Lately it seems everywhere I look I am confronted by books beginning with “On Writing”.
Writers of renown have all taken their turn at illustrating their version of the writing life. These books, part anecdote, part biography, part philosophy, have all been engaging reads full of thought-provoking selections seemingly meant to inspire the writer to be.
I’ve enjoyed them all because they’ve delivered on their promise. They discuss writing. But they always leave a hole behind.
One of the things I’ve wrestled with over the years is the very human concept of classification. We crave it. We search relentlessly for it. We are addicted. I would say that technology has further fueled our desire to classify, define and create increasingly complex categories. An interesting trend I see in social media and the subsequent power to personalize advertising has been the ability to create niche markets. What was once an outlier has become the greatest consumer.
Is it good? Is it bad? Meh? I can’t make that judgment. the machine running that thing existed way before my time and will be around far longer after I say my goodbyes. But what I’ve wrestled with is the definition of writer.
I want to clarify the difference between author and writer. An author has been published through curated channels. A writer is something much more complex.
Who is a writer?
When do we become writers?
Am I a writer?
Who defines when a person can claim distinction?
A few years ago I was innocently working as a clerk selling animal feeds and supplies. The work was simple and engaging but the greatest parts of the job were my fellow employees and the customers. My hometown is rural, nestled quietly among sprawling forests full of wild bear, wolves, and deer. The sacred date is November 15th. The usual temperature sits around 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the landscape is painted white with freshly fallen snow. It is the beginning of the two weeks called deer season.
The place I worked sold corn, America’s commodity. No.2, field grade, hard, crunchy, and a favorite of the grazing herds of white-tailed creatures. Who would turn away from piles of feed littered all over the place? Free food ripe for the taking.
One late October day a fellow came in dressed in full camo and the classic orange stormy kromer. His face was marked by hard lines from an outdoor lifestyle and too much tobacco. He approached the counter.
“Nine fifty-four,” I replied.
He leaned in close, stale cigarette breathe heavy as he said, “You a hunter?” He slid a ten across.
I took the bill and made change. “I’ve hunted…”
“You’re not a hunter.” He pushed off the counter. “I’ve hunted every year for forty-three years.”
“You’re not a real hunter,” he told me.
“I guess not.”
He appeared proud of his distinction. As well he should be. I could hear it in his tone, his gestures. He was clearly greater than me.
I’ve thought far too much about that episode. I’ve tried to reconcile within me the sense of definition, of classification. I can’t call myself that thing.
Maybe it’s fear. Perhaps I don’t want the pressure that goes with claiming a title. Once claimed, it must be defended. I guess it means I’m not up to the task.
But it won’t stop me. Every day I write.
I write because I am compelled to put words on the page.
I write because it helps me learn.
I write because seeing notebooks fill with sprawling script fills me with pleasure.
I write because I just don’t know any better.
I guess saying these things and rejecting the title projects a “holier than thou” attitude. It isn’t my intent. Grappling with definitions and the like has been a weakness my entire life. There will always be someone better, smarter, faster. And that is fine. They inspire to try harder. Life isn’t a competition but a little can make us better. I don’t know much but the little I do know is that adopting this attitude helps me approach life the best way I know.