What is a writer?
Guest of Honor Speech
Wiscon, May 2001
Way back then, in the mid-Eighties, I was attending V-Con, a Canadian SF Con taking place in Vancouver — I think it was there ; anyway, it was an anglophone convention. There was a panel precisely on another version of this question, “What is a professional writer?” with very few Canadian writers (there were not so many considered of Stature then) and The Important American Guest, Fred Pohl. Who told us in no uncertain terms that a Professional writer was a writer who had an Agent, who published many Books and above all, who made Money with his writing. Candas Dorsey and I were in the audience, seething. Sotto voice, delinquently, we agreed that for us, a true writer was someone who had organized her or his life in order to write, period.
Now, some fifteen years later, I still agree with us, of course. Making choices in one’s life, accepting the consequences of those choices and living with them day in day out, yes. In another universe, I am a Professor at some French University, or in Chicoutimi, or elsewhere ; I teach Literature, I publish learned, opaque articles, I have a car, I vacation in Cancun, Greece or wherever, I worry about having enough money for my retirement. I do have vacations and reasonable prospects of retirement, I mean. And I have never written a word, writing having been a fad of my silly youth.
In this other universe, as I see it from this one, and as far as I (only I) am concerned, I am dead.
A writer is someone who’s organized her life in order to write.
But is it not potentially the same for any artist who is passionate about what she’s doing ? And not only for any artist but for anyone who is passionate etc. ?
What is a writer?
A month ago, I finished meeting my students for their end-of-semester evaluation and grading, three days in a row. For I do teach — again, after eleven years, at the University in Chicoutimi ; not as a professor but still as a temp, although teaching that one and only course, “Creative Writing”, might well become permanent. It is not a workshop for aspiring writers, it is not even a Creative Writing course (an expression which feels terminally weird to me) ; no, it is a course on Creative Writing, through assisted practice, an obligatory requirement of their cursus. Thirty-six twentysomethings, two or three of which do want to write, perhaps, some of which have never written a personal line in their life, most of which have been forced to write three pages stories in three hours in school (with original, surprise endings, to boot !) — and none of which have a clue. They’re so lost they don’t even have questions, can you imagine that ? Well, after teaching that course twice already, I have had time to come to terms with it. And in a sense, it is a good thing, because mostly what I have about writing is questions, and not many answers. If I have any, they are of the biodegradable kind, subject to change without much notice.
Still, one answer which did coalesce — for the time being — while I was thrashing the darn thing out with my students is this :
A writer is not someone who has ideas, imagination, a unique point of view on the world or whatever. These, everyone has. A writer is someone who has a certain kind of relationship with words — and not the written word only, but all words. Someone who loves words, the very concept of words, who loves their forms, sounds, rhythms, history, mutable meanings. Someone for whom words are not merely tools but exists in their own right, as living beings. But even more than that, it is someone who, through some quirk of her circumstances, has come to channel her whole being-in-the-world through words, and more specifically, stories. Someone who tells herself stories all the time, who feels, an impulse, a desire, a need, an obsession, a perversion, to tell stories ; that is, someone for whom the whole universe is a story, and herself a part in it, engaged in a constant dialogue with it, at once telling it and being told. Not for “money, fame and the love of women”, as Balzac said — women or men, same thing, that deep impulse to tell needs neither others’ love or acknowledgement, it just needs to be. It is there.