Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Writer Vs Author

     In one of two or three writing communities to which I belong on Linked In, the place where middle-aged and elderly wouldbes go to commiserate, someone asked the same Creative Writing 101 question, obviously fancying themselves to be asking something startlingly original that had never been asked before: "What's a writer and what's an author?"
     It's one of those questions that involves such a necessarily subjective answer that if you ask 100 self-identified writers that question, you'll get 150 responses. Being an analytically-minded writer and political blogger myself, in which a keen instinct for multi-faceted analysis is absolutely essential, I tend to look at even simple-minded questions from different perspectives, such as the colloquial definitions of the words writer and author as opposed to my own personal definition. This is why, if you ask 100 writers you'll get 150 responses. Political bloggers and novelists who tend to tell things from different POVs look at stories and issues like Picasso looked at women (Well, he looked at them as sex objects to be used and used up but I'm speaking of those disjointed portraits for which he became noted in his later years, in which the human face and body was broken up, thereby forcing the viewer to look at it from different perspectives).
     There's the hideously expanded and generous definition of what the writer and author are in the public consciousness. Technically, almost anyone can be a writer. Making out your "To Do" list makes you a writer. "Wake up. Make coffee. Piss. Moan. Surf web for new porn. Write 150 meaningless tweets for the bottomless memory hole. Piss again..." Sadly, that makes us writers. Despite Texas and its Inquisition-minded Board of Education, the literacy rate in the United States is still in the high 90's so, theoretically, we're all writers. If you tweet, text, email or scrawl, "For a good cock sucking, call 555..." on a bathroom wall, you're a writer.
     The public mind is also just as generous regarding published authors. Nowadays, if you're a one-time, half-term, half-wit Governor, a failed Senate candidate or some bug-eyed conspiracy theorist and your publisher assigns you a ghost writer or "co-author" whose name looks shrunken below yours, then, by God, you're an author. Yes, we have to at least until their books eventually end up in the .99¢ bargain bin at Wal-Mart admit airheads such as Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Glenn Beck and George W. Bush into the same community as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens.
     Then again, 54 years of experience of stumbling across this world with a neverending wonder of how we'd ever crawled out of the primordial ooze informs me that the public is almost always in the wrong. So what if Lena Dunham is currently popular and the traditional publishing industry is now a 50 Shades of Gray and Harry Potter-based economy? Slavery was also popular, as was not giving women and African Americans the vote and invading Vietnam and Iraq.
     So, in the addled public mind, if you relay shit your dad says on Twitter, you're a writer even if it's not your material. If it gets grabbed with all 20 fingers and toes by a literary agent and published by a traditional publisher, you're an author. And if it gets turned into a short-lived and hideously-conceived TV series starring William Shatner, then you're a hasbeen and a future answer on Trivial Pursuit: What the Fuck Do We Have Instead of Culture?! edition.
     And then, there's my personal definition of the words "writer" and "author", which hearkens back to the days before literary agents and generic MBA corporate bean-counters that now make up virtually 100% of the publishing industry.
     There are two types of writers: Those who have to write and those who need to write. If you dream words, or in chapters, if you continue writing your book long after you've been taken by Morpheus (Luckily, to me, he doesn't look like Laurence Fishburne, otherwise I'd have insomnia), then you're a writer by my more stringent definition.
     By the same token, if a photographer sees something fantastic, they'll record it with their camera or kick themselves for not having one on them. A composer and musician may want to write a song about it. And a writer will "feel the itch in the fingers", to quote Stephen Crane, to write about it or kick oneself in the ass for not having a notebook and pen on them. But, in my experience, the real photographers will always have that camera around their necks and the real writer will always have on their person a Moleskine or a cheap .99¢ equivalent in case one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne abruptly drops in for a visit.
     Growing up in the 70's, I'd grown to consider writers as the scribes of the human race, the historians, the quantifiers, qualifiers and clarifiers of the gloriously bifurcated human condition. The poets try and fail to explain to us what love, life and death is but they nevertheless insist on trying to pin down the elusive aspects of the abstracts of human nature. The historians tell the same tale over and over again because the causes and effects of war and genocide, which marks human civilization over and over like pauses in a Harold Pinter play, never change. But that doesn't stop them from trying.
     And novelists, my people, all tell the same tale over and over again and never, seemingly, running out of variations and that tale is a single question: "Who am I?"
     Any human language is a fantastically complex Rube Goldberg mechanism consisting of anywhere from several thousand to several millions of moving parts all subject to change in shape and purpose. To master the rules of something so admirably complicated and Protean is a feat unto itself. But to marshal such a mastery over the course of a 400 page or 100,000 word sustained effort, especially if it's done well, is damned near a miracle. And that makes you an author. I've done it several times. I've made grown men and women laugh, cry, feel and think. I know I'm a writer and author and I don't need a publishing contract and some opportunistic literary agent to retroactively make me either with a contract designed to make money.
     To accomplish such a feat requires a rare dedication, love and stubbornness eluding the appreciation much less the capabilities of most people in this country today. And to write a novel that suspends human disbelief even for just a day or two, creating an entire world from the ground up while subscribing (usually, unless you're [yawn] writing yet another Lord of the Rings knockoff) to the laws of the natural, real world including normal and abnormal human behavior and to make sure everything works as planned. In other words, a good writer and author succeeds where God failed.
     Putting it simply, being a writer is still, to me, one of the highest callings to which a human being can aspire because we're the self-appointed ones to tell the human saga, committing more or less to posterity every single minutia of the human experience in books, newspaper and magazine articles and blog posts.
     The internet made all of us writers and publishers, at least in a theoretical sense. The definitions of writer and author have been cheapened, expanded and made ridiculously generous by the emerging technology and the reawakened literary ambitions of the human race. Published speech is now no longer the semi-exclusive domain of an anointed few. The marketplace of ideas is a crowded and bizarre Arabian bazaar consisting of tweets about what we had for dinner last night, Facebook updates of our thoughts on the return of The Walking Dead and kvetching about our in-laws.
     And, every once in a while, I'll grant that someone will write a book or three that's worth reading because they, too, had equally high standards of what constitutes a writer and author and exerting over their work and very lives a painfully monastic dedication to achieve a high and admirable end.
     In the meantime, however, we have to accept Palin, Bush, O'Donnell, Dunham and other flavors of the moment in the same company as poor Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens.
     Meanwhile, Jesus will be in a corner doing a face palm and weeping for modern day Humanity as it awaits its next great chronicler.

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