"I'm a writer..."

One of my favourite anecdotes in the insightful, barbed book "Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich concerned a crisis of conscience.

(One-sentence summary if you don't know the book: Ehrenreich takes a series of minimum-wage jobs and writes about the work and personal life she experiences as a result.)

At one job, she decided to reveal her real identity, and said, "I'm not really a waitress... I'm a writer." Her co-worker quickly replied, "Oh! I'm a writer too!"

Ehrenreich realized that whether it's a sheaf of poems written in sparkle pen, a memoir of a childhood on the move or song lyrics, many of her colleagues considered themselves writers.

Ehrenreich did not ask if they too had won a Pulitzer; she was touched that so many people tended their modest projects. However, there are worlds within that label, writer.

In the days of the medieval guilds, a craftsman could not adopt a title such as goldsmith before progressing through apprentice, journeyman and master levels. I'm not advocating adoption of a formal credentialing process, and I have no idea when the moment of fully-feathered status arrives. People will claim their place as they choose.

But I dislike how readily
blogging can generate a false sense of mastery. Push "Enter" and your chapter or poem is 'published'. Commenters tend to offer lavish compliments, ignoring issues of structure, usage, and other basics of the craft.

For the aspiring author, unstinting praise from other hopeful writers is the deep-fried Mars Bar of feedback, unctuous yet empty. Eventually they become suspicious and wonder, "If so many people think I'm great, why are my submissions rejected?"

I never point out their errors or say what I'm thinking: take a writing class, buy an armful of books, read and analyze. Learn the difference between "seen" and "scene" or "fewer" and "less"; absorb the basics of style.

The lone time I raised this concern (without reference to the blogger's writing), she deleted my comment.

Malcolm Gladwell
says in "Outliers: The Story of Success", that ten years of study and practice are the minimum to build the base of a vocation. He seconds the opinion of George Leonard, in his book "Mastery".
Does one get there on praise alone?

I have been edited by one of the most-respected journalists in the country, a man who could parse the square root of a word. His hand was revelatory, humbling, confirming. Though it put my ego through a blender, I deeply appreciated his guidance. He didn't change every line.

That feedback was worth ten thousand fulsome compliments.

Creative work is
joy interwoven with struggle. If writers at all levels of proficiency consider both criticism and praise as useful information, we might, with hard work and luck, manifest our talent.



24 comments

Deja Pseu said...

I still aspire to be a writer. There's something in me that needs to write. For right now, it's my puny blog, but maybe someday, when the demands of life are fewer, I'd love to take some classes and really work at it.

But I also think one can be a writer without having been published. Intent and identity also play their parts. It doesn't mean that one is particularly good but the doing is worth something, non?

Duchesse said...

Pseu: I agree publishing does not make one a writer, and if anyone feels a need to write, great.

Frugal Scholar said...

In another moment of harmonic convergence, I was planning on writing about writing myself. And I did. I would be interested in your comments on that.

Anyway, I share many of your opinions. I think some bloggers are so emotionally in tune with their readers that matters of grammar and style become irrelevant.

I think Barbara E. went to the same college I did!

I think Gladwell wrote Outliers, btw. Gopnik wrote that great book on Paris.

As for writing, you are one of the best I've seen. And I supposedly know what I'm talking about.

Nancy (nanflan) said...

Criticism is one thing. Snark is another. The first is intended to help the writer improve. The second is malicious and intended to wound.

I don't know if I consider myself a writer or not. I blog, but that's more about sharing than any plans to be published or to market a product. I think that's ok, too.

Nancy (nanflan) said...

Forgot to mention: critique vs. snark was not directed at anyone in particular. I've always found your comments firmly in the critique category, even if they've stung just a bit.

I think Frugal Scholar is correct about Gladwell.

Duchesse said...

Frugal: Thanks for the correction; I just read a Gopnik essay in the New Yorker and he's on my mind. I will be eager to read your remarks.

Nancy: Agree. And, criticism is occasionally heard as snark; some writers are (as we say in my family) sensitive-wensitive no matter how delicately a suggestion is worded. When I taught business writing, students were more concerned with the clarity and effect of their writing rather than than self-expression, and usually open to feedback.

Imogen Lamport said...

I'm so glad I have no pretensions to be a writer. When I worked in publishing, it was interesting to see how many writers resisted the work of their editors, even though all the editor wanted was to improve their writing. And often in review there was comment on how a bit more editing would have improved the book.

Duchesse said...

Nancy: Sorry, should be "rather than THEIR self-expression."

lagatta à montréal said...

This is a rather complex issue. I've often dealt with people who think that anyone who speaks more than a smattering of two languages or more can be a translator, forgetting the "writing" aspect of the craft.

I certainly want "poetry made by all" (La poésie doit être faite par tous. Non par un - Lautréamont), however our society tends to undervalue craftwork and the creative professions, ascribing more value - and remuneration - to "hard knowledge".

And Pseu, I very much enjoy your writing. It is expressive and well-crafted, and shows a gift for conveying the importance of "l'air du temps", of seemingly fleeting and superficial topics like scarves and style, and how they are part of what make us human and participants in a culture.

Northmoon said...

I wonder if it could be because in some schools now the younger generation is not being taught or marked on the correct usage and spelling of words. They think it's not important if they use their or there, scene or seen. I don't agree and I cringe at some newspaper articles - published writers who have no clue about grammer.

It's like good manners - knowing which fork to use will be a marker of which class you belong to. So yes go ahead, say it's old fashioned and unimportant, but you will be branded and have fewer opportunities.

That being said, I can cut a lot of slack for someone who just wants to share in the blog universe.

materfamilias said...

I remember Dionne Brand's generous and thoughtful response, a few years ago, to a student who asked what she would advise an aspiring young writer. She suggested the first, and perhaps most important, task was to read copiously, widely, humbly. She cautioned that while the young writer might very well have something worthwhile to say, it might also well be that someone else had said it earlier. Or that it contradicted what someone had said earlier and that contradiction needed to be considered. Good writers should be aware that they are joining in a cultural conversation that has been ongoing long before they piped in.
For me, this discussion of content is as important as any about style (although I agree that the craft of writing is very important as well).
I also agree with those commenters who don't want to condemn bloggers who are just trying to express themselves, join in a conversation, or whatever. Canadian poet Dennis Lee once asked me, at a kidlit event I was attending as a volunteer, whether I also "scribbled" and I loved this kind nod to recognizing writing as a process which I might participate in as well as a product claimed only by those who were published.

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: To paraphrase WendyB, "Write what you want." My remarks concern the effects of self-publishing (especially the comments) for aspiring authors, people who deeply wish to be published.

Anonymous said...

In the food world there is a useful distinction between "cook" and "chef". My friends call me a chef, a huge compliment, but I am only a cook and always will remain so. A chef is 1) a professional and 2)officially certified as such. The certification is demanding and even many professional cooks don't have it. They should not call themselves "chef".
When a saucier says "The béarnaise is ready, Chef", he is using "Chef" like a soldier would say "Yes, Major". Protocol aside, it is a mark of respect for the knowledge,experience and, yes, rank of the chef.

Maybe we need a new word, one that would apply to amateurs who do not (should not!) pretend to be professional writers.

Le Duc

Anjela's Day said...

One reason I try not to put my writings or photographs on places that allow for a community or a comment field (with one exception and that exception is a site without a sense of competition) due to the obsequiousness of the commentators. Photographers or writers enthralled by fake applause tend to write more and post other photographs in the belief that they are talented. And I do believe when people said my writings reminded them of the orchestration of Ottorino Respighi with a tinge of Korsakov- in the rhythms and melody and blending into sentences so exquisitively. Huh? Me? That sort of praise could get a girl all confused. She could start believing her words were like a libretto- that the phone would start ringing- that her life story should become an opera. Hah hah hah

Anjela's Day said...

One of the more interesting books I have read from a 'historical ' perspective was about an old lady who lived on a remote island in my homeland...Ireland. It was primitive- She was primitive. But it had such a ring of truth about it. No fancy words. No sense of structure. She just wrote from her heart. No education though she was a midwife- a midwife without electricity. Amazing story of survival but to her it was her daily life. Now thats writing. Unlike a frend of mine, a writer who was paid mega bucks to go off to some country and stay in a 5* star hotel and write about the real people.

lagatta à montréal said...

As for "fulsome", I'm sure many wordsmiths simultaneously fell off their computer chairs today while listening to a CBC news report about the Oliphant Inquiry, questioning former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney about his relations with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber:

"After two days of questioning by his own lawyer, Guy Pratte, lead commission counsel Richard Wolson began grilling Mulroney Thursday.

Wolson questioned Mulroney about the sworn testimony he gave during the discovery process of his lawsuit in 1996 against the federal government over the Airbus affair.

He suggested Mulroney wasn't being completely open when describing the relationship he had with Schreiber because he didn't mention the commercial arrangement he had struck with Schreiber.

"You're not quite fulsome in your response," Wolson said.

"I am fulsome and truthful," Mulroney said."

- CBC News story.

materfamilias said...

Hope I didn't sound as if I were admonishing you to be tolerant, Duchesse, because I understand the distinction you're making. My comment was meant to complement yours rather than disagree with it, but because I came at it a bit sideways, I think that intent might have been obscured. Too few people, I'm afraid, see the value of editing. And sometimes editing means not writing at all, 'til you have something new/worthwhile to say.

Duchesse said...

lagatta; "Fulsome" is one of those difficult "Janus words" that carry two very different meanings. Various sources differ on which is the first meaning.

An MD whom I introduced at a conference wrote me a note referring to "your fulsome praise". I inferred he was calling my praise insincere and unctuous (the meaning of "fulsome" that I learned), and avoided him for months. He in fact was using the other meaning, "abundant".

Mulroney (And other Canadians) often misuse the word to mean "complete" or "comprehensive"- pretentious, inaccurate use.

An executive I work with recently wrote, "All employees should receive fulsome performance reviews."

materfamilias: Thanks, agree! And even if I saw it differently I'd be interested in your point of view.

lagatta à montréal said...

Yes, I did know it could also mean abundant, but the way both Mulroney and Wolson were misusing the term, as you say.

lagatta à montréal said...

Oh dear, what a garbled sentence. Wish I had pushed the preview button. My fault for posting while I'm worling on something entirely unrelated.

"but Mulroney and Wolson were misusing the term".

Duchesse said...

lagatta: I knew what you meant. Misusing more than the term, it appears.

hollarback said...

I agree with some of these points.

There are some authors who are published to great fanfare that are in reality very poor writers, and some (previously unpublished) like John Kennedy Toole who found an audience almost as a fluke..

Much as murder will out-so does quality, regardless of publishing credits.

Craft does count for a lot though. One cannot dismiss training in any artistic endeavor. Many do. The same goes for the art/professional craftsman world. There are obvious levels evinced by training and talent and then there are the hobbyists (who mean well) and the posers (who just dress the part)

People should write or create as they see fit if it pleases them or adds to their lives. But professional judgement/criteria is needed if one is going to be a professional. Every creative field has it's hurdles and one needs toughen up and absorb the constructive criticism. The basic art class crit can be brutal and unnerving to someone who is just playing. Many a business major slumming in a painting class of mine dropped the course when they realized how serious it was.

It suppose it depends on ones goals. Improving and perfecting the work or just a means of expression?

hollarback said...

Ugh - "I suppose"

I really need to proof read!

Terri said...

A simple set of response questions I use in my college level creative writing classes:
1) what is memorable about this piece of writing?
2) what is the strength of this piece of writing?
3) what is the weakness of this piece of writing?
4) what ONE suggestion could you make to the writer that would improve the writing?