Hating the Word 'Writer'

An Essay

Stephen Cox

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People are drawn to writing for various reasons. The word ‘writer’ will have different meanings for different people, but as such I am reluctant to use it in relation to myself. I accept that I am at an early stage in my writing career. Furthermore, it would not be quite true to say that I write for fun, as I’m sure any writer who has stared into the abyss of the blank page, only for it to stare back, will understand. It must nevertheless be common for amateur writers to have doubts as to whether or not they are really writers; as solipsistic an activity as writing may be, such thoughts are discomfiting nonetheless.

My hesitancy to identify with the word writer is more than partly linked to professional life. I have been lucky enough to have had a few pieces published here and there, while recognising that rejection letters and PTDs are an unavoidable part of trying to establish yourself. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to live by writing alone. How many people with half-finished, never-to-be-published novels introduce themselves at parties as writers? How many amateurs who get the odd poem or review printed put ‘writer’ on their tax returns? Writing in any form is not work that you would associate with avariciousness, or maybe even with paying the rent: a 2014 survey by Queen Mary University, London, revealed that only 11% of working authors in Britain made their living from writing alone. Such a statistic is hardly surprising when their average income came to just £11,000. Besides, plenty of writers have supplemented their creative lives with day jobs: Anthony Trollope, for instance, wrote more than two dozen novels in a 33-year career as a civil servant, which makes you wonder what we really do with our time.

Whatever about being a writer, god help you if you try telling the barber you’re a poet. Professional poetry is generally confined to the likes of Aos Dána and Fulbright scholars, who often rely on hefty grants to produce their verse. If sales of fiction are stagnating, equivalent figures for poetry are practically nonexistent. Martin Amis, writing on Philip Larkin, noted how the Bard of Hull’s early ambition as a novelist came largely from wanting to transcend his ordinary surroundings and upbringing, guaranteeing the trappings of fame he longed for; while his status as a poet confined him to a dull day job as a librarian, resigned to a grubby life of writing in a form that had little of the prestige of fiction. Even still, it is worth noting that Larkin published his two novels—neither of which was particularly well-received—in the 1940s, when more people read. Philip Roth made the prediction in 2009 that the reading of novels would be reduced to a ‘cultic’ few within 25 years: ‘maybe more people than read Latin poetry now, but somewhere in that range.’ So why write when your work might not even be read? Making a Larkinesque slant at working life is one thing, but given that I currently work as an English teacher in Portugal, the toadlike thing in me is just grateful that I have a job that allows me time to pursue other interests. My discomfort with the word writer comes down to more than insecurity about ‘real’ jobs: I have no similar qualms about the terms author, novelist or even—I’ll admit— poet. So what is it about ‘writer’ that so discomfits?

Perhaps it is the mental images the word summons: the pale underfed ascetic, scrawling clichés on the pages of his Moleskine, hanging out in cafés, waiting for The Inspiration, on one side; the pompous, self-important intellectual on the other. My own relationship with writing is one that others with similar interests will maybe recognise: the desire for acknowledgement and for others to be familiar with your work sits uncomfortably with actually telling people that you write, or that you crave such validation. David Foster Wallace, in the essay ‘The Nature of the Fun’, compares writing pre- and post-publication to masturbation and attempted seduction respectively; any attempt to get back to the first innocent, onanistic thrill of pen and paper will be invariably compromised by ego, hesitation and an unpleasant desire to please. Writing will never be sexy, vital, immediate as sports, music or acting are; aspiring directors or dancers will rarely—if ever—be accused of pretentiousness as readily as are wannabe writers. In an interview with the Paris Review, Irish author Edna O’Brien described writing as being ‘quite sick in the sense of of normal human enjoyment of life…by the time the work appears, [the writer] is again incarcerated in the next book—or in barrenness.’

Willingness to hide oneself away isn’t necessarily linked to a hunger for self-expression alone. Taffy Brodesser-Akner, also writing in the Paris Review, describes the goal of every writer as being ‘to get back at those who had wronged us, sharply and loudly, and then to be able to cry innocent that our intentions were anything other than poetic and pure’. For Brodesser-Akner, nothing is as passive-aggressive as writing, which is ‘first born of a need to explain oneself…The popular kids can explain themselves to each other. Only the lonely are left to their writing.’ For me at least, such a description is unpleasantly familiar, stripping away pretensions I might have about writing for purely artistic purposes. In a Guardian article about boxing movies, DJ Williams writes: ‘You can’t uppercut self-loathing…But you can externalise it and at least prove to yourself and the world that you have control over something.’ Writing, in the end, is surely at least partly motivated by similar aims. To me, however, ‘writer’ has less gravitas—authority, indeed—than ‘author’, the former suggesting a bitterness missing from the latter’s implied dedication to art and form. If writing, as George Orwell described in ‘Why I Write’, is indeed driven primarily by ‘sheer egoism’ (Joan Didion, borrowing Orwell’s title for a talk, described her own motivation as being based around ‘three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is ‘I, I, I’), it raises awkward questions as to how honourable an activity writing may be, and what kinds of images the word writer summons.

Yet how much sense is there in nitpicking over two words that mean more or less the same thing? ‘Writer’ has the benefit of obliqueness, of not being tied to one form in particular. But why, to me, does it imply ‘mean, sour, unsuccessful’ over ‘author’’s success and credibility—the underfed ascetic versus the pompous intellectual? I do not subscribe to Roland Barthes’s theory that the writer ‘is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate’; rather, that the tension and interplay of art and artist can lead to writers resenting the medium that they have invested in. American novelist and poet Ben Lerner has written an entire book on the subject, albeit one centred on verse. The Hatred of Poetry takes as its springboard the first line of a Marianne Moore poem, itself entitled ‘Poetry’: ‘I, too, dislike it’. Lerner goes on to recount the critic Allen Grossman’s reason for poets begrudging their own poetry: the ‘actual poem’, as Grossman calls it, is trapped in a ‘bitter logic’ of never being able to better the ‘virtual poem’. That is, the idea or emotion that moved the poet proves difficult to convey, leaving them frustrated by their own inability to do so.

This is by no means an uncommon problem, for writing is perhaps an odd example within the arts when it comes to actual productivity or inspiration. In an article for Salon, Michele Filgate notes that ‘most of a writer’s life is ridden with guilt’, as ‘the majority of writers spend many waking hours not writing’ for one reason or another. But, as Filgate points out, ‘if we all had blind faith in ourselves the world would be full of mediocre books’. While self-doubt can be used to improve our writing, it doesn’t have to be a sapping, negative force on creativity. She quotes bestselling writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who mentions authors such as George Saunders, Alice Munro and Michael Chabon as being examples of ‘writers who take a quieter approach to their work — one that is just about respectfully showing up for your vocation day after day, steadily doing your best, and letting go of the results.’ But, as Filgate notes, these authors are already well-established, making such self-belief easier. Their simple take on writing is certainly attractive, but not enough to dissuade misgivings I have against the creative process in general, and the word writer in particular. I may not have succeeded, in this piece, in describing the icky feeling I associate with one word in particular—a feeling I know is irrational, and not easy to get across. To go back to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s article, I know I’m in trouble if I can’t even express myself properly in writing.

There is room for hope, however. In an interview with James Wood, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard described writing as ‘a cold hand on a warm forehead’: Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ for the 21st century. Here, Knausgaard—a man not disinclined to self-loathing or to proclaiming his vastly successful books to be failures—offers a description of writing that is encouraging without being unrealistic, heartening without being sentimental. If, as Knausgaard says, ‘the writing, the text, the novel, is a creation of something outside of the self…neutralised by the objectivity of literature and form’, then writing can and will be a source of solace in an uncertain world. The creative process may be stressful enough in itself, but if you have this cold hand to cool down your forehead when it gets too warm, you should be able to face the blank page bravely, even on days when you write nothing. You might even be able to call yourself a writer with a straight face, or to do so at least without grimacing.

In the end, though, I suppose I am in no position to describe anyone’s writing manifesto as being sentimental or clichéd, and perhaps have good reason to doubt the word writer. Above my bedroom desk where I write, eleven words by Bob Dylan are printed in small letters, facing me any time I stare at the wall, momentarily unable to express myself. Maybe you really never can win with self-doubt; for ‘there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all’.