppies–these are all vital support group for lonely writers. They help hold those hobgoblins at bay!

    I’m glad you reprinted Margaret’s essay here, Jenny. It expresses the thoughts of many writers eloquently. Thanks!

    Comment by Kaye George — January 15, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  2. Hi, Jenny. I’ll start the conversation.

    Why is a banker always a banker, but a writer – even an award-winning writer like Sandy – may question her ability to call herself one? Perhaps it’s because in our field, like acting, name recognition is so important. You say you’re a writer, and people ask what you’ve written, where they can buy a copy. If your book isn’t on display at Barnes and Noble, you get a look like, “oh, you must not be a real writer.” Or you get a reaction of, “oh, I never heard of you,” as if to be a real writer, you must be famous. In contrast, you’ll never hear that about a plumber. You say you’re a plumber and people believe you. There’s no sniff, followed by, “I never heard of you.” It’s as if writers have gotten so mixed in with our celebrity c
    ulture, that what matters to some people is your notoriety, not your talent, which of course is a shame. So yes, Sandy may not have the name recognition of James Patterson, but that doesn’t make her any less of a writer. It’s too bad not everyone thinks so.

    Comment by Barb Goffman — January 15, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  3. Good tips, Kaye–those are all great resources. Thank you for sharing.

    Barb, I think that is an excellent point–how the celebrity culture plays into the career of writing. Writing lives in no-man’s (no-woman’s) land where it in part takes practice and learning of craft and application, like plumbing, and in part it is kind of mystical and no one really knows quite how it’s done and it’s glitzy and shiny when we think of books getting made into movies and appearances at events. So maybe just as the profession is impossible to encapsulate, it’s also very hard to gauge our level of success.

    What’s a good story well told? One that is published? One that has dozens of fans? 1000s? More? And, is a good story well told what makes one a writer anyway–or something else? Are we looking at an internal versus an external distinction?

    I’ve just thrown out a bunch of questions, I realize. Conversation started indeed!

    Comment by jenny — January 15, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

  4. If Emily Dickinson’s poetry had never found a publisher, would she still be a good poet(ess)? More than good–I adore her poetry.

    Comment by Kaye George — January 15, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

  5. Right. Good point, Kaye.

    But I find that when a work is unpublished, it’s easy to look for a reason, a flaw that is keeping it from getting an offer. And sometimes there is one. Sometimes there’s more than one even. But sometimes not. We’ve all heard the story of the Pulitzer-winning ms that was subbed widely in NY–including to its own publisher.

    Rejected all around.

    Comment by jenny — January 15, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

  6. I’m glad my little self-pity party has led to some serious discussion about the place of writers in today’s celebrity-obsessed society. :-) What I find most discouraging and upsetting is the attitude some successful published writers take toward small press authors and other lesser-known writers. I’ve always felt that writers should stick together and support each other, and I hate it when one author puts another down because her advance is small or her publisher is tiny. Publishing is changing at an incredibly fast rate, and perhaps some of the “old guard” — established large press writers heavily invested in the traditional way of doing things — feel threatened by that. I respect anyone who writes seriously and gives it his or her best. I do that, and I want to be respected for it, regardless of the size of my advance or royalty checks.

    Comment by Sandra Parshall — January 15, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  7. That is one anthem I can get behind singing, Sandy. I’m glad you started all this too–not by pitying yourself, but by questioning. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ and all.

    Comment by jenny — January 15, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

  8. Internal versus external validation – interesting idea, Jenny. In one respect, an author should view herself as one simply because she is one, regardless of if she’s a newbie or a mid-lister or a big name. But so much of this industry is tied to external validation. Reviews. Sales. It could be easy to lose your confidence, which brings us back to Kaye and Sandy’s point about the importance of supporting one another. Maybe the greater population hasn’t heard about Sandy Parshall (sorry to keep using you as an example, Sandy, but you started this train rolling), but those of us who have read her know her talents. So ultimately, an author needs the self confidence to keep writing, assisted by the encouragement of her peers. And eventually, hopefully, the general public will eventually catch on. But even if they don’t, that doesn’t make her any less of a writer. It just makes her a well-kept secret.

    Comment by Barb Goffman — January 15, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

  9. I couldn’t agree more (or less, as my 7 year old likes to say), Barb. A well kept secret is a great way to put it.

    But it’s funny how the bar keeps getting raised, you know? Sticking with Sandy–getting your name out there, at least in this little Suspense Your Disbelief community, San–I’m sure that once this very point: great, indie publisher, looking forward to more titles coming out, would’ve seemed like success. And then as Barb says, it’s about reviews…awards…not just readers, but more readers.

    I’m as guilty of it as anybody (and, if you knew the dreams that assail me late at night, perhaps moreso). But maybe we all need to use this thread as a reminder. We are writers if we write. We are best-selling writers if we write best-sellers. We are well-reviewed writers if we receive good reviews. But the writer part is a certainty once we’re putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, on a regular basis, and producing work.

    Is that a decent definition–one that will keep Margaret’s hobgoblins at bay?

    Comment by jenny — January 16, 2011 @ 10:09 am

  10. The insecurity is nuts, eh? And the big difficulty is I think for the middlers… the people NOT getting CRITICAL acclaim, but writing and selling pretty good books… success is tied to things not related to the writing: timing of the idea, skill at self-promotion, ‘buzz’. But yeah… I would hope if I ever merit an award that I can believe… even if I’m not sure I would…

    Comment by Hart — January 17, 2011 @ 10:30 am

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