Never admit that you’re a writer

One of the best pieces of advice I think I can give, as a writer, is never to admit you write.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

Nobody will think I am a writer in this disguise – and I’ve got protection against military historians trying to hit me.

The difficulty is that admitting to writing is sometimes provocative. This happens, on my experience, when people validate their self-worth by their ambitions as a writer. By some mechanism this then leads them to view others in the same field as a threat to that validation.

I still recall the moment, some years ago, when a military historian loomed up before me in the Archives New Zealand reading room with balled fists and red face, and demanded to know what book I was writing. I’d never seen the guy before. But he’d recognised me, presumably from my author photo, got angry and stormed across the room to have a go. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been had I stood up.

I thought, ‘I’m paying this guy’s salary, through my taxes’.

Eventually he went away, shouting to the room in general that he was doing ‘the same as’ me. Actually he wasn’t. For instance, I never stand over strangers and put them in reasonable apprehension of being hit.

A salutary lesson. And good reason for writers to never admit their profession.

Do you ever tell people you write?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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29 comments on “Never admit that you’re a writer

  1. KokkieH says:

    Hmmm. Others again say you must tell people you’re a writer, claiming some psychological effect that will spur you on to write. That’s the problem with the internet. Who to believe? Luckily in my locale the chances of running into a rival author is very small…

    I don’t tell people I write (or rather, am trying to) anymore, for I just get strange looks, as if they don’t think I’m quite right upstairs. I know I’m not quite right upstairs, but I don’t like people looking at me as if they also know it ;-)

    • Not all writers write upstairs. Some of them write in the basement… ;-) But seriously folks – it’s a moot point. Here in NZ the ‘tall poppy knocking machine’ is such that nobody admits much to achieving at anything – writing, sports or whatever. We don’t share that with other British-derived countries like Australia (is this also so in SA?). That said, writing’s usually collegial, though it’s got its cliques and in-crowds. The danger fields are military history and railways – both of which are dominated by viciously hostile groups who actively work to exclude and damage anybody trying to get near their patch. My experience, for instance, of being at the receiving end of the military-historical territory defence – which wasn’t limited to this guy trying to hit me – has salutary and I’m left with the impression that the field is dominated by gutless cowards. Not one of the people who’ve publicly run down my work and made public claims about my supposed character and motives has ever introduced themselves to me. Not one. Gutless? Absolutely. It’s been the malice of strangers. They don’t respond to my protests, either – for instance, one of them helped himself to some of my intellectual property last year and ignored my letter protesting the usage. I’ve not engaged it further largely because I feel reluctant to dignify such an obvious ethical vacuum, but I suppose I might have to one day. My only objection is that I am paying for it all, through my taxes.

  2. Gosh, Matthew, I think I might be able to come up with a picture of myself on a job site wearing a hard hat and a safety vest, dirty, sweaty, hot and tired, which too often is what the “day job” involves. I think if I can ever afford to live off my ability as a writer, I’d admit to it in a heartbeat. But only if I were bigger than the other guy. ;)

    • My wife took the pic last year while we were visiting a coal mine (the book I was researching is being published in a few months). The problem here in NZ is that military history seems to have attracted people who (a) validate themselves by their sole or dominant presence in the field, and (b) take the attitude that anybody else writing in the field is taking away the validation. It’s pretty vicious. My only objection, given my own commercial efforts in the field, is that their conduct has been damaging to me – and yet they prosper on public salaries largely at my expense as a taxpayer. When those who benefit from public salaries, public funding for their research and whose books are a product of that employment start excluding and damaging competing commercial enterprise, it raises some pointed questions about why the NZ government is funding this sort of activity.

      • It’s hard to see how you pose a threat to someone already on a government sinecure — unless they’re frightened that someone in government will figure out, Here’s Mr. Wright who’s doing the same research at his own risk and making a living at it, too, so perhaps we should use this tax money to fund something else?

  3. What an experience! I’ve ecstatically shared that I’m a writer since the day I realized it. People’s reactions aren’t always ideal, but over all, I’ve had namely positive. Regardless, I can’t help but share. :)

    I also think proclaiming our writer-hood can be important for self-confidence and success, particularly for folks who fear doing so out of insecurity (which doesn’t seem remotely you!).

    • I’m not worried about telling most people I write, when I’m at parties or whatever. They invariably tell me about the book they’re planning to write themselves, and good on them. I’ll always cheer for other writers. The more the merrier. But New Zealand has a bad ‘knocking’ mentality against anyone who achieves, and it’s customary to self-deprecate. It seems unique to NZ – we don’t share it with Australia, for instance, which is otherwise culturally very similar. So nobody really announces what they’ve done. I suspect it’s to do with the scale of the place.

      It’s a different issue, of course, when strangers apparently want to hit me for writing. It’s not being physically confronted – I’ve been trained and I can handle myself if I have to. And that training tells me what body language goes with someone preparing to hit me. Of course the way to deal with it is to project confidence and defuse the situation. That was how I stopped some guy getting in the back door of my house a while back. Nobody got hurt. But I wouldn’t expect to have to trot out those same skills in a public reading room (which was under video surveillance) just because I happened to have written commercially in a field that the guy confronting me obviously felt was his alone. Well removed from writing!

      I guess it’s all to do with how people validate their self-worth. And there is danger when they define that self-worth through being the sole or dominant presence in a field – like military history – that others can freely enter.

  4. Only on occasion. It’s the Fantasy reply to “what do you write?” that makes me hesitate. You never know what kind of reaction you will get. :-)

    • Or what sort of ‘fantasy’ they are actually writing down… :-) One of my pet dislikes is being pigeon-holed as a ‘kind’ of writer – most of what I do is non-fiction and I inevitably find myself labelled with whatever I last wrote about, as if that’s all I can do, or as if that alone defines my writing. The reality? My formal training in ‘writing’ was in fiction writing, and it’s a transferrable skill – master writing, as an art in itself, and you can write anything.

  5. Les says:

    I hesitate to share, especially in general conversation. For years nobody outside of my immediate family had a clue and I never had to run the verbal obstacle course of nosy questions and amused condescension. Of course, sometimes folks get whacked-out excited when they learn about it – so I guess it goes both ways.

    • When I was a kid, my family supported me tremendously with my writing. These days a fair number of my friends also write, and we’re all supportive of each other. But people who don’t know me seem a lot less generous and around 98 percent of the feedback I get from strangers is hostile. That’s typical of NZ, we’re quick to knock but those who like something usually shut up. A visitor from California once asked me if I had any fans. ‘No,’ I had to admit. ‘Only people who hate me.’

  6. S. A. Hunt says:

    I do, but here in the redneck south you might as well tell people you glue macaroni to construction paper or make Play-Doh ashtrays for a living. They don’t intellectually disparage you like in your example, but I do so get tired of the question, “So have any luck looking for a job?”

    You know, because writing isn’t a “real job”. Anything that doesn’t involve slaving away in a windowless room for twelve hours a day for a promotion that may never come isn’t a “real job”.

    Wait a minute… maybe this IS a real job after all.

  7. Exactly! Writing’s definitely a real job…just one that doesn’t pay very much. :-( On the other hand, the intangible rewards are without compare.

    (I had some adventures with replies leaping to different comments today – this is Reply Take 2 … :-) )

    • bevrobitai says:

      You have fans, you daft pillock! How many people read your blog and post nice comments – we’re fans, aren’t we? I’ve yet to see a comment here from anyone who hates you. Or do you simply delete those without publishing them!

      I found it a little daunting to admit I was a writer when I just had one book – you could see the thoughts behind the eyes going, ‘well you can try, I suppose’. But with 4 titles now and a fifth about to go live, and a possible MOVIE deal, I get a much better reaction when I say I’m a writer!

      It’s usually a case of ‘fake it till you make it’ – you think of yourself as an author until others just have to accept it. The author is the brand, after all, so you pretty much have to be out there at some point.

      • Thank you – yeah, you’re right. I’ve made some contact with wonderful and supportive people online. I made the comment to the Californian visitor before I started blogging, when my military history was coming under an absolute barrage of abuse from the public-funded sector. Apparently being paid a salary and research expenses to write books that competed with my un-supported commercial efforts wasn’t enough advantage for them, they also had to publish, e.g. two-page worth-denial rants about my apparent character flaws in the Listener, with due effect on sales of the book in question. Sigh.

        Apropos comments…I publish all comments, sans the odd bit of spam that sneaks through WordPress’s filter – and I only get nice comments. Seriously! Underscores what a wonderful group of people there are in the wider world. I have readers from NZ to SA to Canada to the US to Europe to Britain to Russia – and they are all extremely caring, positive & supportive.

        Authors absolutely are their own brand. I was just out on the Wellington waterfront enhancing mine – I decided my typewriter could be photographed posing on various rocks (you’ll see soon…). Got into a conversation with a reporter who’d owned the exact same model, under different brand-name.

        A movie deal sounds VERY exciting – do tell (unless it’s tempting fate)!

        • bevrobitai says:

          The movie isn’t a big Hollywood blockbuster (at this point!), but an Auckland movie producer who has had some success with short films is going to make a full-length movie of my post-apocalyptic novel Sunstrike. We’re working together on the screenplay and it’ll be a low-budget, volunteer labour project, but with prospects of being seen overseas it could do good things for book sales! His last movie won an award in Las Vegas so it seems a valid possibility. I’m proceeding with cautious optimism for now and suppressing the wide-eyed screams of excitement until the premiere!

  8. jakeescholl says:

    Wow. Thankfully that hasn’t happened to me yet. Thanks for the advice. I’ll be careful who I say that to.

    • It was a surprise to me too – I’d been abused by the public military-history crowd in the media – all of it, from my perspective, the malice of strangers – but this was the first time one of them had actually approached me in person. It was consistent with their conduct in the media. But in general writing I hope there’s better sense. Most people are OK with writers… it’s the odd one who has frustrated ambition in the field, or who defines their worth by the status they think they have in the territory, that seems to be the problem.

  9. adavies149 says:

    The last time I told someone I was a writer, they tried to tell me what I “should” be writing about. They also said that I should just send the first chapter of my first draft of my novel off to publishers because it worked for some famous author whose name I’ve forgotten. I tried to explain that I’d rather just get my novel finished at this point and that there was no way that I could send off a first draft because I actually have a few big things that I need to change. But he didn’t listen.

    This is why I never tell people that I write.

    • Quite right! I get people telling me what I ‘should’ write all the time. I ignore ‘em. You have to write things that fire your own inspiration and imagination – otherwise the stuff will be flat. And you have to be happy, yourself, with your material before letting a potential buyer look at it. Sending the first draft to a publisher can often be the kiss of death for the writer altogether – the publisher won’t look at anything else if the first sample sucked.

  10. KM Huber says:

    What an intriguing discussion but then the topic of “being a writer” does seem to spark a lot of discussion. When I was still working a day job I believe I identified more as a writer or at least it seems I was quick to identify with it. Now that I am a writer and recognize the incredible amount of work it is I still identify as a writer but much more quietly. In other words, if it comes up in the conversation, it is later rather than sooner. Great post, Matthew, as always.
    Karen

    • Thank you! I often think part of the issue with NZ is our insularity. We have the land area and population of Colorado but hang out alone in the South Pacific with a history that revolves around a fairly well developed inferiority complex. Our academia – the humanities especially – is known for its ungenerous and exclusive in crowds. My experience with the mil history crowd is illustrative. Hence me reluctance to provoke strangers by admitting to what, by this combination, is often received as an intrusion. I gather it isn’t so bad in other countries. A reflection of the NZ psyche, alas. A pity. To me, as people, we’re all in it together anywhere in the world. And cooperating is a no brainer!

      • KM Huber says:

        Hadn’t really considered the insularity of NZ but yes, I see that, know. The kind of smugness and exclusivity you mention exists in the States, especially in academic circles or so my experience has been. I did not enjoy my academic years–there was such pettiness–so referred more to my public service years. Ironically, I always imagined myself walking the halls of academe but it was my love of writing that showed me there were other halls. Here in the States, writers outside academe are fairly generous has been my experience but we have our healthy share of turf wars. Fiction or non-fiction, I never have seen the point of all that territorial thinking for each writer brings a unique perspective to the topic. Sigh….Again, thank you, Matthew.

  11. Yes, I often tell people that I write. But nearly all my output is fiction.
    Friends are usually quite interested to know about my writing journey. :)

  12. I tell people I’m a writer, but that usually elicits little response. When I mention I’m a retired nurse, they get a little more excited and throw in a medical question. Maybe once I’m famous, I’ll get more excitement over being a writer. Of course, I’ll have to write some really good novels or at least a lot of magazine articles.

    • Go for it! And be prepared to be tagged ‘retired nurse and novellist’! :-) The media LOVE to classify people – put them in boxes (or is that ‘place’). I find I always get tagged with whatever I’m last known to have published…

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