Monday, 12 November 2012

Crossbreeding a Tomato and a Trout: Why Saying You're a Writer Is Never a Good Idea

I'm currently reading and enjoying Carolyn See's writing advisory manual 'Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers'. It's saturated with tongue-in-cheek humour, with many laugh-out-loud moments, but most especially her opening line which had me hooked from the get-go:

'It's (the book) for students just coming to this discipline, older people who wanted to write in their youth and never got around to it, folks who live in parts of the country where the idea of writing is about as strange as crossbreeding a tomato and a trout.'

Crossbreeding a tomato and a trout! Ha, couldn't have put it better myself. It's safe to say that I live in such a place. And my gosh, saying you're a writer does garner many funny looks. (Which is why, on most occasions, I shy away from it.) 

Carolyn explains why a little further on in the book and she makes a logical argument. - People just don't want to hear about it. Don't want to hear about you being or wanting to be a writer.  Because civilization is made up of structure, rules, routines. And writing throws them all out the window, as she explains - 'the minute somebody begins to write - or to make any kind of real "art" - all that structure comes into question. It's no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It's hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is - theoretically, at least - capable of bringing down the whole damn thing.'

Well....whoa. I never thought of that before! Could it be...? The suspicion of anarchy in the ranks keeps reactions at bay? (Suddenly I'm reminded of an episode of the cult TV series back in the day The X-Files, where the supernatural foe in question is a suburban fiend who attacks when the conformity of the neighbourhood is subjected to a random riff - and the moment when Mulder, decides to provoke it by sticking a pink flamingo garden ornament on the lawn while uttering a revoke 'Bring it on.' - Are we writers the pink flamingo inciters of the conforming routine-abiding masses...?) 

So, Carolyn maintains it's best not to tell anyone about your writerly status, keep it to yourself, because basically -  'the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.'

Honestly, this never occurred to me. But why exactly? Because writing is not... ordinary??  But then again, being an astronaut is not ordinary and I'm pretty sure they're met with reverence, respect and even celebrity status wherever they turn. Why not writers? Are we the plague of the earth?

Well at least it's not what I originally thought: that they think writing is a vacuous hobby, a non-entity in the work-world, a pithy daydream, a temporary phase, something so non-important as to be dismissed. Phew, I can rest a little easier now! I used to take it so much to heart when people would blank over when I mentioned writing. I used to perceive it as a passive-aggressive personal assault. But it's just that really -they don't want to hear about it, because it's so contrary to what they do know, even challenging to it  - the complete opposite indeed of what I thought.

She goes into more detail in a later chapter after witnessing the parents of one of her best students grimace at the thought of their son becoming a writer - 'The truth is that about 97 percent of "normal" people everywhere - not just in America - look on writing, if they look on it at all, as one step below whoredom. ' ??!

She says even a sculptor would be better received, a wannabe actor, a stand-up comedian. All because you see,  people 'can't see you write. They don't know what you're doing, and even if you do "succeed" - publish some magazine pieces, or your first or second or third book - relatives will say suspiciously, "I went into the bookstore and asked for your book and they never heard of you." Or, more to the point, "Yes, but how do you make a living?" Maybe jazz sidemen have as hard a time as writers do, but they can always pull out their trombone and wave it at their aunts and uncles: "This is what I play. This!"' We writers don't have that luxury I guess. (Although there were times when I was tempted to take out my lap-top and show these naysayers my abundance of Word files - but thought it'd be better to wait until the day I have a few paperbacks to wave in their faces, where I have incarnated them as the most despicable villains...)

I always said writing is an invisible vocation. And it is hard when you get this non-reaction from people, but at least I know now it's not just me who has experienced it - it's universal to all writers. An occupational hazard if you will. 

The author then goes on to advise us to hang out with people who support our writing (other writers mostly), not the ones who reject it (easier said than done....) People to avoid include the non-supporters, who have multiple reasons for their disregard of you, including:
- 'People who resent the thought of your writing: They're working hard; you're not. 
- People who need you to stay in the background, to be dim and dull so that they can look good...
-People who need you to not have "enough", so that whatever they have will look like more.
- People who have such a strong idea of what or who you are in their universe that they can't begin to see or perceive this other idea you might have about yourself.' 

Ha, she puts it so clearly! The haters - that's their characteristics alright. And again, what a relief to know that it is an acknowledged fact and not just an isolated personal experience.

Then she offers the sound advice of ignoring them. Because to rebel against them or defy them will zap your energy, and it does, it really does. 'The smart thing is to be polite and respectful and then gradually fade from view.' Good advice!  I just hope I can abide by it now instead of letting these people get to me. Because it is hard to tune them out. But tune them out we must do if we want to succeed in  our craft. A writer's life is a solo one! 

I'd highly recommend this book! It's so rare to get a book on writing that is not all seriousness and guidelines and exercises. This one is actually fun to read, full of humour and witty insights and exaggerated scenarios. It deals not just with the practice of writing, the technical ins and outs, but the whole writerly 'life' - how to cultivate being an actual writer, habits and quirks and idiosyncrasies and all. 
And worth it all almost just for that first sentence ;)

~ Siobhán

Read more on Making a Literary Life  here


  1. bonjour Siobhân, j'aime votre titre qui sonne comme un poème du tao, et votre texte est pertinent :-) Thibault

    1. Bonjour Thige et merci. Tao - vraiment? Ha! J'adore le titre aussi - j'ai le trouvé dans ce livre.

  2. That book sounds amazing Siobhan.
    My brother is a writer and I'll definitely be getting it for him for Christmas and maybe for myself too.

    Since starting my blog a few months ago I've discovered that I have a real 'gra' for writing.
    It helps me massively with my illness.

    My brother gets a hard time from my father about his writing which is so unfair. My brother worked a 9 - 5 job for nearly 20 years but he says he has never worked so hard as now that he is writing.

    I also love the quotes you had in your last post, I'll be showing them all to my brother.

    Take care and don't listen to the naysayers, they would probably love to do what you are doing, they just don't have courage x

    1. Hi Ruby, yes you should get the book - both for yourself and your brother! It offers good advice! But also - a really good book on writing is Stephen King's 'On Writing', I found that very helpful -he is so down-to-earth and offers good practical advice.

      And 'The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron is good,very encouraging, but deals more with creativity and being open to it. A very powerful book.

      Tell your brother to keep going with writing! I know, my parents aren't exactly supportive either... but then again, they don't know the benefits of writing! If anyone did - they'd encourage it all the way.

      Thanks for your kind words!

      Hope you are still writing away and gleaming great pleasure from it! :)


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