Guest Blogger Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A well-published author herself , she specializes in issues affecting writers and offers Writers Therapy every Friday here at BB&H. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com
AM I ENTITLED TO CALL MYSELF A WRITER?
Are we writers when we are not yet published? What about when we’re not writing at all? Below, two writers struggle with issues of self-definition.
Dear Dr. O’Doherty:
I approach my work professionally, and I believe it to be a worthwhile pursuit. I believe that the creative process itself has tremendous value. But that belief is eroded by the casual comments of other people: "Is your book finished yet? Do you have an agent? Have you written anything I would have seen?"
Those seem like innocuous questions, but they aren't. They imply that the only worth in the work is in selling it. The disappointment and disinterest which result when I shake my head, "no," leave me feeling that I'm not good enough, that just doing the writing isn't worthwhile, and that nobody will take me seriously until I've published a novel and hit the bestseller list. That may never happen--but I will still be here, working.
Success in our country is measured only by money, fame and power. The regular working world has built-in measures for success, however minor: regular paychecks, annual job reviews, thanks and kudos from supervisors and co-workers, etc. Unpublished writers have none of this. We work alone, and nobody ever says, "Hey, six pages, great job today."
It's hard to remember that we're supposed to feel good about what we're doing. How can we make the "normal" folks understand that we do have value, and that we should be taken seriously?
Since every writer starts off unpublished, we all go through that difficult period of obscurity. The length of this interval varies widely, of course, often for reasons having nothing to do with the merit of the work. Chances are good that even after you are published, most people will never read your work anyway. (Though it helps to be able to say, “Yes, I have a story in Diddlysquat Literary Journal,” implying that only a rube would be unaware of this prestigious publication.)
No one who hasn’t gone through the grueling and discouraging process of writing, submitting, dealing with rejection, and starting over again really understands what it’s like. I’ve talked to countless people who sincerely believe that they have a best-seller in them, if only they had time to set their thoughts down. The process looks so simple from the outside: Sit down every morning and write. When the book is done, bundle it off to the publisher of your choice (who needs an agent when every word scintillates?) and wait for the Times review and the movie deal. If you can’t manage this, why do you call yourself a writer?
It’s easy to tell you to ignore the responses of people whose values are so different from yours, and who don’t have a clue about the worth of your work. Dismissal is painful, though, especially for those of us whose daily routine includes the accumulation of rejection slips. For this reason, you may want to refrain from telling acquaintances about your ambitions for the time being. Think of your relationship with your work as a secret love affair, to be cherished and hidden from vulgar eyes. Keep in mind that “What do you do?” is generally intended not as an interrogation, but as a way to find common conversational ground. If you have a day job, or other interests, steer the conversation toward them: “I’m between jobs right now, and I’ve been gardening/refinishing furniture/reading Proust” is a perfectly acceptable answer and invites the listener to respond with his or her own interests. To talk about your real work, join a writers’ group. In the right setting, you will find support and encouragement from others in the same boat while you continue to hone your skills.
If the people who plague you are family members who feel entitled to know about, and criticize, your activities, remember: Everyone’s parents believe their children are underachievers. All in-laws are convinced that you are neither good enough nor productive enough for their child. This is a universal truth. Grit your teeth and use it as material.
And please drop the modifier “Insignificant.” You are highly significant. You just aren’t published. There is a vast difference.
Dear Dr. O’Doherty:
Is there a time when a person should just accept that he will NOT become a writer? 25 years ago, when I finished college, I put off looking for a job for six months in an attempt to make my mark as a freelance writer. I had nothing to show for it after six months except one draft of a nonfiction piece that got some interest from a weekly newspaper, but which never grew into a final piece.
In the past 25 years I have worked mainly as an editor for a business and legal publisher. So, I have a foot in the door of publishing. I have written countless news stories, and a couple of books, and edited countless more stories and other books.
My burning desire is to be able to write a novel. Yet, whenever I have tried to sit and fill a blank page or screen, I freeze. I have written exactly three very short fictional stories in 25 years. I have created, orally, dozens of stories as bedtime stories for my kids -- all off the cuff.
But when I have tried to write consciously, I can't (or won't let myself). Writers write, I know. Yes, they fret and complain and worry about their next idea and how they will pay the rent. But in the end, they write. I write for work and I've posted reams of material in my favorite online chat room. But none of this is the writing I really want to be doing.
I'm like Bartleby the Scrivener -- at first glance, very industrious. But ultimately, my response to writing is, "I prefer not to."
So, should I just give up, accept this as my lot?
Of course you are a writer. You have written two books, three short stories, and a draft nonfiction piece. You dream of writing a novel. You torture yourself with doubts about your legitimacy. If there are better credentials, please tell me about them. But 25 years of procrastination is long enough. You must start writing your novel right away. The alternative—never writing it, and always wondering if you could have—is unacceptable.
As you know, every reader of your namesake’s story comes away with a different interpretation. One reading that can be supported by the text is that Bartleby’s refusal represents passive rebellion against the grinding, meaningless tasks that make up the life of a Wall Street drone.
Take a hard look at your own life. Are there elements that resemble Bartleby’s? The pressure of having only six months to make your mark as a freelance writer would freeze anyone, but I wonder whether your tenure in legal publishing has engendered some other identification with Bartleby’s stance. Does this work stimulate your creativity or drain it? What about the other things you do?
This is not to say that you should quit your job and starve your family for the sake of your art. But if your burning desire for 25 years has been to write, and you are writing nothing but work-related material and Internet posts, you need to find out what is stopping you and take immediate remedial action.
I would suggest that you make writing a priority, second only to caring for your family. Unless it’s a matter of economic necessity, take a break from writing business-related books. Cut back on your Internet time, and on any other non-essentials. Instead, sign up for a serious fiction writing class, in which you are expected to hand in new material on a regular basis. When you sit down to complete your assignments, open up a second document to note any resistance that may come up. Pay attention to these feelings; they may give you important clues as to what your inner Bartleby is rebelling against. But don’t let him take charge. You remember what happens at the end of the story. Complete your assignments and hand them in on time regardless of whether you think the writing is any good. Consider this priming the pump. Since it has been clogged for so long, it may take a while before the water runs clear. That is okay. You will get there.
Consider talking to a therapist if you find yourself unable to do this on your own. And don’t think of your 25 “dry” years as wasted time. You have been gathering experience and wisdom. I’m sure you have a great deal to say.