I Am What I Say I Do, Amn’t I?
I’ve got these credentials – a worn tool belt (he can do carpentry!); a doctorate (he’s schmart!); a non-profit (he’s an artiste!); a manuscript (he’s a writer!). Credentials say “I’m qualified.” Credentials say, “Trust me.”
Then there’s that joke – what do you call the worst student out of med school? You call him “Doctor.”
When I taught at the university level, I didn’t make students call me “Dr. Hartwig.” Most of them called me “Kurt,” and the few with a predilection for formality (or a discomfort with excessive informality) stuck with the neutral-ish “Professor.” My best profs in grad school, the ones most deserving of the title “professor” were the ones who never demanded its use. Conversely, the ones who were to my mind the… well, I’m not going to say the last in their class like the joke up there… but the ones of most questionable intellectual capability were typically those that required “doctor-ing.” I figured the first group was the better to emulate, and I’d work at deserving the title not for my academic achievements (yes, yes, I got the Ph.D., I wrote the dissertation, blah blah blah) but for my work “professing,” that is, being a teacher.
Obviously, the tool belt doesn’t make me a good carpenter. The doctorate doesn’t make me a good teacher or a good scholar or even smart (it does mean that I am stubborn, however). The non-profit doesn’t mean that I produced good art.
Now I’m writing, but I don’t really call myself a writer. I still say that I freelance, because that’s how I make money (when I make money, which hasn’t been recently – sigh). I write to fill time in a productive way, to do something I genuinely love doing, and to get better at something that I would love to be able to do and make money from doing it.
It’s the whole do-what-you-love-and-the-money-will-follow argument. It’s not so much that I want to make money from my writing and that, in making money, I will have the validation and credentials that say “You, sir, have made it. You, sir, are a writer.” It is the fine yet profound distinction that if my writing makes money, I get to write more. I get to keep writing. The thing that I love to do perpetuates itself.
Same formula (writing + money) with different equivalences ((=validation) or (=perpetuation)).
I had coffee yesterday with a guy that I recently met whom I quite like and who lives in a different world than I do. When he says, “And I said, if you’re serious about getting that Academy Award…” he’s not talking pie in the sky. He knows people who get Academy Awards. He knows how people can and can’t be competitive for them. And he says to me, “I’m a writer. I’m going to get published.” He’s no dummy. He’s aware of the dangers of crafting the voice right out of your prose. He’s smartly wary of writing to fulfill the list of writing boxes (chapter 1 must contain A, B, and C, while foreshadowing H and I for effective surprises later).
We exchanged opening chapters (he’s submitting to agents; I’m not), we chatted our responses to each others’ writing. And he’s good. He’s very good. His opening chapters are captivating and mysterious. Allow me to reiterate before moving on to my next example, however: he says, “I am a writer.” Like me, he writes. He is not published.
One of the agents I follow (blog and Twitter) posted yesterday on how to get an MFA in writing while saving yourself $60,000. The same day, she also tweeted this, which is a link to a ridiculous argument that, for me, seems to boil down to “self-publishing” is not “publishing.” To which I answer, who cares? If we want to get pedantic (let’s!), then it’s more an issue of platforming – because self-publishers are not doing the publishing – Amazon, or SmashWords, or CreateSpace or someone else is. But, to borrow from Karl, the means of production are no longer the sole province of an elite. Self-publishers (or indie authors, or whatever, back to my who cares above) lack the credentials.
This is an ironic juxtaposition for me – that this agent would on the one hand decry one lack of credentials (publishers) and on the other support a lack of credentials (you don’t need an MFA – the information is out there). Yes, I understand that it makes sense in that both positions work with her self-interest. Doesn’t make it any less interesting.
So that’s the question. What’s enough? What credentials are necessary? What do you have to accomplish to be what you want to be?
Me, I mailed out act I of Manuscript #2 today to two early readers (not young kids; early in the writing process – now, stop that). Roughly 50k words. So I’m taking a break and heading over to a screenplay that’s been wanting some work. That’s what I accomplished.