When I used to ask the question of writers’ groups why it was that most of the writers expressed, in one form or another, doing just about everything but writing, I was generally greeted with indignation and outrage. The other night, my friend Chuckles and I were discussing how video games do not prepare you to be a Navy Seal, wield a battle axe, or ride horses into battle. In fact, if you’re still playing them several hours a day by the time you hit adolescence, the likelihood of you putting in the concentrated, long-term hard work that one of those disciplines requires starts to plummet. If you’re still doing it at 25, you’re probably an expert at delivering pizza – which is fine – I’ve done six dozen jobs at least, including that, and I’m not knocking it. But you can deliver pizza when you’re 40, which is one reason some of those guys do – you can’t start at 40 and become a ballerina or a concert pianist or fly an F15. You’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule from Outliers – that’s 10,000 hours of actually doing something, not talking about it. Maybe Sun Tzu would say 9,000 hours of planning and only 1,000 hours of war, but he was already a general.
The modern movie plot always seems to have a hero with a commitment deficit – young, tan, Caucasian, American – and he manages to absorb in a few days the art of sword fighting from the grizzled and scarred master, or the 20 years of esoteric research into the undead from the crusty old guy with the cane, spectacles and a nervous bulging eye. But that’s fiction not the *writing* of fiction. Chuckles and I kidded a bit about franchise and merchandise deals while we were hacking around a killer story idea we had in New York, and then dutifully sobered up, noting the pitfall of 99% dreaming and 1% doing. You’ve got to write the thing before you get to be Kevin Smith, Matt Groenig and Neil Gaiman rolled into one (or two in this case). And that got me thinking again of the reasons I refuse (and plan to always refuse) to call myself a writer, whether all I ever manage to do is a few flash fic pieces on the web or I belt out more published material than Harlan Ellison. So here they are, the top 12 reasons on my list of reasons why I am not a writer.
Reason 1: Afraid of Quicksand. The Meanest Reason. I want to *actually* write, not talk about writing – and certainly not talk about *not* writing. Seriously, I find most of the people who say “I’m a writer” are continually talking about how they never write, or need to write, or want to write, or about something they once wrote, or about writing as a theoretical idea. The people I’ve met who are actually writing (using the progressive tenses of that verb intentionally – as in consistently engaged in the actual doing of it) are usually off doing that – they’re not mostly hanging around with us, in person or online, doing all the other.
Reason 2: No Stigmata. I do not bleed if I don’t write. I don’t “need” to write in that agonized, vampiric sense. Sure, I think it’s incredibly good for the emotions and the mind, and helps me a lot, but I don’t fall apart or collapse if I don’t do it. I’m fine. In fact, I don’t even particularly *like* writing – the act of it. I like the prospect of the finished story, and I simply have to write to get there. But even that isn’t really enough motivation. The motivation is authorship, because I think authorship is the only way I’ll make any sense in the world – the only way I’ll be able to communicate what I need to in a way that people can know me at all – the only way I can create a place around me that I can fully live – in short, the only way I can ever be truly loved for who I really am. How’s that for “honesty on the page”? It’s a tool to achieve a need, but not an intrinsic need in itself. If there were an easier or more profitable way, I’d choose that. Asher’s 446th Maxim: If I bleed onto the page, it’s because I shove a needle in my finger and let it out.
Reason 3: Big Toolbox. Writing is just one of the media in which I tell stories and elaborate ideas. It’s not even close to the only way. I wear a dozen hats, as a consultant, teacher, marketer, communicator… and all of them involve thinking and communication. In that sense, I’m no more a writer than the guy who sends you a corporate memo. Asher’s 447th Maxim: I’m not a writer, I’m a storyteller who sometimes writes it down.
Reason 4: Pure Heresy. I don’t hold the doctrine. You’ve heard the prevailing aphorism: “if you write, you’re a writer”. That’s like saying if you have sex, you’re a prostitute. Hell, anybody can dabble in it. Lots of people write – not all of them are writers. And certainly, as we’ve said, not all of them are writing – writing is a discipline. In fact, a lot of them have a great deal of contempt for writing. Try handing your short story to the next twelve people of any kind of who you see in a normal day putting any type of lettering on a piece of paper or into a computer. Record the reactions in your own top twelve blog post (that’s the marketing coach talking). I realize the “writing = writer” thing is hallowed dogma, but that just makes me more curious (not less) about its frailty in representing inviolate truth. Asher’s 448th Maxim: I am not a believer. Whatever it is, I do not believe.
Reason 5: Broad Commitment. I’m not committed to writing – I’m committed to *everything* I do. I don’t take writing any more seriously than I do anything I’m truly involved in. I work, at everything, and I take it all seriously. Asher’s 2nd Maxim: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work. — In that sense, I merely have no hobbies, and work at everything – singling out writing is sort of artificial. I don’t even usually use phrases like “my writing” – I just say “my work” and make it inclusive of all I do.
Reason 6: Backwards Intuition. I feel like subtitling every story, “No Need to Read” – not out of low confidence, but to eliminate from the start the messianic impulse, which saps motivation and focus – I want to focus on the story – on its internal integrity and meaning. I’m convinced if I do that well enough, readers will get it and spread it. While I *am* an incurable show-off, which might make you suspect I’m actually a writer, I’m really just a diva in general – and writing is my least divaesque tendency. I don’t actually burden friends with manuscripts or give stories to family as holiday gifts, nor read my stuff to captive coffee shop audiences, nor hang out with the other writers who are out back smoking in between their turns (not listening to your story, either), nor am I a member of a writing group or society. I find community among artists and entrepreneurs in general, but not writers solely or per se. It’s really OK if you don’t like or don’t read my stuff. I want to win an audience, and I love winning an audience (sales is another vocation of mine), but conversely and counterintuitively, it’s not really all about the audience – it has to be about the value *I* see in it first and foremost, and that’s why it will sell, if it ever does. The notion of pure art for its own sake is as useless to me as the phrase “it’s all about the reader” – nothing is all about anything – it’s a trade – value for value. Asher’s 449th Maxim: If you need adherents to believe with you, in order to believe, then you don’t really believe.
Reason 7: Mercenary Ethos. I can’t be a writer, because I want money. More correctly, it doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but there needs to be some process of trade, at least coming down the road. I will not write if I can’t sell it. For me, it’s got to achieve market value. I’ll build up to that, but if you guaranteed me right now that I’d never sell anything or get paid, I’d stop entirely. In that sense, my writing is outright Simony. Ayn Rand argued that the basis of all ethical human relationships is trade – the exchange of value for value. I want my art “bleared, smeared” with it, as Hopkins incanted. For me, art – like business – is one of my attempts to engage other people in an ethical fashion. Asher’s 450th Maxim: Art is real trade in a constructed means of delivering intrinsic value.
Reason 8: Heedless Disregard. I find writing advice – more correctly, advice to “writers” – mostly useless, when it even rises above self-contradictory and incomprehensible (‘write from agony, terror, darkness’, ‘write from calm, peace, centeredness’). I once read a pile of carefully vetted books on writing (about 2 dozen of them in 24 hours) to see what people had to say about it. I extrapolate a lot from a little and think I can become reasonably conversant in nearly any subject in a day – I’m the guy you hand a pile of books on medicine who then does emergency surgery in a wilderness plane crash (though I’d prefer something less dramatic). It’s just not the case that I haven’t read just the right exact book on this topic. I’ve got enough – besides, writers have a tendency to quote one another. I won’t say there was nothing of value, but mostly I learned that books on writing can make you a writer, but they hold no answers to *actually* writing. I know, it’s an asshole thing to say, but it’s also pretty noticeably true: just research the authors of most of the books on writing and see whether they’ve actually written a work of fiction you’d ever care to read – let alone have heard of, or if they’ve written anything else at all. Sure, there are books by famous authors on how to write – I think their publishers make them do it – and those ‘guides’ make it clear that *they* don’t know how how to do it, either – not really – at best, if you’re really lucky, they know only how *they* / themselves managed to do it, which isn’t really the same thing as a portable methodology that can get you from here to finished book. Writers are constantly recommending this or that book on writing, or asking whether they should get an MFA in order to “become” a writer (ask Garrison Keillor that question). Asher’s 238th Maxim: The best book on writing is the one I’m not reading to avoid writing.
Reason 9: Story is a Stage. I write as a way of talking. Primarily, I’m a speaker or talker. I write like I talk. I call my writing written speech, and refer to the act of producing a piece of writing as “literary performance“. You could say I’m a content producer, but mostly it’s vocal content recorded by text instead of audio tape or digitized vocals. There’s some debate here – Arnold Berleant argues that “language which is meant only to be read silently and does not have the character of speech is not actually literature at all’ – that it is primarily, in fact, a vocal and performance art. If that’s true, then maybe, if that were the one qualification, I might be a writer – but only because *I’m a speaker who sometimes writes it down,* and Asher’s 451st Maxim: Story is a Stage.
Reason 10: Doing is Not Being. I’m not an existentialist. I don’t believe – specifically, I don’t confuse what a person is, let alone *who* a person is, with what a person does. I may do some writing, but I don’t find it encouraging to try on the words “I’m a writer”; I don’t aspire to be a writer; I don’t wonder if I’m a writer; I don’t even care if other people think I’m a writer, as long as *I* don’t have to agree or acknowledge it. The question of being, of identity – my identity, in short, is not absorbed in it. This is actually the reason I *need* to say I’m not a writer. If I have to focus on what I am, I’ll be busy *being* that, talking about it, thinking about it, when I prefer to be busy *doing* it. The reason I do it at all, is because I know what doing is, and don’t confuse doing with what being is. Some other person can be the writer – I just want to write some things. And my motivation is not diffused or dissipated in a self-congratulatory titling of the person, standing outside myself observing what I am, when I can be making a *thing*. If I had to choose between making art and being an artist, which is precisely a choice of focus when you don’t equate doing with being, I choose the former. To the degree I succeed in the act of doing anything, it comes partly from rejecting the conflation of person and operation. In fact, when I got started, the first thing I did was write a character and assume his identity (he is not a writer), and then I kept writing from there. Asher’s 452nd Maxim: Doing is Not Being
Reason 11: Failing the Test. I never have to wonder if I’m really a writer – I already know the answer – I’m not. None of the “how to know if you’re a writer” stuff really grabs, inspires, or seems to describe me, and I don’t pass any of the tests. In other words, the writers don’t recognize me as one of their own, either, except (again, in some cases) by a strange catch-all definition of “writer” as anyone who ever puts two or more alphabetic symbols together. By that logic, all literate people are writers, and the word loses any useful meaning. In fact, knocking over a bowl of alphabets or a box of letter blocks makes writers of rodents and toddlers alike (reductio ad absurdum). I don’t keep any of the rituals or have the special fetishes. I don’t agonize over grammar, except as a tool of clarity and convention – some language snobbery, yes, but it’s more a general education snobbery (which includes logic), not writing snobbery per se. The votes are in, and I’m not in the club. Every time I hear someone say, “you know you’re a *real* writer if…” I always know I’m the Pinocchio of writing except, instead of longing to be a real boy, I think I’m real enough as it is. Asher’s 453rd Maxim: Pinocchio should have longed to be better at *telling* the truth than *being* a real boy.
Reason 12: Denial is Thought. The first sign of thought, Ayn Rand said, is the frown. In my religious tradition, it’s called apophasis – the removal from the mind of all false symbols – the denial of pleasant illusions – the rejection of summaries and shorthands that can never express the fullness of a thing. You find this Via Negativa among the Desert Fathers with even more commitment than in all the angst of critical philosophers. Those men and women denied finding anything good in themselves and are, because of the resultant character, revered as Saints for their piety. For me, the way I am able to think at all about writing is to deny being a writer, to reject the trap and quicksand (what the Fathers call “pitfalls”) of being a writer. I don’t want to fall in where so many have landed, looking up from the crevice, lamenting the blank page, the incomplete manuscript, the unsalvagable march of relentless and unforgiving time wherein I’m always too busy (even if occasionally I am). When I was a young man, I did all the things writers do – I scribbled things to read before microphones, I had cards printed saying that I was a “writer”, and I asked endless how-to/what-to questions – seeking the secret sauce that would make it all click. I only began to really write, to make art seriously and consistently, through denial. When I rejected being a Christian, I became one. When I rejected living up to others’ definitions of manhood, I stood as a man. And when I scorned the appellation of “writer” I began to write prolifically, with discipline and commitment, with sacrifice and pain, with determination and vigour. I began to become more than attitude and to live in action. Now, I don’t say “but I have written this” – what I have written yesterday is like the poor I fed yesterday or the sick I relieved yesterday or the prisoner I visited yesterday, or the Psalm I chanted Sunday, or the person I was once and so long ago. The only thing that matters now and exists really and truly now as a productive, vibrant, life-giving force is what I am doing (and writing) right now, today, every day.
Bonus Illustration – Ninja-like Intentions: In Kung Fu the coloured belts don’t signify rank as they do in Karate; they’re just belts – they hold your clothes together – they are what they are. What ranks you in Kung Fu is the unbroken years of continual, consistent practice. Someone who has been practicing Kung Fu for 20 years total, 15 of which were in his youth, and only 5 of which were recent, after a long break, is of lower rank than someone who has been practicing 10 years continually. I am not preaching a doctrine, here; I’m saying that the only way I have found to do this, and the thing that ‘motivates’ me (if merely understanding what works may be called motivation), is the denial of what I’ve done before (even last night), the rejection of the illusion that it makes me anything, and the insistence that what is important is what is in my hands tonight, what work I am doing this instant, and whether I can sustain it. This is true of health as well – the body itself illustrates how easy it is to get out of shape, out of sleep, out of other things, even though we can remember what we once “were”. But we are not that now – we are now what we are now (to borrow and paraphrase Tennyson’s words, “we are not now what we were; that which we are, we are”) – and change comes by changing that, not recalling what we did once and naming it what we are. I am not a writer; I am writing. That is how I do it, and it’s the only way I can. If someone else can do it another way, then I wish them all the peace and power in the world to do it. This is not my dogma, but it is my way – my Via Scribens.
Lest someone mistake my meaning to be that all writers, or those who call themselves writers, share all of the traits I have to choose departure from, I don’t in fact think that, by way of disclaimer. I also don’t get offended if someone calls me a writer (as long as I don’t have to do so); it’s not a dirty word – it’s just not really me – and the herding of us together doesn’t seem to create enhanced productivity where I’ve experienced it – not for me – more like a ghettoization; by contrast, I find that being with entrepreneurs, musicians, painters, sales people (as well as people who are writing) – in a more diverse but intense way, helps immensely. I think of myself as an artist, yes, a bit – but no more than I am an entrepreneur – these are just words that pull our focus from work to self, though. To be curious, to communicate, to imagine – these are all merely human traits; I don’t need to be in a special priesthood. In fact, one of the keys to my independence as an adult and success as a man, is that I’m fluid and conversant in many things; pinning me to one of them as though it eclipsed the rest would truly undermine my identity, and it would mean the speaker doesn’t really know me at all – not intimately; it would mean I don’t know myself. Besides – *I* need to think like this and talk like this in order to make art and found companies and create other things and continue to take what I do seriously. I *have* to focus on action. After all, I *know* who I am and what I want – my manhood is in that, and it’s hard won. Identity and vocation are lifelong explorations and journeys, so true, but we come to some conclusions along the way if we’ve been doing it a while – putting in those thousands of hours of practice. What I conclude is that it’s in my best interest to be able to rebuild a carburetor, cook a meal, and tile a floor as well as edit a manuscript. I don’t call myself a mechanic, chef, or handyman – that doesn’t mean I can’t do a spanking good job if I work at it.
So there it is, my top twelve reasons for not being a writer – reasons that keep the writing flowing. It’s not shame, posturing, or affectation. You may have your own operative strategies; mine, in short, amount to this: Deny, deny, deny.