3. I’m an Artist. I’m an Author. No you’re not!


“I am an author. Really? Who says so?
The big Six (or is it Five now?) sold out literacy for dollars decades ago, so being traditionally published by them means nothing more than that some wonk in the marketing department saw sales that should produce a profit. The work in question might, or it might not have some genuine literary value. It has passed through some filter−an agent, an acquisition editor, someone. It’s literary merit will be left to reviewers and their particular prejudices. So, whether it does or not is at best, a peripheral consideration. So scratch that as a criterion for certification as an Author. (This is not necessarily true with smaller presses, BTW. Many still screen for craft and story). At any rate, having the imprimatur of a publishing house on your work doesn’t mean what it once did. Sorry about that.
Back In my salad days, a very long time ago, I had the opportunity to work in a hobby shop. It was a typical store of its type at the time. We sold models−all kinds, the difficult to build ones which required great manual dexterity and patience, and the easy ones that required only a tube of glue. We also sold model trains, planes− even the radio controlled ones, and art supplies. The latter is important because at the time we were not the only local store to do so. Up the street was an artists’ supply store – a real one−you know the kind with shelves of gessoed canvasses, badger brushes that cost as much as a new sofa and so on. The difference between what we sold and what they sold was mostly price and quality. If you wanted really good paints, brushes, or canvases, you bought from them. Our stock looked like theirs but you’d be hard pressed to find a badger brush or the good oil paints. We had kits and paint sets and, yep− paint by numbers kits in various sizes and degrees of difficulty (Smaller area and more numbers), all of which should tell you something about the makeup of our artistic clientele.
Oh, and we sold tile. Back than (perhaps today as well, I haven’t kept up) a favorite craft/art project was to do mosaics using small (1/2 inch) tiles. They would be glued to coffee tables and so on in patterns that could be purchased or done as original concepts.
So, on one occasion I happened to be manning the tile counter. Now the tiles we sold came in sheets. That is tiles were arranged 12 X 12 and permanently affixed to a mesh. I believe they still sell them that way at home decorating and kitchen/bath stores. We also sold odd lots and single tiles. You may not know this, but the red tiles and the ones with gold streaks cost more than the others. They are made with real gold, you see. So, the rule was: try to flog the red and gold. Anyway, I was manning the tile counter when a woman presented herself requesting to see some tiles. She intended “to do” a large coffee table with a display of the solar system. She had an illustration from an elementary school science book that she intended to use as her pattern. It was in color.
Her task was to match tiles on our tile chart to the colors in the picture. My task was to convince her that the gold accented and red tiles would work wonderfully well in her mosaic. I had some success with that. Mars was very red and the deep space in the background a dark blue. I told her it worked better with streaks of gold. Finally she had selected all her tiles except a greenish−lime (for Jupiter, if memory serves). She struggled with the tile chart for several minutes with no success. When I realized she might need some help, I pointed to a greenish-lime tile somewhere near the bottom of the chart. It was a near perfect match. She was stunned.
“I am an artist,” she said, “and I didn’t see that, while you (meaning me, the lout behind the counter) did!”
Amazing. I rang up the sale and off she went.
Now here’s the thing. She declared herself and artist−proudly, I might add. Was she? Did missing an obvious color on the chart disqualify her? I don’t know. The question is larger than that. For years, anyone with some brushes, gessoed boards (or not) and some paints could happily daub away and declare themselves “an artist.” Few people objected. It was not clear what artists who were serious about their work, who sold, or who had work in juried shows, and won awards, felt about that. Would Jackson Pollack have agreed with my tile lady that she was an artist? He might, as he probably had a generous spirit. But was she? When can one fairly claim to be an artist and not just a dauber, a dilettante, a hobbyist?
Authorship has undergone a similar transformation. Not that long ago, to be an author meant you had submitted your work to the scrutiny of agents, editors, and publishers. It meant you had somehow produced something worthy of a publisher risking their capital to pay you an advance, manufacture your book, and distribute it. When that happened you were … ta da … an author. Before that happened, you were a writer. There was a difference. Now, with the advent, indeed the explosion, of self published books, anyone can be an author. Just as the lady in the hobby shop could be an artist. You dab some paint, charcoal, pastel, on a surface et violá, you are an artist. You upload your memoir, thriller, cozy mystery, whatever, and you are an author.
No, you’re not. Sorry about that.
I know, I know, in era begun with self-actualization as a mantra and the seduction by the Self Esteem paradigm, it has become heresy to suggest that you are not what you say you are, just because you say so. Think positive thoughts; love yourself, “name it and claim it” and all the other self congratulatory stuff we say to ourselves. But, alas, the world doesn’t work that way. You may believe anything about yourself, but the proof lies in who and how many other people will accept your self-declaration.
I knew a guy who said he called himself a Christian even as he denied the existence of God. My response was that he could call himself an Oldsmobile if he chose, but once they threw him up on the grease rack, he wasn’t going to fool anyone.
You see how it is. Who we are, in the end, depends on other people. Like it or lump it, the acceptance of our claim to be an artist or an author depends on factors beyond us and beyond our control. When does a dauber become an artist? I don’t know. There are some extraordinary painters whose works will never sell or hang in galleries. Five star reviews on Amazon are nice but they carry no more weight than a single star. I don’t know how being a Recognized Author is determined anymore, it just happens. Similarly, you move from artist to Artist in the minds of whoever it is who decides those things. I suppose somehow, in the same manner, you graduate to Author. It is an honorific bestowed on you but it is no longer clear how or by whom. But clearly not by you.
The sad truth is: you are what someone else says you are, no more and no less. You are an artist/author when enough people (not your friends and relatives) say so.
Here’s what I think. If you’re serious about writing, you shouldn’t care. Writers write. They do it whether anyone wants to read their stuff or not. They don’t care if they are a “recognized author” or not. All they care about is the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next chapter … the finished piece. They spend as much time honing their craft as they do practicing it. They are only happy when they feel that this new piece is better than the last and can tell you why. Yes, they want to see the stuff in print. They want to get paid, sure. They want the acceptance, absolutely. But, it is the writing that drives them. And when their publisher drops them and /or the e-books won’t move even if offered for free, they keep writing. It is an end in itself.
For me, I am a writer, not and author. I may qualify for the latter descriptor, but I prefer the former. It says what I do, not what status I may, or may not, have acquired. Being a writer is hard. Being an author is easy.

In the world of mules, there are no rules ….Ogden Nash


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