Friday, 2 October 2009

Are You a Writer?

At my eye test last year my optician asked my occupation. Usually I tell people, “I work from home,” and leave it at that unless they want more then I say, “You know, computer work,” and I swiftly change the subject. But I took a deep breath and told her the truth.

“That’s great,” she said. “What do you write?”

We had quite a conversation about it and I could have hugged her.

I thought how different this was to when an optician asked me my occupation 25 years ago.

“I’m a writer,” I said. I had several published stories, a serial and a couple of meetings with editors under my belt by then and I felt confident enough to admit what I did and thought it might be relevant to my eye test.

He laughed. “No my dear, you may think you’re a writer, but you’re not.”

I didn’t argue with him. Presumably I wasn’t old enough to be a writer – or perhaps not posh enough or clever enough. He waffled on about why I wasn’t a writer and I felt too humiliated to tell him why I thought I was.

I retreated back into my shell and made my next check up appointment with a different optician.

So what is a writer?

To my mind if you write, you are a writer.

My mum was a knitter. Actually she was a serial knitter. If you saw a pattern in a magazine and asked if she could make it up for you, her whole face would light up and you wouldn’t see her for dust as she rushed off to the wool shop.

When I was a child, the local wool shop would ask her to knit things for them to sell and she once supplied just about everyone on my dad’s boat with woolly hats (and quite a few with sweaters). I made the bobbles for the hats. She was never satisfied with anything less than perfection whether she was knitting a delicate shawl for a baby or a chunky Arran sweater for a seaman.

My Gran-in-law was a knitter. You know the pictures of the made-up garments on knitting patterns? She used to knit those for Patons.

I used to knit. Nothing fancy you understand, a ribbed jumper for my husband, a dress for my daughter, easy stuff. The last thing I knitted was a coat for Tilly. I’m not a knitter now – well unless I am really in the mood and I do find it very therapeutic – but I used to be a knitter.

I know a lady who calls herself a knitter and the stuff she produces would make a spider faint. Dropped stitches, mistakes, holes, wavy hems when they should be straight – but is she any less of a knitter just because she can’t do it very well and no one would ever pay her for her work or ask her to make something special? She works hard at it, she produces something – she is a knitter.

As I see it, if you are writing and producing something you are a writer. I don’t see that on Monday you are not a writer because you haven’t been published, but on Tuesday when you land the three book deal with a publisher you are suddenly transformed into a writer.

Writers write, knitters knit, cooks cook. Some do it well, some don’t. The fact that they do it at all, do it to the best of their ability and work hard at it, well I think that earns them the right to call themselves a writer don’t you?

Hey I managed to write a whole post without mentioning spiders . . . doh! No I didn't.


  1. Hi Teresa

    A good point, well made.

    I still hesitate slightly before telling people that I'm a writer. I think it's all about perception isn't it? A typical response is "what, you've written a book?" I respond in the negative but before I can add that my work has appeared in various publications for the best part of 30 years, they're already unconvinced. Basically, the problem is with them.

    When I was writing a column in the early 80s for the West Country Sunday, The Sunday Independent, my editor (an ex-Fleet Street man) told me I should always think of myself and refer to myself as a columnist. Even though my output has been intermittent to say the least, I've always remembered his words.

  2. Great post, Teresa! Why should we be made to feel we aren't writers just because we haven't written a book or been published much - well I speak for myself on that one - I am a writer and proud of it! I am an author-in-waiting. And so is everyone else who is working hard at their writing. Whether they want to be published or not - they're still writers.

    And shame on that old optician who scoffed at you. He was only jealous of you because you were going what he had a secret ambition to do. He obviously should have gone to spec savers if he couldn't see you were, indeed, a writer!

    Julie xx

  3. What a weird response from the optician - I wonder what occupation he'd have considered acceptable?

  4. I used to hate saying, 'I'm a writer,' because the immediate response is, 'What have you written?' closely followed by,'Sorry, I've never heard of you'.
    Now when anyone says that I ask them to name a dozen writers. Only a few manage and then I get to tell them that most of the writers they've named have been dead for years. If I did 'bad' spells I'd put one on that optician!

  5. Hello Martin – good words of advice from your editor there.

    You made me laugh Julie – should have gone to Specsavers – I wish I’d thought of that!

    The optician probably felt I should have been chained to the hoover, Patsy.

    Yes I’ve heard that one, Lynne. And then there’s the “I could easily do that,” response. Bah!

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I know so many people who refuse to call themselves writers, even though they can't imagine life without writing. You wouldn't refuse to call a painter a painter because she hadn't sold any paintings, would you? I don't understand why people are so unfair to writers.

    I've just started knitting again. I'm not very good at it, but I'm trying. I wouldn't call myself a knitter yet, but give me a few months ;)

  7. I have an acquaintance that is very full of herself and a dreadful snob. We were invited to a friend’s house for an impromptu drink and I had said I’d be there a little later than they asked as I was having a shower first. When I got there I apologised but as I had been sitting around in my pyjama’s writing, as all writers do, I wasn’t presentable without a shower and a wash of the old hair. Mrs fullofherself just threw me a look that would curdle milk and the inference was ‘how can you call yourself a writer, surely you haven’t had anything published’. I am a pacifist by nature but I could easily have sunk her face in the bowl of crisps in front of her but instead I just gave her my cheekiest smile and said, “it’s a tough old thing writing but I absolutely love it but heck it’s a bear pit out there when it comes to getting anything published, but you never know eh?” I just like to exude confidence where there is hope, it annoys people like that!

    As for the stuffy old optician, there’s none so blind as cannot see. There’s a short story in that – how someone working in a profession that helps people see better cannot see at all!

  8. Well, I'd have loved to have heard the explanation as to why you weren't a writer - what a pompous, patronising thing to say. I'd have been sorely tempted to poke him in the eye and say, "Well, perhaps you're not an optician then".

    Actually, it's interesting to hear what other people's perception of what a writer is. I know tons of brilliant writers who haven't published anything - well, not in the 'accepted sense', unless you include blogging. And likewise, I've worked on magazines with people who call themselves writers who are frankly far less impressive; they just happen to have been in the right place at the write time. Getting published is often a bit of a lottery. There's a lot of published cr*p out there, and perhaps even more unpublished gold around. If you write, you're a writer. End of.

  9. Teresa, I was once introduced by a friend of my sister's to her husband as "This is Marian. She's a bit of a writer." I would love to have introduced her to someone as "This is Irene; she's a bit of a nurse." I didn't, of course.

  10. 'Bit of a nurse..' That made me chuckle Marianh!

    I've stopped telling people I'm a writer (I say self-empoyed if pushed) because I don't have the stamina to stand there and defend my reasons for saying it. I've had sniggers, blank looks, rude remarks, you name it.
    In most people's eyes, if you haven't written a book and preferably one that's made it to the screen, then you aren't a writer.
    Mind you, there is one old lady I met at a book signing (it was a charity anthology not exactly JKR status)who thinks I'm the nearest thing to a celebrity! She pointed me out in the hairdressers once: 'She's my friend, ya know and she's a writer'. I could've died! So maybe I wouldn't want to be famous after all ;0)

  11. Exactly B, it seems that writers are singled out for “special” treatment when it comes to what we do - and it sounds like you are a knitter to me!

    I hope you are planning to bash that woman senseless with your book when it is published, MOB – or maybe just invite her along to your book launch. How very true about him not being able to see – he didn’t see me again I can tell you that.

    I can’t remember exactly what he said about why I wasn’t a writer, Little Brown Dog – but he waffled on a lot about it. I was too busy dying of embarrassment to take in what he was saying. Yes, I should have poked him in the eye!
    I know quite a few people who should be published and aren’t – yet – and writers they are.

    Ooh Marian. What a cheek. “A bit of a nurse” I love it – you should have said it! I’ve had the “Are you still writing your little stories,” comment from time to time with meaningful emphasis on the little.

    I’m surprised just how many of us there are, Sue, who won’t say what we do. It just goes to show how many people there are out there ready with a put down that we want to avoid. Aw bless her, the little old lady – what a sweetie.

  12. I have a 'proper' job working 16 hours a week and I write the rest of the time. Whenever anyone asks what I do I always say, 'I'm an admin assistant at blah blah blah - and I write as well.' I then get annoyed with myself for making writing a sort of addendum to my life. Even on the rare occasions when I feel brave enough to 'come out' I usually say 'I write' rather than 'I'm a writer.' I think I'm afraid people will think I'm being pompous by calling myself a writer. This post has inspired me to change my ways!

  13. "Bit of a nurse" - that's a good one. A bit like being "a bit pregnant" - or "a bit of a writer" for that matter. If you write, that's what you are, after all!

  14. Well I'd like to punch your old optician. That might sound a little extreme but I think the idiot deserves it ;). At the very least I'd like to kick him in the shins, laugh and tell him why he's not an optician :D

  15. Good for you, Elizabeth - maybe I'll do the same and stop muttering apologetically about what I do. We all should.

    Very true Geri.

    Lacey - I like to think I'd have the nerve to do just that if it happened now, but I'm afraid I'm as much of a wimp now as I was then.

  16. Can I join the list of people who'd like to do harm to that optician? How could a professional be so ignorant? And if you're not a writer, Teresa, then who is entitiled to use that job description?

    I normally tell people who ask that I'm a book-keeper/admin assistant... But my friends know writing's part of who I am, regardless of what I might or might not get published.

    PS further to your not mentioning spiders - I had company in the shower yesterday morning and it didn't even bother shaving any of its 8 hairy legs when it was there.

  17. Argh Suzanne - the spider in the shower. You did make me laugh with it not bothering to shave. I had one join me in the bath once - there was water all over the ceiling after that encounter.

  18. I too was overcome with a desire to punch the stupid first optician - how dare he tell you that you weren't a writer! What did he know? Maybe I have a thick skin or I'm just thick, but I always respond that I'm a writer when anyone asks my occupation - especially since I stopped 'being' anything else. I love saying it and I'm proud of it. And no, I'm not particularly successful and nobody has heard of me, but so what? That's what I do. And yes, I love the 'bit of a nurse' comment too! You know what? These people all suffer from the same problem - sheer envy.

  19. Great post, Teresa. How similar we all are, aren't we? I agree, Elizabeth: I always feel others might think it pompous that I say I'm a writer, or even self-deluded. I can almost feel the poor-soul-she-lives-in-cloud cuckoo land looks as I speak the words. However, I have recently forced myself to say them - it feels like somehow keeping faith with myself. If I don't believe I'm a writer, who else ever will?

  20. You should be proud Olivia. And you are VERY successful twice over :o)

    Lydia, you and others have inspired me to be more forthcoming about what I do. It's a very good point too about believing in ourselves. Thank you.