Captain Underpants and Cats in Hats
14 October 2010
November is National Novel Writing Month
25 October 2010

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

t kennedy photo

Today’s guest blogger is Thomas E. Kennedy, author of In the Company of Angels, will be speaking at the Library on Wednesday, October 20th at 19h30.

When I was 17-years-old, I decided that all I wanted to do in life was be a writer.  This was after having read a great many books over an intense two-year period, and the decision came as an epiphany after a story by Katherine Mansfield by which I was powerfully affected.

Twenty years would pass from the evening I made that conscious decision to the day I sold my first short story.  During those twenty years, I was encouraged – by professors, by editors, by a  grant for a novel-in-progress.  I even had an agent representing me.  But, as the saying goes, no cigar.

Those were difficult years – decades actually, two of them.  I had staked everything on what I thought was my ability to write, my talent, and it was not panning out.   I even tried to quit and sold all my books to a second-hand bookshop to underline my decision to quit, but I couldn’t quit.   I began to buy my books back from the shop at considerably more than I had received for them.

Then, after twenty years of trying, in 1981, I sold a story entitled “The Sins of Generals” for twenty dollars to a literary journal.   I was, of course, ecstatic, but the sale was also anticlimactic.  Could I even call myself a writer?  The author of a single story which took me twenty years to learn to write?

With that twenty dollars, I went into a bar in Montpelier, Vermont, where I was studying and where I knew that writers hung around.  I spotted a table where two “real” writers sat – Andre Dubus (the short-story master and father of Andre Dubus III, now a very successful novelist) and Gordon Weaver.  I approached them and told them that in my pocket was twenty dollars that I had been paid for my first published story and asked if they would do me the honor of drinking it up with me.  (In the ‘80s twenty dollars bought considerably more drinks than it does today.)  They kindly accepted.

Both of them ultimately became my friends, but one of the things I most remember about that evening was asking Gordon Weaver when he first felt comfortable calling himself a writer.  I had published one story; he had published a hundred, and fourteen books.  Clearly he was a writer.   Could I call myself a writer? I asked him.

He said, and I have never forgotten this, “A writer is someone who writes.  A serious writer is someone for whom writing is the most serious activity he or she knows.  The amount of publication, money, and fame a writer receives – these are all extra-literary factors.”

He had given me permission to call myself a writer.  Over the next twenty-five years, I published twenty-five books and hundreds of stories, essays, poems and translations, but during those first twenty years, I was ashamed to call myself or even think of myself as a writer.  He gave me the courage to realize that I was indeed a writer, a serious writer for whom writing is a serious matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *