On (Sometimes) Feeling Like A WriterBy James Irwin
February 12, 2010
I’ve only truly felt like a writer a couple of times.
I guess a lot of that has to do with the fact I’m not really a proper writer…
The first incident that made me feel like a writer was the launch party of Kerb Magazine in London. Kerb is by no means a big name magazine, but last year its first print issue featured an article on the US election that I wrote.
The launch of the magazine was held at The Green Carnation in Soho. Before it started I went to the park with two of my friends, and we drank a few cans of warm Stella Artois. I was wearing a cord jacket, white Converse and a patterned shirt because the ensemble made me feel like Hunter S. Thompson.
We went to the venue, paid £6 for a gassy lager and then went to a rock and roll bar around the corner to drink £2 bottles of Heineken. We went back to the party a few times, but it was full of horrifically hip people and borderline transvestites.
I left early.
On the walk to the station I was the subject of much attention from a group of young Japanese tourists.
They were pointing at me.
The were holding copies of Kerb, opened to my article… I’d been recognized on the streets of old London town!
Being asked to write for TNB made me feel more like a writer. I suppose a proper writer is someone who gets paid to write, but I’m very much of the opinion that having people actually read what you’ve written is far more of a reward than simple cash.
On the days I was working on Cactus City Blues, I felt like a writer; there was just something magic— perhaps even romantic— about being sat at a desk with nothing more than a laptop, reams of notes and empty coffee cups for company.
I guess the day in early January when I finally finished writing the damn thing made me feel like I could legitimately call myself a writer— I mean surely writing a novel, however bad, qualifies you?
I knew I was at least heading in the right direction when, as soon as I finished CCB, I became filled with desire to write another novel— that is to say, I knew that writing novels was what I wanted to do with my life.
I felt like a writer when I started writing that second novel, even if it is called Jesus Christ and The Mongoose Keepers of Mars: a journey through time, space, and the slightly apocalyptic seaside towns of Britain.
But you know what really made me feel like a writer?
It has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written.
I’ve never felt like more of a writer than when I’ve been out socialising with my friends.
All my friends are on the same Creative Writing course that I’m on, which means we’re all aspiring writers.
There is something about ignoring impending poverty to go and get rat-arsed in a bar with a bunch of other writers…literary enthusiasts…arty types…
At the very least it fulfills a sort of drunken writer fantasy…
I don’t really know how to describe it…maybe it’s an air of possibility…perhaps it’s an air of inevitability…I don’t know…
All I really know is that somehow I tend to feel more like a writer with a mojito in my hand than with a pen…
Love it, Irwin!
“I was wearing a cord jacket, white converse and a patterned shirt because the ensemble made me feel like Hunter S. Thompson.”
“All I really know is that somehow I tend to feel more like a writer with a mojito in my hand than with a pen…”
I started drinking mojitos because of Hemingway actually…
a good decision, I think…
Those lines were excellent… I felt more like a writer after I bought a nice warm sweater, then looked in the mirror and saw it was like one Hemingway once wore… Strange. Likewise, wearing a hat makes me feel more like a writer. I don’t know why, but I think it channels the spirit of HST…
As for a fine drink… Mojitos are a favourite of mine, but then again, anything rum-based makes my writing seem more important. A white russian doesn’t hurt, either.
Kerb magazine is a great publication. I look forward to the Party issue.
I love a good white russian too…
Kerb is pretty awesome…
I think the problem is that there’s no delineated, recognised moment at which you’re a writer. For other professions, it’s easy – got a degree, left some forceps inside a guy? OK, you’re a doctor now! For writers, it’s more ambiguous. Is it publication? Payment? Drafting? Editing?
Or is it when you hit the fifth mojito and slur ‘Dude. Dude. Seriously. Dude. Hemingway, right? Hemingway.
I honestly believe that anyone making an honest effort to write should be able to call themselves a writer.
And honest effort… well that’s dedication to it… drafting… editing… aiming for publication…
And of course, drinking cocktails with other writers…
I used to work for a writer who punctured beers open with his writing pen. The drunker he got the funnier the shit was that he wrote. He was a lawyer by trade who spent most of his time writing contracts. To take the edge off he would clock off and then write some of the most outlandish contracts he could think of while getting pissed. He would call me into his office and say read this and tell me what you think. I’d be rolling by the end of it. His wife and I were the only ones he allowed to read his silly contracts as he called them.
After the mojito, James, pick up a pen.
I used to get drunk at night and write all the time.
Now I prefer writing sober and in the mornings…
Most of CCB was written between 9am and lunch time…
If you feel like you are a writer, then you are a writer.
If you have to write, then you are a writer.
You’re a writer, Jim. Even without the HST ensemble!
Writing is great, most of the time…
it has it’s prose and cons…
“I suppose a proper writer is someone who gets paid to write, but I’m very much of the opinion that having people actually read what you’ve written is far more of a reward than simple cash.”
What a perfectly lovely way to say this. I couldn’t agree more. You are a writer whether you make money at it or not. Money has absolutely nothing to do with creativity. It’s great if you can prosper from doing something you love, obviously, but it has nothing to do with legitimacy.
Early on, I never thought I was allowed to call myself a musician. I played in bands for twelve years straight, but sometimes felt like as long as I had to work a day job to support my musical habit, I couldn’t legitimately call myself a musician. At some point, I decided that I get to be whatever I fucking want to be. I wrote “musician” in the “usual occupation” blank of my marriage certificate application without hesitation.
Now where can I get a mojito, please?
But, James, what does a “writer” feel like?
I don’t know… I really don’t… maybe it doesn’t feel like anything…
I suppose ‘right’ might be a good answer. Writing, to me, feels right…
Here’s what makes you a writer: putting your ass in the chair and putting words on the page. That’s all. It has nothing to do with payments or publication or lifestyle choices. And fuck anyone who says so.
Feeling like a writer means nothing.
Writers who actually put in the hours get irritated at the people who pretend. Being published matters. Getting paid matters less, but it matters. Getting paid distinguishes the professional writers from the amateurs.
You can put words on a page all day long. Do you send them out? If yes, you could be a writer, even a bad writer. Don’t send them out? You aren’t a writer, you’re a diary-keeper. Putting words on the page is a huge part of what a writer does, but not just any words, not just first drafts. Writing is work.
Writing is NOT parties and hanging out with people who want to be famous but never do the work. Writing is work. Being a writer is hard work. Being a writer is doing hard work, knowing you couldn’t breathe if you stopped writing.
Roofing houses is hard work.
Sitting around is not hard work.
You have obviously never written anything of value.
I bet you’ve never roofed a house.
“Getting paid distinguishes the professional writers from the amateurs.”
I couldn’t disagree with this statement more.
Quite often, in a market flooded with talented, hard-working people, getting paid merely distinguishes the lucky few who got noticed via right place/right time or nepotism. When you’ve got six teats and six thousand puppies, even some of the strongest ones are going to starve.
When my writer friends discuss the struggle to make a living writing, it always reminds me of the struggle to make it in the music business, and I can’t help but compare.
As a musician, I’ve spent time signed to a major label and I’ve spent time toiling in the trenches with no label interest at all, and it didn’t have a thing to do with my work ethic or quality of work. It also didn’t affect my desire to write songs in any way. They were coming out of me whether someone was paying me or not.
Money is a very This World creation that has nothing to do with people’s souls or creativity. I really don’t think income can be used as a gauge for someone’s professionalism in their chosen field. Are amazing writers and artists discovered posthumously to be labeled amateurs simply because they never got paid for their work in their lifetime?
I think authentic writers, artists, musicians and creative folks do what they do because they love it, and because, as you put it so well above, they couldn’t breathe if they stopped. Statistically speaking, if you’re in it for the money, you should probably do something else with your life. But true artists know that they have no choice in the matter, and hope for the best.
In the strictest terms, getting paid is what distinguishes the pros from the amateurs in every area of life.
Money is not my end goal as a writer. Neither is being some romanticized starving artist. The bottom line, though, is that if I am not paid, I am not a professional. That is the defining criterion.
One can be a good writer, even a great writer, without being paid; but one cannot be a professional writer without the green.
that’s kind of what I was trying to say.
to me there is a difference between being a writer and feeling like a writer… that, I think, was the point I was trying to make.
I write every day. I write a lot. I don’t find it hard work, simply because I love writing. I feel perfectly validated in getting annoyed by people who call themselves writers because they have a blog or an idea for a novel or whatever…
It’s probably the only thing in my life I take seriously as well. I contribute to two magazines, this site and I’ve written two drafts of a novel and started writing a second. Most of that has been in the last 18 months. I’m only 20.
I don’t really give a fuck whether that means I’m a writer or not, because I think it does.
‘Feeling’ like a writer is different to actually being one, in my opinion. I feel like a writer when I’m out drinking with my friends— most of whom are also writers— because hanging out with aspiring artists and drinking (whilst having very little food/money) is like living out a struggling writer fantasy.
But it would be impossible for the fantasy to seem real to me if it wasn’t for the fact that I work so damn hard at the actual writing itself…
THANK YOU! Anyone can have a blog for free. Most bloggers are not writers. Anyone can spout an opinion. And anyone can have an idea for a novel.
Not just anyone can write.
There is not even a fine line between being a writer and feeling like a writer; instead, there is a total and complete demarcation. They are not even distantly related.
For me it was the proofing. When I was ‘finished’ with my first TNB essay, Ronlyn offered to proof it. As a professional grant writer, of course I have everything proofed but it had never occurred to me in relation to essays and memoir stuff. It was a watershed moment: “Oh god, people are going to read this…’
I read somewhere that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a terrible speller, and grammatically inept.
Maybe I just made that up to make myself feel better… I don’t know…
I’ve never been great at either, but when I first posted here 366 days ago I was too busy thinking ”Oh brilliant! People are going to read this!”
Although now I check rigorously for errors. I still mess up most of the time. Since TNB 3.0 I tend to get a friend to check it for me…
I’ve heard it said that you’re a writer when someone else says you’re a writer. By which definition, of course, you certainly are.
In that case Mr Olear, I’d like to state publicly that James Irwin is a promising young writer.
I think you can conquer anything if you live to write about it. The possibility of turning disaster into some sort of jewel. I think you’re on to something.
Cool post, dude. As a stand-up comic, I can relate to the idea of trying to figure out what it feels like to be what you are and how/when to define that feeling. Jerry Seinfeld once wrote that a person becomes a comedian from the very first time onstage, because you are introduced AS a comedian. I personally like to think you become a comedian from the tenth time onstage, because by then, it’s no longer a fluke. Some guys show up for two weeks and then fall off the face of the earth. But after ten sets, even if you’re godawful, if you’re still showing up to perform then you’re a comedian.
I think writing could be defined in a similar fashion. Anyone can have one of those random moments where they suddenly sit down one night and write a poem, or a prologue to a novel. Might be a great piece, too, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a writer. One funny joke doesn’t make you a comic, either. However, if you kept doing it, then by your tenth piece (or whatever cutoff point you feel appropriate), then I’d say you can call yourself one. After all, nobody just randomly writes ten poems or performs ten stand-up sets–by that point, it’s clear you’ve got that constant creative urge to do what you do.
On the other hand, a comic friend of mine once said you shouldn’t call yourself a creative artist of any medium until you’ve done it at a hardcore pace for at least a year. His point-of-view was that in the first year of pursuing anything creative, you’re learning all the basics and falling on your face numerous times in that process, so you can’t really define it objectively that early in the game (it’s like if some guy went around calling himself a four-star chef, but he can’t make a decent omelet worth a fuck). Many try to put themselves through it and give up because it’s either too hard, or they can’t take the abuse. It’s the ones who continue to wade through the shit (even when it’s extra super-shitty, like if an African elephant just shot a baby African elephant-sized turd out of its ass like a bazooka and it shit-smacked you right in the face) that are truly dedicated to the craft of the artform, and I think that’s ultimately what defines someone as a creative artist.
I hope that all made sense. I’m really not as good a writer as I’d like to be.
I could technically call myself a comedian because I’ve been paid for doing stand up (weirdly, of my two show career I got paid for the worst one…) I like the ten show rule… but I also think stand up may be a bit more instinctive. I mean I knew before I’d even told a joke that I wasn’t a stand up… I didn’t really want to be on that stage… I’ve heard from other comedians that have bombed on their first show… their second… third… etc etc but keep going back for the love of it and eventually through persistance and talent get to a decent standard…
Man, I’ve written so many prologues… the novel I wrote has two prologues from abandoned novels (the prologue and chapter 4). It’s exactly the same for writing… Here on TNB I didn’t really feel like a proper TNBer until I’d written about ten posts… maybe more. When I was writing my novel I didn’t really talk about it until I was about… well… I suppose ten chapters in… There gets a point where you know the novel is ‘for real’ and not something else to be thrown away…
Today I’ve been writing for TNB for one year and one day, and in those 366 days I’ve written a novel and bits and pieces for a few magazines…. so I reckon I’ve got a fair claim based on your friends criteria… but then I read somewhere that writers need to write about ten novels before they get anywhere near good enough to write one worth publishing…
I don’t know…
I’m not as good a writer as I’d like to be either… it’s really the only area of my life where I seek perfection… well, except maybe procrastination…
Haha, I’ve been paid to do comedy on nights that I didn’t necessarily feel like I deserved it, too. (“Ladies and gentlemen, I am a professional here. I make literally tens of dollars a year doin’ this shit.”)
Yeah, everybody’s got different standards for creative success. The most common rule of thumb in stand-up I’ve seen is that it takes, on average, about 5-7 years to find your true comic “voice.” It varies on a case-by-case basis, of course (Lewis Black has said that it took him 12 years), but it’s just a makeshift barometer. Another way I’ve seen that rule spelled out is that the comic you are now doesn’t matter. What matters is the comic you’ll be five years from whatever level you’re currently at in the grand scheme of things. That can obviously translate to writing as well. In other words, it’s the feeling that no matter how good you are, you can ALWAYS improve.
I bombed (HORRIBLY) for the majority of my first year in comedy–it’s only within the last few months that I’ve started to actually find some solid ground. I still bomb, but not nearly as much. (Rather than say I’ve gotten better, I just like to half-jokingly say I’ve gotten less awful.) It is definitely true that the ones who truly love the artform keep coming back night after night, week after week, no matter how bad it is. There is a little bit of instinct involved, but even if you’re a born performer: if you can’t handle being at the bottom, then you have no business being at the top. It’s all about paying your dues.
I’ve been paid to do stand up! I’m a pro!
Except I’m not, because I’d already decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do and 12 hours earlier I’d been in Amsterdam…
The only way you can improve is by practising… and the only way you can practise is to keep at doing whatever it is you do… if your 100th set isn’t better than your fifth you’re doing something wrong… if you’re fourth novel is worse than your first attempt… same thing, you ain’t doing it right…
Nicely done! Your style and attention to detail clearly show that whether you’re holding a mojito, a pen, or a big fuzzy cricket bat, you are indeed a writer.
Rock on, brother.
‘fuzzy’ cricket bat?
If it comes down to a choice between getting read and getting paid, I’ll take both, thanks.
I’ve often thought about it, and every time I’d take getting read over getting paid.
And trust me… I could really do with the money…
Here is where I find myself distraught about the distinction between the democratization and the devaluation of writer-ness.
On the one hand, getting paid, especially in this day and age, isn’t much of a yardstick for writer-ness.
Most writers, if they get paid, don’t get paid very much, and some really great writers don’t get paid at all, and some really horrible writers get paid all kinds of money.
But it does seem, in all other professions, to be the determiner of vocation. If you get paid to do it, then it’s a vocation. Then you are a writer.
I don’t personally believe this standard applies to writing or a lot of creative work. There just isn’t a big enough market for it for even the dedicated and the talented and the hard-working to make a living out of it.
On the other hand, neither do I believe that just because one writes, s/he is a writer.
If there’s nothing in particular you need to do to be a writer besides write, then anyone can be a writer. Democratic and feel-good-ish, but at the same time, if anyone can be a writer, who wants to be a writer? It’s devalued. It’s nothing special. There is nothing to it. It’s a throw-away hobby for the hopelessly conceited and/or deluded. There’s no pride in it. If anyone who writes is a writer, proclaiming you’re a writer is like proclaiming you’re a walker.
You and everybody else. The whole thing is nothing special. Devoid of value.
There certainly is a lifestyle often associated with writers. That can be a clue. But again, this is something that people can craft around themselves, and do, and we see it when we lament all the pretentious so-and-sos who show up at publishing events and book signings, and whatnot. So you can be a drunk person who writes, sitting in a bar talking Hemingway and still not be a writer.
Or you can be an insurance salesman writing between 6 and 8 AM stone sober and be a writer (I’m thinking Wallace Stevens here…so a poet, specifically–I think William Carlos Williams was a doctor and so on).
Is it too cowardly or hedging to say writerly-ness is a state of mind?
Sometimes I feel like being a writer has more to do with my penchant for whiskey and a long black robe, than anything I actually write.
But hey–writers should be out there, engaging. And I do engage more if I’ve had some liquor. Otherwise, shy as a rock. And even with liquor I’m shy as a … well, a rock, but occasionally, the other half of my Gemini self comes out on Scotch and whoah–when did he ever start talking? It’s too late, by that point, to go home and save my reputation.
I iss having whiskey at home. I used to like having a bottle of scotch or Irish whiskey on my desk ready for writing in the early hours… I can’t really afford it now… financially or in terms of actually writing. I was devastated when I realised my writing is much better sober…
I find I’m writing more now that I’m out and about drinking and doing stuff. I have more to write about. Interesting characters… ideas… incidents…
Unfortunately going out and engaging nearly always ends up with some sort of minor embarassment and sleeping far too late…
I’m always jealous of those who can write while drinking! But yeah, that’s not me, either.
Often, I’m out, hanging out, and I can’t drink, because I’ve got writing I need to do, so I’m essentially trapped: wanting to be a “writer” in the sense that I drink and do things, but unable to do them because I want to be a writer in the sense that I actually want to write some coherent stuff.
Recently, the last few weeks, I’ve taken a break from ‘being a writer.’ I do sort of see it as a state of mind… a lifestyle. Most of the time I write everyday and spend most of my time thinking about writing… ideas… etc…
A lot of it was because I wanted to sort of clear my mind before I choose a project to focus on. It all sounds very self-serious… but I’ve got a couple of things I want to do and I sort of like to think of myself as an actor choosing a role or something…
So the last few weeks I’ve hardly written, mostly eaten noodles and gone out getting drunk a hell of a lot. And it’s been great fun. Because the two can’t co-exist… and I think it was a good decision. Not least because now I really want to write and I can’t really afford to drink anymore…
And I also have a ton of new ideas to work on…