#IWSG: Writing, work, and the highway to hell

Happy IWSG Day! For those who are new here, I participate in the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. This month’s optional question is: When you think of the term working writer, what does that look like to you? What do you think it is supposed to look like? Do you see yourself as a working writer or aspiring or hobbyist, and if latter two, what does that look like?

First, sorry for missing September, y’all. Please don’t kick me out of the IWSG club. There’s a lot going on in my life right now (see my last few posts if you’re interested–but, spoiler alert, I’m moving), and I couldn’t get it together last month.

Now for this month’s question. I’ve noticed that a lot of us in the writing community get hung up on our identity as it relates to writing. So, pop quiz:

I am a writer if I:

  1. Am traditionally published
  2. Am self-published
  3. Blog
  4. Write for fun, but I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a rusty soup spoon than let anyone see what I write.
  5. All of the above

The correct answer is, 5. Here’s a more concise version of the pop quiz:

Do you write?

  1. Yes. Congratulations–you are a writer.
  2. No.

I spoke with a writer friend a couple of days ago. This woman’s poetry has won awards in our statewide literary contest, but she assured me that she is not a writer. She’s a finalist in this year’s contest. She’s working on a memoir. But she isn’t a writer. She just dabbles. I should have recommended she join the IWSG. Like the rest of us, she’s mastered the insecurity part as well as the writer part, even if she doesn’t know it.

So, fellow insecure writers, here’s your daily affirmation. Strike your favorite power pose and repeat after me:

I. Am. A. Writer.

One more time, with feeling:

I. Am. A. Writer.

C’mon, you in the back row with the sunglasses and backwards ball cap. This ain’t the back seat of the school bus. Get on your feet and shout!

I. Am. A. Writer.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the phrase, “working writer.” I’ll admit, that has a slightly different connotation to me. It includes the (other) dreaded W word, “work.” So, what does it mean to be a *working* writer?

Well, I dunno about you, but writing is definitely work for me. Dang hard word. Some of the hardest work I do. Even harder than packing up everything I own for my upcoming move.

But of course “work” has another meaning–the thing we do for money, our career. So which definition do we want to use? (Yes, I’m a writer–I love to play with words and their meanings.) I’ll give you my personal definition of a working writer, but I want to be very clear that it is just that: my personal definition. I am not the self-appointed gatekeeper of the writing world. My definition applies to me–and only me. You get to decide for yourself what being a working writer means to you.

So, here’s my definition:

A working writer is a writer who aspires to share their writing with others and is taking concrete steps toward that goal.

Notice: I didn’t say a word about getting paid. I didn’t say a word about getting published. I didn’t say a word about being “good.” And I for sure didn’t say a word about being self-supporting as a writer (my understanding is that most midlist published writers can’t make it without an additional source of income).

My definition implies a degree of “seriousness,” if you will. Some intent. A goal. A purpose beyond self-entertainment. And as you might guess, that ties in with my definition of, “work.” Something doesn’t magically become, “work,” just because it earns money, and something doesn’t magically become “not work” if it doesn’t earn money. Same for earning external recognition (e.g. getting published). Work, to me, means some kind of focused effort to create something for others as well as yourself. I’ll admit I haven’t carefully analyzed all possible implications of that definition, but it seems to match my view of work pretty well. Work as service, I suppose.

Work is a loaded word in US culture. We were founded in part by Puritans, who, as I understand it, seemed to divide everything into two categories: work (which was godly, had value, and demonstrated that you were one of the elect, predestined to go to heaven) and everything else (which was frivolous, ungodly, and likely to indicate you were buddying up with Bon Scott on the Highway to Hell).

Diversion alert! Play this video and crank it up. It may be frivolous and ungodly, but it’s worth it.

Official video for AC/DC’s Highway to Hell

Sadly, these ideas persist today. We are taught to value “work” above everything else and to sacrifice everything else for “work.” And “work” is usually defined as something we get paid to do and that is valuable primarily because someone will pay us to do it. If we enjoy it, and/or if we can’t assign a market value to it, it isn’t “work”–and therefore it’s frivolous and a waste of time and we might as well ask Bon Scott for a piggyback ride.

This idea is toxic. (Though if Bon Scott weren’t dead, I’d probably ask him for a piggyback ride, and he’d probably drop me, because he’d be drunk. But I digress.)

It’s toxic to the arts, certainly, and it’s also toxic to the human soul. It robs people of the ability to do something for the pure joy of it without feeling guilty–and that guilt pollutes the experience, so that it is no longer one of pure joy.

Diversion alert: I am now blasting Highway to Hell loud enough to rattle the walls of my spare bedroom. For the pure joy of it.

OK, back to work–literally and figuratively (but AC/DC is still blasting away, because who said work can’t be fun? Oh, yeah, the Puritans. But they’re dead, so screw them.) It’s hard to avoid value judgments when talking about work, and I know my definition includes an implicit value judgment straight out of the Puritan handbook: it mentions goals and doing something for others. Feel free to argue with that definition. You might convince me to change it. I am, after all, a product of the same Puritan-based culture I’m complaining about.

But I do think work involves some kind of effort that goes beyond the self, not because the self is bad, but because I believe we can find a higher purpose in getting outside of ourselves and touching the lives of others. And it takes effort to do that–in other words, work. See? I can’t escape the Puritans no matter how hard I try.

And, to bring our discussion back to writing, when we write for others, we have to dig deeper to make sure we are communicating what we intend to communicate. We have to tap into age-old methods of storytelling that resonate with other humans, create characters our readers can identify with, and choose our words carefully so they carry the meaning we want to convey. And all of that is, you guessed it, work. But it also deepens and enriches our own experience of writing–or at least it does for me.

And I finally had to turn off AC/DC, because I couldn’t concentrate on crafting this post while bouncing around in my chair to the bass line from “Thunderstruck.” Maybe the Puritans were right about having to choose between work and fun. Dammit.

4 thoughts on “#IWSG: Writing, work, and the highway to hell

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