Defending Your Writing to Scientists, Physicists... And Your Parents
By Liz Breen
I come from a family of productive professionals – doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, even an actuary or two. They wear tidy shirts with pressed collars. They have Bluetooths hooked to their ears and have mastered the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk. Lastly, they have these cool things called “salaries” and “401k plans,” both of which I think have something to do with Game of Thrones.
Luckily, my family doesn’t ridicule me when I say, “I am a writer.” (Or if they do, they are polite enough to do it behind my back.) However, there have been many conversations with the aforementioned three-piece-suit-wearing, multiple-degree-holding crowd that have gone something like this:
“Oh, you’re a writer? I should’ve figured from the flannel and the thick-rimmed, non-prescription glasses. Are you any good?”
“I think I’m pretty good, yeah.”
“Anything I might have read?”
“What literary magazines do you read?”
“Just the New Yorker.”
“… Then, no.”
“Okay, so you’re not a writer… You’re more of a ‘writer’.”
At one point, conversations like this would have caused me to make like Ernest Hemingway and drink. Now, though, I have developed enough confidence (or an unhealthy sense of grandeur) to look said person in the eye and say, “What I do is more important than what you do.”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold the train, you Generation Y egomaniac. What if I need someone to do my taxes or perform a prostate exam? I’m sure not hiring you!” To that I say, “Please. Please don’t hire me.” I guess what I really meant to say to my hypothetical conversation partner was, “You may not see the role of the writer as important, but history does.”
My first semester in undergrad as a film and television major (Boo! Hiss! The books are always better!), my professor asked us to write an essay answering the question, “Why are films and TV shows important?” I answered, “Humans as a species have only a few basic needs: food, water, shelter, love and a good story.” I cited cave paintings, ancient man’s attempt to immortalize his experiences, and travelling minstrels, those tasked with taking stories to the illiterate masses. I pointed out that stories played a key role in both artistic and societal development, even before the invention of the written word or printing press. Although some may lament on the death of literature as they see it, the story is alive and well, with reality television, the expansive blogosphere, even that Facebook stalking that you won’t admit that you’re doing. People need stories. What is up for debate is the quality of today’s stories compared to even fifty years ago, and although I don’t know where I stand in that argument, I know that it is my fullest intent to only contribute to the story pool in a positive manner. In response to the essay, my professor wrote, “A little lofty, Ms. Breen, but well argued.” It may not surprise you to know that I disagreed with his comment (The first part. The last bit was spot on).
In fact, most recently, I had author Jonathan Gottschall come to my defense with his book The Storytelling Animal in which he argues that people do not only crave fiction, but that perhaps developed this craving as an evolutionary trait. Many animals have the ability to imagine, but humans are the only creatures able to craft fiction. Stories are not just for children, Gottschall says, rather they help humans make sense of the world’s most incomprehensible elements -- the origin of our very being, what happens after death, even how to deal with heartbreak. (Speaking of heartbreak, I still haven’t seen a dime in royalties from Gottschall…)
So what’s even the point of this thing? (I knew I’d get to it eventually.) Writing is an important job. (Can also be read as: What YOU are doing is important.) It isn’t about supplying genre books for planes and rainy vacation days or about sheer amusement. Stories help people and contribute to the wellbeing of society, albeit in a less concrete way than a chiropractor or CPA, but not in a less valuable way. When introducing myself, I cite my occupation as writer, not because that is where I earn my living, but because that is how I occupy my time. Most of the time, this interests people. (Are writers really as crazy/moody/suicidal as people say? Do you find that you lack basic social skills, like most writers?) In the rare case that it does not, that it causes an eye roll or the need for justification, to state my rank on the New York Times Bestsellers List, I just say this:
“Oh, you’re a biomedical engineer? That’s cool. The character in my last short story was a biomedical engineer. He was a real dick.”
Liz Breen is a con artist yet to be stopped. She finagled her way onto both Antiques Roadshow and CONAN on TBS before ultimately landing back in Boston at WGBH. She was a semifinalist in the 2011 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition and lied about being interesting in order to be featured in The Huffington Post and BostInnovation. When not writing, she tweets (@beinglizbreen), blogs (HAHAJK.com, YourIndustryInsider.com, InParenthesesMag.com) and watches Teen Mom.
Liz Breen is a freelance writer and producer who has worked for productions such as CONAN, WordGirl and Phantom Gourmet. She is also an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a writing instructor at Cambridge Center for Adult Education; her writing has been featured in Columbia's Catch & Release, Postcard Shorts and Cleaver Magazine. In her free time, Liz enjoys looking at dogs available for adoption. You can find her on the web at lizbreen.com or on Twitter @beinglizbreen.See other articles by Liz Breen