Why Writers Are Looked Down Upon

The other day someone asked me what I do for a living. I told them I work at a hospital, and then I hesitantly added that I’m also a graduate student. Why was I hesitant? Attending graduate school is an important step in many career paths. It can open a lot of doors and many people look up to individuals with advanced degrees.

However, I knew the next question the person was going to ask. “What graduate program are you in?”

4744982425_fe42abfa42_mWhen I answered, “I’m in a masters in writing program,” the reaction was almost uniform. It seems that most people look down on writers. I’ve even had a few family members ask what I’m doing to move forward with my “real” job. One person said to me, “Don’t good writers automatically know how to write?” As if every person in a writing program is incapable of writing well and therefore requires help.

Here’s a short list of authors who attended either an MA in writing program or an MFA program: Lauren Oliver, New York Times bestseller, Elizabeth Kostova, recipient of the Hopwood Award, Richard Ford, recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I’ve wondered why so many people look down on writing programs and writers in general. Unless an author is financially successful (J.K. Rowling, Anne Rice, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, etc.), people expect writers to have ‘real’ professions, such as being a teacher, a lawyer, or an editor.

I think writers tend to get looked down upon because:

  1. Most people think they can write and publish a novel. There have been multiple instances where I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to write a novel someday,” “Writing isn’t that hard,” or, “Haven’t you been published yet?” They don’t realize how much time and energy go into writing a full length novel. Nor do they understand that getting an agent and then a book deal is like finding the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. (Getting an agent doesn’t solely depend on how well a book is written. Timing, what published books are popular at the moment, the mood of the agent, the query letter, connections, luck, etc. all play a role in whether or not a writer snags an agent.)
  2. Writers = artists. Like most forms of art, whether painting, music, or dancing, writing is seen as a hobby. It’s something to do in your spare time. It’s not a serious profession. Very few people can live off the money they make from writing. Very few people make any money from writing.
  3. Writing is a lonely road. Unlike many other types of jobs, writing is an individual process. This means that people don’t see how much time a writer dedicates to his story. It’s not only about writing those 80,000 words. There’s revisions and editing, getting people you trust to read your work and critique it (this stage is about the only one with outside interaction, until you query), and then there’s more editing.

There’s a prejudice against writing as a serious pursuit. However, writing takes a huge amount of dedication. Many people who begin a novel never finish, and out of those that do, many don’t go back and do the necessary revisions to make the novel publishable. Even if a novel is in its best condition and a writer has multiple people telling him to query because they loved his novel, there’s no guarantee that an agent will pick up the book. Writing takes resilience and one heck of a backbone.

Yet, though I know all of this, it still can hurt when I see peoples’ reactions to my chosen graduate degree. Yes, writing is most likely not going to set me up for life, but I don’t write because I’m looking for financial gain. I write because I love writing. I wouldn’t be happy if writing wasn’t in my life, so though non-writers have difficulty understanding why I’m pursuing a path that has few outward benefits, I’m going to continue doing it…and spend my free time hanging out with other writers.

Why do you think people tend to look down on writers?

(Photo courtesy of Gerrit Schirmer.)

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