So You’re a Writer, Huh?

They say: The stereotypical writer hangs out at Starbucks during the week, speaking to no one but the barista while there. At night, he drinks heavily, alone and in his one room flat. As a general rule, he only bathes if he thinks he has a girlfriend and if he thinks she might come over. He’s overweight, though he might have some fitness equipment he stubs his toe on now and again. He gets along with his mother, though she’s a hen (she sends him money), but he detests his father, who tells him to get a real job. He has little to no religion, but does have a dog. If he is a woman, he has five cats. Even if he’s never been to a Star Wars Convention, he considers it, recognizing he needs friends, social contacts, and maybe a mask.

As stereotypes go, writers don’t fare well — not even when we control the image. Consider how many novel and filmic depictions of writers showcase us as slovenly and mildly anti-social. It’s as though real world writers don’t believe the audience will believe any other model of who we are. Or maybe it’s a classic example of making fun of ourselves in order to be accepted. Our Hollywood versions are loveable, if quirky and misunderstood: They deserve to win the hearts of beautiful people, a thing that happens just before the publishing contract comes through. Is this evidence of wishful thinking? Or of reality? Pshaw. Who would ever believe that could be reality.

I’ve always had the feeling that writers are considered “other” by the rest of the world, somewhere on the level of little blue Martians or people who speak to ghosts. I decided at the age of four to become a writer, but I learned by the time I was fourteen that it isn’t something you tell people out loud or they start sniffing you to see if you are wearing deodorant.

On another blog, I told the story of a kid in our ward who made the mistake of saying out loud that he will become a writer. A few days after his pronouncement, I got a phone call from one of the youth leaders, asking me to do a Career Night on the profession of writing. When that evening rolled around, the writer kid was grounded — of course for anti-social behavior — and a very embarrassed youth leader pulled me aside. He explained that, since the event was planned to dissuade this particular kid from becoming a writer, they’d like to cancel my presentation and reschedule for another night. Yep. I was called in to be the bad example. You bet I agreed to the cancellation. The boys played hoops, and I took the writer kid under my wing. Unfortunately, he has since moved, but my point is, writers don’t get much respect from the “responsible people” of the world. Lots of us choose to remain closeted rather than face up to our public image.

I’m no longer a closeted writer, but to this day, when people ask what I do, I still don’t rush to tell them I’m a writer. I liked it when I could say, “I’m a teacher,” even though I spent less time teaching than writing. But I recently quit my teaching gig in order to write more. Good-bye to the easy answer. I could say I’m a homemaker, but that isn’t true. I’m a lousy homemaker. I hate homemaking. I do only what I have to do to keep the family clean and healthy. Of late, when people ask me what I “do,” I respond that I’m a Trophy Wife, which makes people laugh, good-naturedly, I hope. After hearing something as ridiculous as Lisa Downing, Trophy Wife, hearing Lisa Downing, Writer goes down easier. Apparently, creating art with words is still more respectable than living to look good.

It’s hard to beat any stereotype, I suppose, especially when the generalizations are founded on truth. Writers are often dorks. Writers are sometimes insanely passionate. Writers are dreamers. Writers can be distracted from the daily routine. Writers often do sit on their rear ends more than is healthy. And there is no denying that a bag of Cheetos has a lot more inspiration in it than a bowl of cottage cheese. But we don’t all keep Starbucks in business. Many of us consider diet Coke our beverage of addiction. I, personally, don’t own either a dog or a cat. I like my parents, and I bathe every day.

It’s also true that I don’t really make any money at my profession. Now and then enough to take the family out for a nice meal. Maybe the contract will come through and I’ll become as respectable as your average wage earner. Maybe it won’t.

But go ahead. Ask me what I “do” and just this once, in this place where writers talk to one another, I’ll answer you truthfully. As presumptuous as it sounds, what I do is make art. I make entertainment. I make escape. I make people happy. I make people think. I make new worlds with keystrokes as my only tools. All of this I do to help fulfill the measure of my creation. It’s nothing much really. But thank you for asking.

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4 Responses to So You’re a Writer, Huh?

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to serve as someone’s negative example about being a writer. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to talk about what being a writer is like for a group of supposedly impressionable youth, either…

    Love your answer about being a trophy wife, and how that makes being a writer easier to swallow.

    On a more serious note: I think the reaction you get depends in part on the specific makeup of the ward where you live. I’ve been fortunate (so far at least) to live mostly in wards where being a writer is respected. Or if not, they’re at least polite enough not to let me know…

  2. I’ve generally been accepted as a writer and more often been asked to help a young person interested in writing learn the “ropes” than being held up as a bad example. Not since high school have I heard that old cliche that a writer has to live in an attic, drink whiskey, and suffer for his/her art. Perhaps its the audience I write for.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Glad to hear it Jennie. That’s just never been my experience. It may be audience, since I write lit fic and no one I know reads it. Even in my writing group. I’m the only lit fic person. When the leader of the group posted on our websites the kind of lit we all write and a definition of each, she used words like “slow and uneventful” for lit fic. I wish I’d kept her original definition bc it was so insulting. Needless to say, it didn’t stand. I really felt bad for the kid they set out to dissuade because he’s actually good. He’s not teachable yet, but the raw ability is there.

  4. Ross writes from Florida says:

    Great article! I consider myself more of a “starving writer.” I guess it’s like being a “hobby farmers;” a lot more time, energy, and resources invested than returns. So I do other things. I like to look at it as new “sources” for stories. I love being a writer. The only time I don’t take bathes is when the water is cut-off for not paying the bill. Can’t afford the electric bill, much less liquor. No cats, dogs, they’re food competitors. I enjoy driving past Starbucks, if I have enough for gas(now days that’s getting questionable). I guess I could stereo-typed. I was born in poor and humbling beginnings. . . I still have almost all of it. Maybe I need to rethink that. . .

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