Writers get no respect

I’m writing a book. You’re writing a book, too? I’m not surprised. It seems that everyone and their uncle has written, is writing, or wants to write, a book. I say good luck to all of you. Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I understand how hard it really is to do. I’ll hazard a guess that most writer-wannabes will never get farther than, “It was a dark and stormy night,” even though they could, if they could just find the time.

I’ve worked with words my entire adult life. As a marketing person I’ve written all kinds of things; web pages, brochures, white papers and press releases. I’ve compressed countless pages into PowerPoint presentations, and incorporated oodles of questions into FAQs. I’ve edited technical manuals and books. Why, back in the day, I even wrote copy for print ads (remember when software was advertised in magazines?). These activities never seemed to increase my cachet with upper management though. Why? My observation is that business people (in high tech) don’t view the ability to write as a talent. At best, it’s a commodity service. After all, they can write. They could have done that ad, press release, brochure, what-have-you, if they had to. You learn how to write at a young age, there’s really nothing to it.

I contend that artists don’t have this problem. Most of us readily acknowledge our artistic limitations. I would never claim that my ability to draw a stick figure puts me in the same league as Picasso (although some of his stuff is downright childish). If your special talent involves drawing, painting, or designing with Illustrator, you’re probably consistently praised for your work. I always found it particularly galling when I’d present a finished piece, something that incorporated my copy and the designer’s artwork, to the boss, who would look it over and say, “Looks good.” Looks good? Did you read any of the words?

If they did read the piece at some point in the process, it was inevitable that they would spend time re-writing it. These were important people, with lots of important things to do, who still, apparently, had time to spare to do a quick rewrite. On one memorable occasion, I used the word ‘massive’ in a press release. The CEO and I went round and round in an email exchange arguing the relative merits of that word. I finally wrote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Massive is the word I want to use there.” His response, “Oh, okay.” He just liked to dust it up with the writer – because he could.

Software developers never have this problem. One thing that high tech business honchos know is that they don’t know how to write code. I should have listened to my mother and learned how to program. Then if I said, “I’m writing a software program,” the response would be, “Yeah? How about those Red Sox?”


8 responses to “Writers get no respect

  1. I feel your pain, Judy. In fact, I could have written this . Just kidding. But it does remind me of way back when, early in one of my earlier careers, just out of grad school and working at the National Archives, I toured the storage area where Bendix had temporary custody of a lot of National Archives materials because they continually used the documents (blueprints etc.) in their work for various government agencies.
    After I turned in my report, my boss, a historian, said, “This is great. Did you ever think about doing something more intellectual?” The rest of the technical staff liked to die laughing when I repeated this. Most of the staff thought that conservation staff basically did housekeeping tasks with the stuff, putting us on par with the janitorial staff. Both the janitors and my former profession have come up in the world’s eyes — in many institutions, the conservation staff is considered on par with facilities staff. Both have complicated jobs — only the ignorant think otherwise!

  2. Well put!
    I’m not currently, nor will I ever write a book. I’m too scared. I really admire you for going for it!!

    • In the long ago (say fity or sixty years) Irish tradition, hospitality to strangers was a paramount virtue (sort of the same as Islamist traditions). No one refused food or shelter to a road traveler caught out – no one. There was, of course, a quid pro quo: the traveler was expected to provide, beyond news of other venues, a story. And, it had damn well be a pretty good one.
      So – for Stacy – who will never write a book – I invite you into this tale:
      Moira, Take this to y0ur Gran; and, do it quick, she needs it.
      Must I, Mum?
      Yes. None of your backtalk now, mind you ‘r I’ll get my stick.
      Unterrified by threats of personal violence like most Irish kids, Moira shrugged that off, saying: Right you are Mum and I do love Gran dearly. Give me the basket and I’m off.
      And she was. On a walk that we, today, would never consider. Better to just h op in the car. Back then, a twelve year old would think nothing of walking 15 miles to see her Gran – five hours tops. Stay overnight. Have a good breakfast at dawn and be home for lunch at noon. (and the English wonder how the Irish and the IRA could fight them for over 1400 years – TRUE).
      So off Moira went – and a fine day it was; what with the high white puffs, the endless blue sky and, rarest of all, endless sunshine. She practically skipped the first few hours.
      Until it all went wrong; yet another constant in the Irish scheme of things.
      The puffies turned into darkies. The sunshine into stinging nettles of wind driven rain and tiny icy things.
      Cold, wet, and frightened Moira practically ran down the road to Gran’s. And the weather beat on. Sky darkening. Temperature dropping. Where, oh where, could she find relief. And then she saw it. Not 200 yards ahead and up a wee hill – wee for her mind you, not us – a light in the window of a thatched roof cottage. Oh. Thank God. (and a similar sentiment in Irish albeit one to several gods the priest would beat her for mentioning).
      To the door Moira hastened. Knocked. It was thrown open and she was ushered inside before her heart could beat twice. Ushered in by a bent woman much older than Gran. And speaking the oldest Irish Moira had ever heard. She could barely follow but no matter, the ritual was clear.
      The closest approximation, in older English, to what the old woman said (there is absolutely no approximation in American English), was this:
      Come’n in darlin’; ach – you’re cold and wet. Here, tak’n this blank’t; wrap it about ya. H’r sit by the fire till y’r stmin’ while I fetch y’ some broth ‘n a biscuit. And so it was done. And so Moira until the shivers stopped, her clothes were merrily steaming and her belly was full of the nice broth and bread. Then, and only then, as custom demanded, she let her relief and pleasure expand inside her, and gave the old women the Irish smile men have killed for. And the woman nodded – accepted the tribute – and said:
      Well, chuisle mo chroi, have y’ a story for me.
      All the wet and chill lived again in the core of Moira’s being. She had no story. She was not well traveled. She’d never been caught out before.
      Na, Maimeó, ‘ve na story.
      With that the old woman flew into a rage – searching for her cane she shouted “Ya’ve taken me broth; taken me bread, taken me fire ‘nd y’ve na got a story for me. Where’s that stick. Finding it she thrashed it about and as Moira fled out the door she screamed ‘nd dinna cum back till’n y’ve got a story. How y’v been raised I dinna ken.
      Down the hill, Moira bolted. Skipping over mud and holes and rocks as though one of her ancestors had been a goat. Once to the road she turned unerringly towards Gran’s, the shorter of the ways to go, and off she flew – legs moving as though the banshee were on her – which, she believed, was actually the case.
      And so she careened, heedless of driving rain, stunning thunder, blinding lightning – longer and further than your 12 year old cailín (colleen) could encompass. Careened until:
      Moira simply could not move an inch. The air was quiet. Warm. Dry. And she could see as though in that filmy light of early dawn through the perpetual mists of daybreak. And she was loved. Unquestioned. Loved. Home in a place that gave her life; home in a place that would gently receive her bones; home in a the English canna’ ever take. Home. Loved.
      Moira didn’t even realize her eyes were closed but she opened them nonetheless. There was nothing at all remarkable about the fire. Nothing noteworthy about the juicy lamb turning slowly on the spit. And, certainly, not a thing out of place with the little man turning the spit. Wee people were a matter of course; the Irish course.
      Ay Moira, chuisle mo chroi, ‘n so glad I am to have y’ here to share me bit of mutton.Here you take the spit and give it a turn. What else to do? Moira turned the spit while the little man went on and on in Irish near as old as the Earth itself and Moira dinna understand a word and her whole being knew exactly what it meant, who he was, who she was – who the Irish are. And she turned the spit.
      Turned it ’til, in a great rush of everything happening at once, very Irish that – and still common in the pubs, albeit somewhat late in the evening — ’til in that great rush the mutton leapt off the fire, plucked out the spit, and ran screamin’ Hot Hot I’m burning, I’m burning – off into the darkness ’til nothing could be heard of it. The little man sparkled as he and the fire disappeared and, in the enchanting susurration of an Irish evening cloaked Moira as the summer moon rose o’er the ancient hummocks of long ago mountains and Carrantuohill began to shine in the glow – the last words of the little man, sounding as from the deep passage between herenow and eternity rang inside her – Ná dearmad riamh – Never Forget. And she never would.
      Laughing in the face of it all, Moira flounced her skirts, her hair, her entirely and ran like the wind back up the road, up the hill faster than any goat could, and burst through the door shouting:
      Y’ll ne’er believe wha’ jus’ happn’d ta me.
      Ach – come on in, sit down darling while I fetch us some tea and ya kin tell all about it.
      And she did. And Moira did. And the Irish do.
      – – –
      So, Stacey, it seems all ya need is a bit of a story, eh. I’m sure ya already have one – that or you’ll get one soon enough. Just post the little ditty here and we’ll all have some tea (Long Island or otherwise).

      TTFN – the little old man.

  3. Yes, so frustrating. Someone who doesn’t know what good writing is can’t appreciate good writing. A good software program runs, so they know (think) it’s good (even if in reality it’s inelegant).

    I know some designers who suffer the same problem too…everyone seems to have an idea of what might look good but sometimes what they request looks awful–and they don’t realize it.
    It’s really not all in the eye of the beholder, there are some standards!

    Work involving nurturing gets the same bad rap. “Everyone has kids or parents, how hard is it to run a daycare/teach children/provide quality elder care.” Very, very hard!

  4. I feel your frustration. As for artists, plenty of people try who aren’t in league with Picasso, and there are places for them even if it isn’t museums. Maybe it’s just a hobby.

    “It’s a dark and stormy night.” Ha – so cliche!

    I keep reading persistence is the biggest indicator of success, provided there’s some talent.

  5. I know of one uncle who’s not writing a book, ME.

    However if you’d like to try, you might paste my e-mails together for a fascinating narrative.

    Uncle EEYORE

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