Monday, 3 May 2010

You're An Artist If You Say You Are

When can you claim to be a writer, or a philosopher or a lawyer? Well, the last one is easy: pass your LLB and then either join the Law Society (Solicitors) or get called to the Bar (Barristers). How about philosophers? Well, when I was a lad, some people called themselves "professional philosophers", but they were professional teachers of philosophy (many of whom got their start in it as a reward for working at Bletchley during WW2, but nobody talked about that for a long time). Most of the big name philosophers had day jobs - Descartes as a gambler, Spinoza as a watchmaker, Locke and Hume as private secretaries, Berkeley was a Bishop, Wittgenstein was only an academic for the second half of his life, and so on. I'm a philosopher and always have been, but it's not my day job. How about writers?

Well, the Society of Authors requires you to have had one full-length work published or performed not at your expense or a dozen occasional articles published. Seems minimal enough. So what's the status of someone who is writing and working hard to get their first commercial publication or performance? Are they a delusional wannabe, deserving only of secret sniggers until blessed by publication? I used to think so, but then I was a very fucked-up young man. To adapt a remark of George V Higgins',  you have more opportunities of making a living as an MP than as a writer of fiction. Most writers have day jobs, usually as journalists or academics. Are they "Sunday writers", mere dilettantes, compared to John Le Carre or John Grisham? I say no.

There's a lovely line in one of my favourite movies, Dinner Rush: the obnoxious art critic tells Summer Phoenix's portrait-painting waitress "You're an artist if you say you are, you're a successful artist..." "If he says you are" chimes in someone in the party. I thought a lot about that line and finally decided it's true. No-one out there gets to decide who or what you are - with the exception of a handful of occupations which are legislatively-controlled (policeman, accountant, truck driver etc). They do get to decide if you can make a living doing what you want to do, because that's the market. You're a writer because you write stories or articles, you consciously develop your technique and research, you have a vision of what kind of work you want to do and from time to time you venture out into the world to get published or produced. It's that last bit I need to work on.

Which is an improvement. I used to ask other people if they "thought I could write". Well, now I know I can. I know hack writing when I read it or see it and I know I'm not a hack. If you don't like what I write about, well, there's a lot of stuff I wouldn't read either, but that doesn't mean the people who produce it aren't writers. I don't need someone else to tell me I can write. What I do need is someone to help produce my work.

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