There’s an idea floating around out in the sphere of writing-blogs. People seem somewhat annoyed by the notion that “anyone” could be a writer. It’s a serious profession, they claim, and it should be left to the professionals.
While they are right about it being a serious profession, the idea of just leaving it to the professionals who are officially sanctioned feels wrong. There are two pieces in particular that I came across while perusing the “Freshly Pressed” page at wordpress.com, and to which I replied hastily and, probably, inelegantly. I’ll try to do a bit better here.
The first is this article on the difference between being a professional and being a hobbyist. If she were to just leave it as “here’s when you can call yourself a professional” I’d probably not have even taken note, but she seems to exalt the professional title beyond what its worth. She meets a man who claims to be a photographer. After some interrogation, she learns that he is “actually” a bartender, and in the article sort of shames him for “pretending”, without ever really getting to know his art. Now if he lied and said he was a successful professional, that’s a different issue – but it doesn’t seem to be the issue at hand.
There are times when professional credentials are hugely important – medicine, teaching, mechanics, etc. In these areas, the general populace doesn’t have the ability and knowledge to check the work of the purveyor, and in those cases, past history is rather helpful. For example, I wouldn’t be able to determine which doctor was best by simply checking their work – it would be complicated and require that I learn a significant amount of science. In that case, I’m glad for credentials.
With art, however, success is measured by both critical acclaim and popular opinion. Artists can be a one-hit-wonders, industry credentials be damned. Beyond this, you can be a bad artist and still BE an artist. Lots of bad artists and writers are paid prodigiously for their work, while many incredibly talented people are overlooked.
And to be fair – there are also loads of terrible accountants, mechanics, and dentists who are perfectly well credentialed.
More to the point, can’t you still identify with your art even if you’re not a successful professional? The author’s definition (which she borrows from another blogger) of who can claim to be a writer is someone who has commercially accepted, published work with a great sales record. By this definition, Kafka was merely a hobbyist – a lawyer, primarily, who sometimes wrote. Is that really what we want to say?
A lot of the time, owning your art is what makes you successful. I went through a phase in college where I told people I was a painter. And I sold a painting. Claiming your art as your identity is like giving yourself permission to be the person you want to be, and to do the things you want to do, regardless of whether you have external validation.
In this second article, the author says no to NaNoWriMo, and compares trying to write a novel in a month with trying to compose a symphony in a month, or choreograph a ballet in a month. She’s worried that people might some how be harmed by this attempt – it’ll take them away from their true art, or it’ll discourage them when they realize that novel writing is something to be left to those with the refinement of a lifelong practitioner.
It’s a comparison designed to hold the novelist up as a highly trained specialist. But novels come in so many forms that even among the great and well-known novels, such specialization is not reducible to something as specific as choreographing a ballet. It’s closer to trying to choreograph some dance, of any degree of difficulty, and any degree of quality. Just like someone choreographed Swan Lake, someone choreographed the hokey-pokey, too. Some novels are Slaughterhouse Five, and some are just fun things which can speak to people without incredible nuance.
And even if you don’t have the training to be great, your work still has value. I organize dance workshops where we invite literally anyone off the street to come in and learn how to dance. There’s a huge annual event called National Dance Day, where everyone is invited to try and learn a choreographed dance and take lessons. Just dive in and try it, because even if they’re not ever going to be a professional dancers, it is still great fun.
Trying to write a novel is closer to that. Sure, if you get up off the couch with no training and launch your self into a split-leap, you’ll hurt yourself, but does that mean you should shy away from Zumba? If I attempted to write an astro-physics textbook, I might strain something, but attempting to write a quiet ode to my childhood? I think I can handle that without getting hurt. Signing up for NaNoWriMo was actually an incredible way to give myself permission to make my passion my priority – even if I’m not a professional.
NaNoWriMo and National Dance Day aren’t the only programs out there asking people to join in a task that seems impossible. Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir invites people to record themselves singing a vocal part and upload to a website where his team will merge the files together to create a full choral sound. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. There are also a number of citizen science initiatives out there that ask people to do what would otherwise be outside of the realm of possibility. Kaggle competitions let people with passion prove themselves with the quality of their work. NASA’s citizen science program lets people join in the fun of data collecting. You can do science without being a professional scientist.
No one is pretending these initiatives will make you into a professional. For that, you’ll need training, practice, and talent. But there’s still value there. While there are some good criticisms of NaNoWriMo out there (like this one by Michael Allen Leonard from Public Domain), generally speaking, I can’t really see what harm there is in encouraging people to challenge themselves. The worst that can happen is that they stop trying, and then the naysayers get what they wanted in the first place – fewer people “pretending” to be writers.
Write because you love it (and click that link, because Christian Mihai is worth it), and you are a writer. It comes from you.
Most likely, the novel I write this month will be terrible and no one will ever read it. I’m ok with that. I do a lot of things at which I will never be great simply because I love doing them. So if I’m out, and someone wants to know who I am, I might just say that I’m a writer, a painter, a Lindy Hopper, and a scholar, even though I am a professional at none of these things.
And yes, I’ll say I’m a lowly adjunct philosophy professor too. I’ve got all the credentials I need for that.