Writer Unlabeled

January 13, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Ask me how I decide if I’m going to write about an event as fiction or nonfiction. I have a mental flowchart for that, and I can explain it clearly.

Ask me how I choose a point of view or tense. I can’t explain that as easily, but I sense when my choices aren’t working and try a different approach.

Ask me if I consider myself a writer, and the waters are murkier. It depends on the day. Did I write? Did I get a rejection? Did I submit a piece of writing? Did I walk away from the computer thinking I just spent hours writing crap or I’m excited to work on this tomorrow? Did I spend any time learning about the craft of writing? Did I spend time with other writers? When did I last get paid for something I wrote?

Most days I call myself a writer, but there are days I call myself a pretender.

Ask me if I consider writing a hobby, a job, or a profession, and the waters are an oil-slicked quagmire. Recently, as a panelist in a presentation about beginning a writing career after retirement, I was asked, “Is writing your hobby, job, or profession?” and I stumbled over my answer.

Sometimes writing looks like a hobby. I learn about it, spend money on it, try to perfect it, and want to put it on display when I’m finished. Occasionally, I earn money, which has never happened with my real hobbies. But most of my writing, like the crafts I create, is given away, published without pay. It’s satisfying to be chosen, but if my writing doesn’t pay for itself, maybe it’s a hobby. But I’ve never devoted this much time to a hobby.

So, maybe I should consider writing a job. Just a low-paying job, really low paying. If it’s a job, maybe I should figure out how to get myself a raise. I could write articles for magazines. I’ve tried. I start them, save them in a file, and abandon them, returning like a remorseful lover to a story or an essay that I jilted while in pursuit of a paycheck to give my writing legitimacy.

I could do corporate writing. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a writers’ gathering who said she made good money at it. But I love writing fiction and essays. I told her about my first story, which had recently won a contest. (I was probably obnoxious, like a mother showing off pictures of her firstborn.) Others talked about memoirs, novels, or poetry they were writing. Somewhere among all the chatter about craft and books and resources, the woman looked at me and said, “I need to make time for my writing.” Her words and the look on her face have stayed with me. She was young and needed the income. I’m retired and free to explore my passions. So maybe it’s not a job.

I can’t call writing my profession. Yes, I belong to two writers’ associations. I subscribe to a writing magazine and read it cover to cover when it arrives. I subject my work to critique and critique the work of others. I enroll in classes. But I don’t treat writing as a business. I don’t need to pay the bills with it. I don’t have a website or a Facebook page. I’m not writing a book I need to market. Not yet anyway.

Maybe writing is my occupational hobby.

Yesterday, my nine-year-old granddaughter clarified the whole issue.

I had my four grandkids for the afternoon, and at three o’clock, I learned I needed to read at a virtual open mic. I was on the sub list and another reader couldn’t make it. I asked my grandkids to play quietly while I rehearsed.

My seven-year-old grandson asked why, and I told him I needed to practice.

But my granddaughter told him, “Because Nana’s a writer, and she’s a good writer.”

The grandkids cooperated, more or less. My granddaughter sat at the table drawing pictures. Two of my grandsons played in a bedroom and the toddler napped on the couch. I pulled out a 500-word essay of mine that was published this summer. I knew I could read the essay in under five minutes. Halfway through I realized my granddaughter was standing behind me.

When I’d finished, she asked, “Is that a true story, Nana?”

“Yes,” I said. “Even the part about the gun in the kitchen cupboard, but no one got hurt.”

Still, I wondered if the piece was good enough to read at the open mic. I started looking for something else, verbalizing my angst as I did.

“Nana, you should read the story you just read. It’s really good.”

I took my granddaughter’s advice and read the essay.

She’s right. I’m a writer. A hobby, a job, a profession? For now, the label doesn’t matter. On this day, at this moment, I’m a writer.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes stories and essays. Her story, “Silent Negotiations,” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize Contest, and her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest. Her work has appeared in regional publications, on various blogs, and on Wisconsin Public Radio. She is working on a collection of short stories about the lives of children and teenagers. And, although she thought she would never say “I’m working on a book,” she has written two rough chapters about the house and neighborhood where she grew up. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/  

§ 11 Responses to Writer Unlabeled

  • debrakva says:

    Retired and “playing” at writing, this piece assure me that there is some purpose in the hours spent at my desk. Even if only in the eyes of a
    young granddaughter.

  • In another life I never had a problem calling myself an artist or a teacher. I was both those things. I thought, in my 40s, that I would have a book published by age 50. I am 68 now and still writing, still wondering if that book will ever be published. (I have written several.) But publication is not the same as writing, and as a Nana, I applaud you as a fellow writer. Not a hobby, not a business, maybe not even a profession, but art.

  • I feel the same way. Even though I have had some success, I feel like an imposter.

  • Congratulations on this blog piece. I love seeing another Wisconsinite on the Brevity blog–and a Hal Prize winner! Door County (and the Write On house) is one of my favorite places.

  • bethfinke says:

    Any time this sort of question comes up in the memoir-writing classes I lead, I ask them about fellow retirees who take watercolor classes. Has an art gallery sponsored a show of their completed paintings? No. Has anyone paid them for one of their water color paintings? No. Would you call them an artist, then? “oh, yes! They exclaim. “Their watercolors are beautiful! “Ditto when you ask about a friend who plays piano or some other musical instrument. They may not do gigs, they do not get paid, but they are considered musicians.

    What is it about writing that makes us think we have to be paid to be legit?

    I don’t know!

  • This almost brought a tear to my eye. I hope you hugged your granddaughter extra hard that day. She seems to be a smart young lady.

    It’s a great question I keep asking myself every now and again. Profession sounds serious. Job sounds like a 9-5. So – a hobby it is.
    I find that so many people don’t take writing seriously. Because it’s hard to make money and because there are so many people who create a blog, write one sentence a day for a month and call themselves bloggers. All that makes me wonder about labeling myself a writer. I think I’m at a point where I consider myself a part-time writer.

  • kperrymn says:

    I love that it was your granddaughter who ultimately erased all doubts. Kids are smart!

  • Thank you so much for this, Victoria! You’ve given me the answer that I’ve been seeking for decades.

  • […] first appeared on Brevity Blog on January 13, […]

  • lgrizzo says:

    Thank you for this. As a newly retired person, I enjoyed reading it. I don’t care whether writing is a job or a hobby – all that matters is that now I (and you) get spend all my “working” time on writing.

  • I have a few fans, but my granddaughter is probably my biggest fan. And she doesn’t care whether I’m a pro or an amateur. So neither do I.

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