Sunday, January 29, 2017

In which I take one of those 60's ladies magazine-style quizzes for the edifiation of all

I remember back when the highly unscientific quiz posing as a very scientific quiz was a staple of the ladies' magazines by the checkouts in stores. It seems to me a couple of 70's or 80's sitcoms used the prop of a wife taking one of those quizzes (usually about her relationship to her lout of a husband) and seeing how bad she had it as a way to drive the plot for 22 minutes. In that spirit, I now publicly take the 12-question quiz posed by former Bartleby Snopes editor Nathaniel Tower, "12 Signs You Aren't Really a Writer." May it lead to as much whimsy as a classic episode of The Ropers.  

Here we go:

1. You always force yourself to think about ideas to write about

What Nathaniel says: It’s fine to think about writing, but take a fucking break once in a while. If you’re always forcing it, then it isn’t real. Real writers don’t spend every waking moment straining to find things to write about.

Jake's answer:  The last sign in this survey is going to suggest the opposite: that if you think you don't have enough experiences for a story, you're lost. Writing primers are always saying that everybody has enough experience for a story, that a story can come from any little scrap of life. This is one of those times when one can utter two similar phrases, but only one is true. "A story can come from anywhere" is true, but "A story can come from everywhere" isn't. Maybe one sign of maturation is the ability to let some ideas go if they don't seem to be yielding anything after a while.

Conclusion: Point me. 1-0 I'm a writer.

2. Criticism hurts your feelings

What Nathaniel says: Sure, a bad review of what you thought was your career-defining work will get you down, but if you can’t take any criticism, then you aren’t really a writer. This is especially true of constructive criticism. If you’re the type who thinks every little critique is an attack on your skills as a writer, then a writer you are not.

What Jake says: I take criticism very hard. It helps that now I'm a reader who helps decide what we keep and don't keep. I realize the tough odds I'm up against and how often very good stories get rejected. But that doesn't always make me feel better. Sometimes, it makes me feel worse to think that I'm just another guy on the scrap-heap of almost-good-enough. I'm not entirely certain that some level of dislike for criticism can't be good. Michael Jordan seemed to still be carrying around some bitterness about rejection from his younger years in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He did okay. It might have helped fuel his fire. But fine, I do still get down when I get a rejection, I'll take the hit on this one.

Conclusion: Point to "not a writer." 1-1.

3. Rejection gets you down every time.

What Nathaniel says: Get over yourself. Rejection is part of being a writer. Sure, some rejections sting more than others, but you eventually just have to accept it. When real writers are rejected, they do one of two things: submit somewhere else or revise their shitty writing. Oh, and maybe drink themselves into oblivion.

What Jake says: Although, upon the advice of a good friend, I've begun to drink more than I used to, I still don't like to drink that much. So I'm left to feel the sting every time. It doesn't hurt as bad as it used to every time, but it does still hurt.

Conclusion: Point "not a writer." I'm down 1-2.

4. You think you’ll lose it if you don’t use it

What Nathaniel says: It’s fine to write every day. It’s cool if you want to set aside time to write or have daily word count goals. But if going a day without writing makes you feel like you’re going to lose something as a writer, then you aren’t a writer. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget how to write because you go a day or two without doing it.

What Jake says: I don't write every day, nor have I ever felt I should. I do start to get antsy if I haven't written for a while, but this is probably one of those need-to-find-a-balance things. You can't be always writing, but you do need to write a lot to be a writer.

Conclusion: Point me. 2-2.

5. You don’t recognize your own bad writing

 What Nathaniel says: Do you think everything you write is good? You’re definitely not a writer. Even great writers have a fair amount of shit in their repertoire. The best writers in the world publish less than 25% of what they write.

What Jake says: Let's say I'm "in development" on this.

Conclusion: A draw. Still 2-2.

6. You think everything you write is bad

Flipside of the last one, which means this is a draw, too. I have days when I think I'm brilliant, and days when I think I should have been a locksmith.

Still 2-2.

7. You’ve never made any money off your writing

 What Nathaniel says:You don’t have to make a living off writing in order to be a writer, but if you’ve never made any money, then you aren’t a writer (yet). Especially in today’s world where there are so many opportunities to make a few bucks here and there as a writer (hell, self-publish on Amazon and sell one copy to your mom). Shooting free throws in the driveway a few days a week doesn’t make you a basketball player, does it? Oh, one more thing. Just because you have made some money off your writing doesn’t mean you are a writer. Getting called in to sub for your cousin with a broken arm in a pick-up basketball game on the playground doesn’t make you a basketball player either.

What Jake says: I find this criteria confusing. Is it enough to have sold a self-published book to my mom or not? I do have a job where writing in a very boring, methodical way is a big part of what I do. Does that count? If not, I once made $20 on a poem, and I was offered $25 for my story that won Story of the Month at Bartleby Snopes. I gave the money back as part of my "I support the journals that support me" pledge. 

One could argue that in a very literal sense, shooting baskets does make one a basketball player. 

Conclusion: I don't know. Still 2-2.

8. People often tell you that you can’t make it as a writer

  What Nathaniel says: I often hear people tell these horror stories about all the people who’ve told them they’ll never cut it as a writer. Not to be an ass, but no one has ever told me that. If you’re hearing this all the time, then you probably aren’t a very good writer. Hey, if it doesn’t quack like a duck…

What Jake says: I don't know that people have an opinion one way or another about this. I happen to believe I have very little chance of ever supporting myself fully as a writer. That wouldn't make me different from the vast majority of writers out there who need to moonlight.

Conclusion: I don't know. Still 2-2, now with four draws.

9. You get really mad about other people’s book deals

 What Nathaniel says: Yeah, it probably ticks you off a little that 50 Shades of Grey sold millions of copies even though it’s widely considered to be utter shit. But some shit sells. If you get really mad about everyone else’s book deal, then you aren’t a real writer. Instead, you should spend more time figuring out what actually sells.

 What Jake says: "Why do the wicked still live, Continue on, also become very powerful?" Job asked. It's an ancient and respected impulse to be angry about the success of those who don't deserve it. With literature fighting a tough battle to stay alive, it is sad to see the few mega-hits go to books that are just terrible. You know the people who bought that book were often buying the only book they were going to buy that year. 

Conclusion: Fine. Guilty. 2-3 against me. 

10. You create conspiracy theories about publishing

I can leave out Nathaniel's explanation. I harbor no such conspiracy theories. What publishers like is such a mystery to me, I wouldn't pretend to think I could explain it with a theory.

Conclusion: Point me. 3-3.

11. You spend more time wondering if you’re a writer than actually writing

Nathaniel says: Writers write. If you’re always sitting around thinking, “Oh, woe is me, am I writer?” then you aren’’t a writer. Just shut the fuck up and write already.

Jake says: Ouch. This blog started out pretty much as a place to wonder if I was really a writer. It still is, in some part. But I have written more actual fiction since I started this blog than I have blogged about my doubt about it all.

Conclusion: I have 9 stories out to editors at 20 different journals right now. Point me. I'm up 4-3.

12. You think you’ve never had an experience worth writing about

What Nathaniel says: No matter what type of writer you are, you need some real life experiences. Poets, fiction writers, journalists. Everyone has to be able to draw from something. But guess what? Even sitting in your room without doing anything for five years is an experience you can write about. If you can’t find any inspiration from your own life, then you aren’t a writer.

Jake says: This is the flip side of "sign" #1. I do think I've had enough experiences to write about. But then again, I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things. If there is something that makes me violate "sign" #9, it's that a lot of what I read seems to come from people with rather thin experiences.

Conclusion: Point me, and I win 5-3. I'm a writer. Barely. I think the fact that I have a hard time with failure doesn't mean I'm not a writer, it just means I have temperamental traits which make writing challenging for me. 

I think if you know that you are going to be undone by rejection, and you are, in fact, undone over and over by rejection, and you keep writing anyway knowing you will keep facing that rejection, you might be a writer.


  1. Jake, you're a writer, just not a fiction writer. You're a critic, which is fine. Perhaps your mind is too infected with intellectual notions, but that is where your talents lay.

    And who the hell ever, besides some very narrow, unimportant and soon to be forgotten crowd, heard of nathaniel. what the hell does he know. you mark yourself by false standards, if you turn to that guy.

    just do your thing, but know who you are. you think you're a novelist or some sort of auteur: you're a critic. that sounds like a consolation prize, but it's not. for starts, critics have far more scope for their anger than mere scribblers. and they generally end up with the power in a world of nobodies.

    1. Nathaniel's actually a nice guy (he did publish my second story). He has a blog about writing that I poked around in a little bit after his journal published me, and this entry he did sort of stuck with me. I meant to comment on the post I linked to that I had done this so he could see it, but my comment kept blowing up. I think I still have his email somewhere; I should send a note to him.