My new job involves talking to a lot of new-to-me people. (It also involves epic losses at Magic the Gathering and being walled-in by Funko Pop! figures.) I’m spending a surprising amount of time chatting to shop regulars while they browse cards from the 2015 core set and buy up most of our Planeswalkers, which usually leads to questions about who I am and what I do when I’m not grabbing the Khans folder from under the counter.
To you, my readers, the answer seems obvious. I write verbose blog posts, short fiction and novels. I write about writing, creativity and the life of a queer-with-mental-illness writer. I spent a large part of last Thursday talking about my writing process to my fellow writer-friend, which is illuminating in the sense that I have enough awareness now, about my own process, to speak on it. I’ve written two novels and one novelette in this year alone, so I think I’ve grasped the output side of writing. Sure, I don’t have many readers as yet, but I’ll keep working on that, and, maybe one day, I’ll be able to make half a living income from my words. Everything else I do is pretty much an adjunct to writing or a way of keeping a roof over my head while I write. It doesn’t matter what people say about my writing (although those comments are most often positive): that is incidental to the fact that my life is about the arrangement of words to create meaning.
It is interesting to me that I can now answer such questions with three simple words: I’m a writer.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an accomplishment that I can now say this without hesitation, awkwardness or second-guessing. I am a writer. It is a basic and evident truth, and, if I were to say anything else, it would be a lie of such magnitude people would be right in wanting to slap me upside the head. What the fuck am I if I am not a writer? However, I have been a writer since I was sixteen years old, almost half my lifetime. I have written millions of words. Millions. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to guess somewhere between four and five million, after looking at the several novels I have written and finished, the many novels I have redrafted, the many short stories I have completed and the many unfinished projects languishing on my computer (unfinished for a reason, most of them). It has taken me years to come to a point where I can say I’m a writer instead of I like to write or something similar that implies my words are a hobby, not my modus operandi. Yes, I have a course and a blog and completed projects such that it’s now hard to look at the evidence and say otherwise, but that evidence has existed for a long time.
I exist to write posts about writing, write hero narratives about queer, trans and non-binary people being awesome, write stories that normalise chronic pain and mental illness, write essays about my experience of being in the world. I’ve spent years developing the ability I now have. People tell me I’m good at it, but that’s not because of talent. That’s years of writing and reading, something that didn’t feel like effort at the time or doesn’t feel like effort in reflection, something driven by the motivation to make sense out of what I know. Writing, for me, is no more a choice than mental illness or queerness. It is who I am.
(I don’t think creatives are predisposed to mental illness. I think mental illness sufferers are predisposed to creativity as a way to make beautiful, glorious sense and purpose out of our pain. I think anyone who claims that creativity is linked to mental illness is missing the point in catastrophically epic fashion.)
I’m a writer. I’m not yet at the stage where I can say I’m an author, even though … well, I am.
I know why I struggle with this. Most of my work is self-published. Even though I’m all about self-publishing and small-press/indie publishing as an a legitimate avenue for authors (especially minority authors whose work isn’t well represented by extant mainstream/larger publishing houses or, in some cases, any publishing house at all), even though my writing on how to write better is slanted towards the indie author, even though I describe self-published authors like Sarah Diemer/Elora Bishop as authors … well, I still feel like being largely self-published takes away the legitimacy of that title. I am about self-publishing to the extent I have spoken about it in public venues, yet I have still internalised the stigma against self-publishing such that I feel it doesn’t make me a real author. I don’t feel that way about other authors, mind, so this says less about self-published authors than it does about me, and I dare say I’ll follow that up in therapy at some point, but the fact remains that I shouldn’t feel that way at all.
I feel less legitimate because I have been told I am less legitimate by reviewers, bloggers and writers who ascribe to the need to have one’s books produced by a publishing house. Somehow, I am supposed to look those speakers in the eye and actively disbelieve everyone who says self-publishing isn’t ‘real’ publishing and those books don’t count as a publishing credit. Somehow, I am supposed to take on the mantle of author and promote myself as such, because I need readers and I need to make some income from my words, but I need to do all this while nursing not only the usual self-doubt that comes from being a creative with mental illness but also the oft-voiced truth that my method of delivering my words to the world makes me not a real author.
Where the hell does anyone get off telling someone else that they are not real?
Writing, in and of itself, is hard, painstaking work. Being an author who does anything with their words beyond enter them into a Word document or a locked diary is even harder. We are asked to be honest, authentic, vulnerable, open to criticism, passionate, devoted; for minorities, just being ourselves in any quasi-revealing fashion can be dangerous. I’m risking the relationship I have with my family, as tenuous as it sometimes is, every time I post on this blog, and yet a blog is something that has become essential for anyone who wants to have a career in crafting words. We are asked to work for the joy of the work without the reliable financial recompense any non-creative talent can expect from work they also love doing. There’s nothing reasonable about that, but our work is devalued nevertheless. Doing all this as a minority with chronic pain and mental illnesses is tougher still, as if our passion weren’t difficult and uncertain enough! The people who most need the avenue of self-publishing – people who write books that don’t suit the current trends in genres that are ostensibly about their communities, people who write for audiences that are barely acknowledged to exist, people who need careful and judicious editors able to accommodate community-specific languages and terms without the stress of justifying or explaining these words and may be better off avoiding mainstream publishing houses altogether – are the ones who can least bear the disdain heaped upon us by those who least need self-publishing. Do we not have enough struggle just in the act of polishing our words, building an audience and paying the rent?
When people tell me that self-published authors aren’t ‘real’ authors, I hear ignorance, the execution of privilege and oppression.
I can identify this attitude as the privileged bullshit it is, yes, but that still doesn’t mean I am not hurt by it.
I am hurt by it because I can’t easily say three simple words: I’m an author.
I’m not sure how much it’ll take for me to feel like a real author, given that I have already been published in publications not mine. Perhaps when my novel is at a point to send to agents? Perhaps if it is accepted by an agent or publishing house? Perhaps when I can point to a book and say yes, this was published by someone who is in no way connected to me, because the fact that I know all the people who published my work, or that I even worked on those projects in an editorial, management or design capacity, must mean that I’m not truly an author? Perhaps when I have had several books published by people who are not me or related to me? Or will I reach that point and still feel like I have achieved everything I have through luck, happenstance, the people I know? That my success is something bestowed upon me by others, and only bestowed by people who see me as a friend first and a writer second, therefore it too lacks legitimacy? How many books will it take for that title to settle around my shoulders and not rub my skin?
I have held the position of honour, first or last piece in an anthology, in a few publications. It’s always been something bestowed on me by others. Yet the feeling that these people know me makes it hard for me to see those honours as legitimate, because there is none of that strange, absurd thing so valued by Western society – objectivity. Only when a stranger gives me that honour will I be ‘good enough’. I know that any of the people who volunteered my work for those positions will object to the idea that I did not deserve them. I know, in point of fact, that I am good enough in their eyes. I have still internalised the idea that one is only an author when one is awarded the honour of being published by people unconnected to me, even though the world doesn’t work that way, even though publishing doesn’t work that way, even though even white cishet male fantasy authors are published via persistence and contacts, even though I have gained most of the opportunities I have through people I’ve come to know.
We still prize this illusion of objectivity and distance, prize it such that we look down on people with the courage to see the value in their own words and take on the task of publishing and promoting them themselves. We belittle and diminish confident, brave, inspiring authors who let nothing stand between them and the need to bring their message to the world. We claim excuses like ‘lack of an editor’ to justify this ignorant position that a publishing house (something more easily reached by those with privilege) bestows value while we overlook the supposedly-edited horrors that emerge from small and large publishing houses alike. We tell minorities, who have a much tougher road to traditional publication, that self-publishing isn’t legitimate: we, subjectively, cannot determine the worth of our words. We need someone, objectively, to do that for us.
A neurotypical cishet male editor of fantasy is not going to look at my novel with anything close to objectivity.
Anyone who is not non-binary, in fact, is going to look at my non-binary characters and non-binary pronouns with nothing close to objectivity, because they live in a world where those characters and pronouns aren’t necessary. They can ‘objectively’ debate, on an academic level, whether or not said pronouns impact ease of reading without a thought for the emotions attached to the need for non-binary heroes experienced by non-binary writers and readers. They are distanced from emotion, yes, but somehow we in Western society have the idea that this distance means objectivity – that objectivity cannot, by definition, be experienced by those whom a work, a process or a law most impacts.
We forget the fact that someone who is not non-binary cannot, by definition, have anything meaningful to say on the non-binary experience. We forget that someone who is not non-binary is expressing an entirely subjective viewpoint, one based on ignorance and lack of knowledge, one based on a binary they cannot have examined and confronted in the same way as someone of a non-binary gender. What possible objectivity can there be in ignorance?
There is no such thing as objectivity, yet we believe in this myth so much we tell authors that, unless someone else confirms the awesomeness of their work, they are not legitimate authors if they publish and market it themselves.
There’s nothing objective about the publishing industry. Books are published based on a series of subjective decisions about what sells. Writing quality and topic may or may not factor into such a decision, but publishing houses are going to take a less-well-written book that has the potential to sell hundreds or thousands of copies over a well-written book that might sell only twenty or thirty. This subjective decision will have a different result for every publishing house: what sells at one will bomb at another. Our worth is determined, most of the time, through our ability to create works that sell, yet we still think such decisions are objective. We still treat this as truth: a publishing house or publication with a big-name magazine or blog is the difference between an author and a writer.
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t many, many horribly written, edited and designed self-published books. Hell, they’re the reason I wrote my last post. There’s just as many books suffering the same problems that hail from small and large presses, though. I have seen unforgivable text design failures in books from Penguin or Harper Collins. Editors on just about any publication don’t have enough time to do the job they wish, thanks be to the devaluation of the written word*. Sure, my books contain errors, but so too does any other book, and I at least am able to put in the time to make sure my works meet the minimum design standards as allowed by its format – no orphaned half words, no horrific hyphenations, no combination of indents-and-space-after in an ebook file. Someone who assumes that self-publishing by definition means someone who isn’t good enough to get a publisher is ignoring the fact that a self-published author with even a little eye for detail and some editorial and design skills, or a willingness to learn these things, can invest the time to create a book as good as or better than a small or large publisher. I know my books don’t contain orphaned half-words or horrific hyphenations, all things I’ve seen in Penguin’s print oeuvre.
(* I think this is also due to the pervasive idea that a digital book should cost far less than a print book, never mind the fact that ink and paper are not the most expensive components of the cost of a mass-market book. Readers expect to pay much less than the cost of ink and paper allows for, but since authors, designers, artists, proofreaders, editors, marketers and agents still need to be paid, never mind the rest of any publishing house’s support staff and the vendors that sell the ebook, costs need to be cut somewhere. Editing, proofreading and interior text design are, most often, the services restricted in order to make selling a book to fit readers’ expectations of price viable. Books aren’t getting anything close to the kind of editing offered fifteen years ago. Publishers can’t afford it.)
I want to submit my novel to an agent and a mainstream publisher because I want it in libraries and on shelves in bookstores – because I want it in the mainstream fantasy section so non-binary people can readily find a book about heroes like us. I am afraid, though, that the end result, the paperback book I hold in my hands, will be riddled with all the faults I avoid in my own work because the editors, proofreaders and text designers won’t have the time to do the job the way I’d do it. I am legitimately afraid, based on the faults I see day after day in everything from fantasy novels to the Age, that someone who is not me won’t create a book as well as I can … and that, every time I look at my novel, I’ll die a little inside from faults that will be included by people who aren’t paid enough to do the job the way I wish.
If I can do it better, why shouldn’t I?
Am I really less an author because I created my books myself? Am I less an author, knowing what I do about both the execution of privilege and the state of the publishing industry?
The answer should be no, of course not.
The answer coiled in my gut is still yes, I’m not an author yet.
I have been asked if I would compile my future writing posts into a book on writing, based on the fact that I am an author that knows something about writing and can communicate this to others. The answer I know I shouldn’t speak aloud is but I’m not an author yet, so what authority do I have to write a book about writing? Never mind that I’m currently engaged to teach writing, design and production. Never mind that I’ve spoken about these things to classrooms. Never mind that I’ve written and produced several publications by this point. Never mind that I’m good at what I do. Never mind that I said yes, because if I’m going to blog about this there’s no reason not to edit, slap on a cover and create an ebook.
There’s still that doubt lurking underneath: I’m not really an author. I’m pretending to be something I’m not.
I know that every author alive feels that doubt. I know we all feel like pretenders. This is why we don’t get to to tell anyone, ever, that they’re not ‘really’ an author or ‘really’ published. We have enough doubt to be going on with. Minority creatives have more than enough doubt, challenge and difficulty to be going on with. Why do we need to heap more doubt on someone already struggling (and we are all struggling, even those who appear otherwise) with the reality of an industry that requires vulnerability and risk for very little reward?
It’s hard enough to stand up and say I’m a writer in a world that doesn’t encourage writing as a meaningful profession. Don’t make it harder for me to take the next frightening step and declare myself an author.
By the way. If you put fingers to keyboard or pen to page? If you plot out stories? If you make some active effort to write on a regular or semi-regular basis? You are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve finished five first drafts, one or none. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written five million words or five thousand. It doesn’t matter if you’re one year or five years away from having a polished first manuscript. It doesn’t matter if you write diary entries, books or blog posts. You are a writer, and you are allowed to declare that truth. Accomplishment doesn’t make us writers. A passion for words does.
I’d like to think that the difference between being a writer and an author, aside from the general (screenwriters, journalists and poets are writers) is the availability of one’s prose: if your work has ever been made available for others to read, you are an author. I’d like to see a world where we all, regardless of our so-called publishing status, reclaim that word such that we can state with confidence to the publishing purists that we are authors.
Even if it’s just for the selfish reason that I could, without guilt or doubt, call myself an author.