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Poisonous Tripe

Normally I’d just let this go as another case of bad advice on the internet, but then I saw a comment by somebody that said they read it and felt bad.

So, let’s just get this out of the way…

This is a quiz posted on the blog of the Horror Writers of America, purporting to tell you whether or not you are a professional writer or just a “hobbyist.” It has incited some comment among various authors, few of those comments kind.

The author was apparently inspired to write this after the author—I quote—”recently stumbled into a discussion group of people who I thought had called themselves professionals, but their conversations revealed them to be hobbyists. They chatted about health and told jokes and moaned about personal problems…anything, in other words, but writing careers.”

(One shudders to think what would be revealed if other authors knew that I am on a discussion group that talks about bugs and native plant gardening! Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!)

The quiz has ten questions. I answered nine of them “No” and the other one (number 4) is an “I suppose I’ll say yes in an eat-your-vegetables sort of way.”

Apparently I am a hobbyist. Incidentally, according to the latest statement, book one of Dragonbreath sold 131,000 copies. (I could go on in this vein, but I’d really rather not, because…err…bragging, raised Catholic, will be hit by a bus and deserve it, etc.) I am even, at this brief, trembling moment in time, reasonably confident of achieving my goals, because my goals are the relatively simple ones of “make neat books people like to read and make enough money doing it to live comfortably and then go out in the garden and possibly travel occasionally.”

And also I would kind of like a bulldog after the beagle finally dies of old age. May not achieve that one. I’ve come to terms with it. But I love their smooshy faces and they’re low energy and considered just as stupid as beagles according to the AKC, and I don’t think I can handle another smart dog. The border collie judges me. A lot. A lot more than someone who eats cat poop has a right to judge.

What was I talking about?

Ah, yes.

Anyway, if you read that quiz and thought “Oh god! I have to do this/not do this/never talk to my friends about anything but writing careers/not go on vacations for fun/not live in a nice house/not leave background TV on”—please, don’t.

This is pernicious and poisonous tripe. This serves no purpose but to make people who aren’t grimly self-confident feel bad, and make people who are grimly self-confident feel tired. If you read this and suffered a moment of angst, don’t.

You write, you’re a writer. You get paid to write, you’re a professional writer. If you aren’t a professional writer and you think of yourself as one anyway, the damage to me is surprisingly minimal.

And all I want to know is—do professional accountants get this kind of crap?


Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


You're not allowed to enjoy your life if you're a "professional," is what I'm getting. Sounds like misery loves company to me.

Hehe, that's almost exactly what I came in here to post. XD

Seriously, though, it really is poisonous. I'm not saying that the writer who put it together is a bad person, of course, just mistaken. I'd hate to see a struggling talented new (or old, for that matter) writer come across it and feel bad or, Ganesh forbid, give up. There are writers of all sorts out there, and I'm glad for the many types. Artists are quirky and different, which makes their art interesting and unique. Saying that they have to be a certain way or do certain things is ignoring that uniqueness and freedom which enhances creativity.

tl;dr: Write when/if/what/how you want.

No professional Accountants get hit up for tax advise and family members who think they should get their returns done for free.

Yep, and personal trainers get asked diet questions (not entirely in our scope), vague pain location questions (go to a health professional) and spot toning questions (you eat cheezy poofs, you're going to have a belly).

Also, people think you're judging their calorie count/choices whenever you eat together. (People, I can barely keep track of my own. What makes you think I want you to feel guilty for that chocolate cake?)

Jeezly cats, that's a toxic bit of... yeah, poisonous tripe works as a description there. And yes, I've met a variant of this garbage in an accountant's office (tax accounting), hanging on their wall, back in something like 1997 or so.

(censored) people telling me whether I'm a pro or not in my (censored) fields. Hmph.

I had pretty much the same answers you did.

The distinction between 'professional' and 'hobbyist' seems fuzzy in the arts. Writing and painting and sculpture are not golf, where if you give it away for free, you're an amateur, but if you take the paycheck, you're a professional. "If you make more from it than you spend on it" also seems like a bad criteria, since there's brilliant sculptors who work in scrap material, and brilliant graphic artists that work in ephemeral pixels, and brilliant storytellers that work entirely inside their own heads. And if you limit 'professional' to 'making a living at it', you include me and my dreary tech docs that nobody reads, but exclude the former roommate, a successful midlist author with a half-dozen books still in print, and that's just silly.

I have no problem copping to being a hobbyist musician. The amount of money I've earned from playing music over the course of my life is less than the check I paid for one spectacularly expensive dinner for six, and I have easily a half-dozen or so times that much invested in instruments that I play far too seldom. But I am a professional writer, or at least my mortgage lender seems happy to think so, and frankly their opinion is more important to me than the generic 'somebody on the internet'.

Well put, as always. Having angst about the worth of one's art is often the best way to keep it from having any worth at all, so thank you for writing about this.

To me, the questions in the quiz seemed less like "Are you a professional writer" or even "Are you a career writer" and more like "Is writing your LIFE?"

It is possible to be a professional, or to be quite dedicated to a career, and still occasionally spend your time and money on other things (such as your friends, your home, and so on).

On the other hand, if you have the sort of burning passion for writing that this particular author seems to have - above and to the exclusion of so many other things - then I can certainly see how those of us with multiple passions, who love writing and drawing and sculpting and gardening and performing and any number of other things more or less equally, could certainly seem like "hobbyists."

Dedication to a subject (any subject) is a spectrum. There will always be someone more dedicated and someone less dedicated than you, and it's easy to judge people in either direction. If you're all on the same spectrum, though, it seems better to just enjoy being there together than to try to find places to draw boundaries across it.

You find this type in all fields. The message seems to be that if your life is not suffering for your at, then you are Doing Something Wrong. Fuck that. I want to have my cake and eat it. I want a family, a good social life, a nice home, and a career in the arts.

Good thing morale is a huge force multiplier. Otherwise you might be as doomed as he wants you to think!

I'm not even going to go to that link, and thank you VERY much for warning me away. O:>

Oh for heaven's sake. So the only thing writers are allowed to talk about with other writers is writing? How boring their conversations must be. I mean, at Alpha, conversations ranged from 'nifty things involving relativity' to 'other people in the cafeteria' to 'adventures with wildlife' to 'how politics work in Australia, as well as many other things'.

y'know, I'm clearly just a hobbyist writer (and this isn't sarcasm, but a fact), but I'd think a wide range of conversational topics would be good for writers, because it'd give them ideas/knowledge/material to work with when it comes to writing.

I think I could sum up that post as, "You aren't a REAL writer unless you've SUFFERED the way I HAVE!"

Agreed. My impression was "someone suffering because she gave up everything for writing, and instead of considering if it's really good for her, she justifies it by making up an internal narrative of it being the only way to be a REAL writer."

She defines professionals pretty narrowly. "Working in any job at a professional level involves not just making money at that job, but thinking of that job as your career." I don't think of my job as my career, but I'm damn sure that I'm a professional at what I do. Also, question number 6 seems to be the most poisonous. 'No, good friend, I'd rather ignore our long history and myriad in-jokes and talk shop with someone else. You're not a professional writer, so you wouldn't understand what I had to say anyway.' How utterly arrogant, and may go some way to explaining how she came up with the question in the first place - all of her friends have abandoned her, knowing they can't compete with her massive ego.

This seems to equate being a professional in the arts with having no work life balance.

This is not borne out by the professional artist/writers/etc of my acquaintance. I think it's even negatively correlated. Maybe there were a few years like that starting out, but if you make yourself crazy, it's hard to consistently make good work.

Consistently presenting solid work, and receiving money for it, is I think my definition of a professional. If the money isn't coming yet, that's what the word "aspiring" is for.

Yeah I didn't even have to read that (though I did) b/c I've read that before. Not that exact piece, but you'll find that kind of essay or quiz or whatever in EVERY profession or interest, ever, eventually. It works, too, just substitute other professions in there. These kinds of pieces have nothing to do with the profession or interest or hobby or whatever, but everything to do with the ego of the person who wrote it.

Their insecure ego leaves them stuck in some manner of adolescent emotional development, at least on this particular issue, so they have the irresistible urge to make declarative statements about Life, the Universe, and Everything in it. Since it comes from the Ego though, not someplace cool like Wisdom or Experience, what they utter is - of course - horseshit.

There's definitely an edge of "nose to the grindstone" here, but also of "writing, day job, friends: choose any two".

When I was a kid, I always imagined "nose to the grindstone" in some way relating to some awful system in which nose and grindstone made contact.

Actually, as I discovered while camping in the Pine Barrens a couple of years ago, "nose to the grindstone" refers to the fact that the miller wanted to keep sniffing the grindstone periodically, to make sure the stones weren't rubbing against each other and making sparks . . . because, well, sparks and airborne flour particulates in a dry, enclosed wooden space. Not such a great idea.

Just thought I'd point that out. It's not actually a saying about crazy levels of dedication -- it's about making sure that your place of work and livelihood don't EXPLODE.

Edited at 2013-08-09 06:56 pm (UTC)

Actually yes, professional accountants are pretty hard assed on who is allowed to call themself an accountant (with or without the "professional" added). Only those who have passed the CPA exam are allowed to be called accountants. Now you can practice accounting as book keeper, or tax preparer, but the moment you put the word "accountant" on your business card you better believe all the other licensed professionals around are going to come sniffing to make sure you have the correct certification.

Yep - full career path, all the steps marked out, qualifications, that's what a real profession is. None of this just doing it the way writers and painters do.

Now, where's my programming qualification? I can't believe that I've neglected to get one, not having written articles and given talks and all. Help, help, they're after me!

I don't really have much to bring to this discussion that hasn't already been said (apart from wondering why on earth the original post writer takes it so personally what other people call themselves), but it does me a lot of good to see people putting down their attitude. I have seen too many people push the "WORK IS PAIN AND SUFFERING" angle and you are right. It's toxic, it gets into your brain, and life really shouldn't be about making yourself that miserable. Thanks.

(Also I am reminded somewhat of the "Real Writers" who kick up a fuss every November because of NaNo. Not the masses writing stuff! For fun! WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?)