Friday, July 31st, 2009 | Posted by: R.J. Keller
Back in high school, I was friends with a girl who’d read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. She even claimed to have enjoyed it. She did me the great honor of letting me borrow her copy of it after learning I’d recently become enamored of W.B. Yeats. I gave it an honest go, but tossed it aside as soon as Sir Tristam re-arrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war – that is to say, in the middle of the second sentence – in favor of my new Stephen King novel. She gave me a superior roll of her eyes and told me to give her a call the next time I’d read the work of a Real Writer. I called her the next evening. Right after I finished Misery.
About a year ago, I met a woman online who asked me to critique her recently completed manuscript. It was a great read, bordering on brilliant. The kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve put it down. I told her so in an email after I’d finished it, adding that she was now on my list of favorite writers. Her response: “I’m not a writer yet. Not a real one, anyway. I’m not published. I don’t even have an agent.”
Her comment took me aback. I hadn’t realized that within the twenty or so years since I’d had that high school conversation with Miss Pretentious, the definition of Real Writer had been amended from “producer of unreadable literary fiction” to “agented and published author.” Yet, if you peruse most writing blogs these days, you’ll see that this new definition is the widely accepted one. Some go so far as to define Real Writer as an author who can support him or herself on writing alone.
I refuse to subscribe to any of those definitions. I know I have talent. I know I can write, and that I do it well. Not because an agent has told me so (even though many of them have) and not because I’m a published author (even though I am). I know it in the same way Ted Williams knew he could hit a baseball or Jimi Hendrix knew he could play a guitar. It’s just always been there. Through use and training I have improved over the years, but I’ve still always known I had It. Even when I was fighting in the battle for getting my work traditionally published … I knew. It’s why I showed up to fight in the first place, not the spoils I expected to claim at the end of the war.
Being a real writer isn’t about literary importance, and it isn’t about sales. A real writer is someone who has written something that resonates with someone, even if it’s just one other person. Something that makes someone look at the world in a different way, or makes them think about an issue in a way they never thought to before. Something that inspires, something that moves another person to tears. Or to laughter. Or takes them to far away, or even imaginary, lands.
It’s why W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf can sit beside Stephen King and P.G. Wodehouse on my bookshelf. It’s why I think my online friend’s book deserves a spot there, too. It’s why I think – even after a year of unsuccessfully shopping her book out to agents – that she’s a real writer. It’s why I wish she’d put the damned book out herself. It’s why I chose to publish mine independently. And it’s why I refuse to let someone else’s narrow view define me.