Behind the Lines with DR: When Are You a Writer?

A Twitter pal asked me this question: When can I call myself a writer? My answer was pretty simple, though I qualified it as one man’s opinion.

You are what you say you are when you make a living at it.

We traded a few more tweets, which were mostly me clarifying my point of view as nothing more than a personal preference. There was no rule that said one couldn’t claim to be a writer though not having earned any coin at it. It was just that before I made a living as a word jockey, I was pretty circumspect about declaring I was something I wasn’t. For one reason, it was self-humbling. I wasn’t going to call myself a writer until I’d earned it. The other side of the coin was a bit of vanity. I knew the universe was full of back-biting begrudgers. Especially the world of showbiz wannabes. I simply didn’t care for anybody thinking I was some kind of pretender. Thus, when asked, I was pretty straight. I told people that I worked odd jobs while trying to break into the movie game.

are you a writerI reminded my Twitter friend there was no shame in aspiring.

That said, the query rang a tuning fork in me, stirring a memory from back in my single days. I was never much for pickup bars. But I briefly hung with a crew that used to refer to trolling for girls in bars as “Blonde Patrol.” I’d only just begun making my rent as a screenwriter. Yet when I’d get into a dialogue with some available honey, there came the moment she’d ask that salient question:

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a screenwriter,” was my honest reply.

It was as if a bullshit sensor had tripped and the girl would turn cold. Eventually, I confessed the problem to one of my Blonde Patrol crew, who hipped me to this little tidbit:

“Around here?” he began. “Everybody’s a Goddamn screenwriter. Or at least says he is.”

“Which means nobody is,” I concluded, pretty much overstating the obvious.

“Exactly.”

Lesson learned, I began doing way better at the Hollywood pickup scene when I returned to my former truth.

I do odd jobs while trying to break into showbiz.

Was I naïve not to recognize that few in or around showbiz were as they claimed to be? Well, I had to learn sometime that taking everybody at his initial word led to much misinformation.

“I’m a movie still photographer,” said the clerk in the cigar shop. “I’m just doing this until my roommate gets the money to make his movie.”

“I have a band,” said the musician-slash-dry-cleaner attendant. “Just doing this while we finish overdubs on our first record.”

Then there’s this classic bit of dialogue of which even I’ve mistakenly been engaged.

“I’m an actress,” said the stunner at the party.

“You said you’re a waitress?” said I, pretending not to have heard her say she was an actress. Rude? Yes? Deserving of having a drink tossed in my face? Sure. Why not? I surely wouldn’t have been the first or last. I might only defend myself by expressing the frustration that comes with so few people in Lala Land willing to admit their actual occupation.

I used to commonly lament it seemed that nobody in the 213, 310, or 818 area codes was content with his current status. Everybody wanted to be somebody else.

Then came this doozy of a conversation.

The War Department and I had just finished sitting through a one-act play that had been directed by the wife of a friend. The woman–let’s call her Compli-Kate– was quite accomplished as an actress and choreographer, with a growing list of credits on her resume. After the show, the four of us found a bar and drank wine. I ran into an agent pal and introduced him to the couple.

“And this is Kate,” I said, introducing Compli-Kate. “We just saw the one-act she directed.”

“Are you a director?” asked the agent.

“Oh, she’s way more than that,” I bragged, not allowing her to answer for herself. “Kate’s a gifted actor and choreographer.”

“You are?” said the agent, impressed. “Do I know your work?”

Our social chat carried on for a bit. We drank a little more, congratulated Compli-Kate and her husband on the stellar evening, and I searched for my valet ticket.

The following morning I received a disturbing phone call.

“I’m really hurt,” said Compli-Kate via hardline.

“Did you say ‘hurt?’” I asked, unsure of the quality of the phone connection.

“Last night!” she said. “When you introduced me to your agent friend.”

“Sorry,” I instantly assumed. “I hate when friends do that to me. I was just bragging on you.”

“Not that,” she said.

“Oh. Then what?”

“You told him I was an actress and choreographer.”

“Right,” I said, thinking maybe she hadn’t quite put together the bragging part with the actress-slash-choreographer part. “And I’m really sorry. I just wanted him to be impressed with you. My bad. Like I said, I hate when people do that to–“

“No,” she interrupted. “You know how hard I’ve been working on my writing.”

“Your writing? What does that have to do with anything?”

“You told him I was an actress/choreographer.”

“Which you are.”

“I know. But I’m working really, really hard on my writing.”

“And?”

“It hurts me that you didn’t validate that.”

“In front of the agent?”

“Or anybody else. I’m not just an actress or a choreographer.”

“A working actress and choreographer.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how rare that is? An actual working actor and choreographer?”

“I don’t get you.”

“You are a working actress and choreographer. Be proud of it.”

“I am. But I’m also proud of my writing.”

“And good for you. But I’m not going to introduce you as a writer.”

“See? That’s what really hurts.”

“That you’re not a writer?”

“But I am a writer.”

“But you make your living as an actress and choreographer.”

“You think that’s all I am?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“But you did to that agent.”

“I was bragging on you.”

“You said that.”

“The agent meets wannabes every damn day—actors and choreographers. Not very often he bumps into the real deal. And you’re the real deal.”

“Just not a real writer.”

“Wow,” I think I finally said. “How’s this? I apologize and we forget that I was trying to do you a favor.”

“By leaving out that I’m a writer.”

“You’re not a writer. You’re someone who writes. But not a writer. Not yet.”

“My husband’s a film producer. He says I’m a writer. And he would know.”

“He loves you.”

“But you’re a writer. And coming from you…”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, trying like hell to sound like I meant it.

For the life of me, I recall this conversation like it was yesterday. Or maybe the day before yesterday. Except for the part where or how it ended or who hung up first. I do remember that not long after, Compli-Kate filed for divorce from her producer husband. I suppose he wasn’t supportive enough.

Still, after all that, I haven’t changed my opinion. We are what we are. Confirmed by a tile mason I once hired who confessed to me that he was a former aeronautical engineer.

“That’s so cool,” I said, impressed as hell. “You’re an aeronautical engineer.”

“No I’m not,” he corrected. “I’m a tile mason. And damned proud of it.”

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One thought on “Behind the Lines with DR: When Are You a Writer?

  1. Lisa

    So Kafka was a lawyer, Bukowski was just a postman and Vincent Van Gogh just a crazy guy? I beg to differ with your theory. Art has never been about the paycheck. You are a writer when you spend most of your time writing. You may be a fool or a genius, a good writer or bad, but a writer nonetheless.

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