What’s the difference between an author and a writer?

The TV in our hotel room only really had one proper working channel when we were down in London. We hadn’t been too bothered, as we weren’t really there for watching TV and since the channel was BBC 1 that covered what little we usually did watch on a Saturday or Sunday morning (news, BBC Breakfast and Saturday Kitchen).  When I emerged from the en-suite I was greeted by a question from Husband; “What’s the difference between an author and a writer?” Presumably related to the introduction of a guest on Breakfast.  Husband often asks profound and provocative questions of me without realising that that’s what he’s done. What he wants, sometimes, is what I think of as a dictionary entry answer – an author is x, a writer is y – but what he often gets is treaties on the meaning and construction of language and identity that elicit the response of “you’d be a great politician”. For once, I gave him an answer that wasn’t long and convoluted, most often indicated by my opening statement of “Well, it depends…” What he got instead was the response of “Well, I’m a writer, but I’m not an author.” This seemed very clear to him. “Like the difference between a cook and a chef?” he asked, picking up on an aspect of an ongoing conversation about why my Mother, despite professionally running kitchens and catering companies throughout her career, describes herself as a cook while the people we watch on TV are referred to as chefs. Knowing that being a cook, rather than a chef, doesn’t meant that my Mother isn’t cooking in a professional capacity helps to clarify that the difference is not that of amateur and professional, but between professionals.

I wouldn’t have thought much about this conversation if it wasn’t for reading Explorations of Style’s recent article on the importance of identifying yourself as a writer:

“Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.”

I’ve spoken and written about the perceived differences between academic and creative writing before, and I maintain that this is a false distinction. I am no less a writer than the person who writes regularly for an online magazine, or a newspaper. I write in a professional capacity that has nothing to do with how much I get paid for it, or whether I’m creating something factual or fictional.

The problem with this distinction is, for me, two fold. The first is pointed out in the article, when Cayley discusses her students willingly taking on the identity of ‘bad writer’ in reaction to their struggle with academic writing, but missing out on the positives that come with the identity of ‘writer’. Therefore the academic has all of the negative associations, and the creative writer all the positive ones. The second is that it creates an artificial barrier between these two types of writers which in turn leads to distrust. While a good creative writing programme, either in schools, colleges or universities, integrates theory and practice to develop the students’ understanding of the writing process as well as their craft. This, however, is far from the norm and I have heard many experiences where creative writing students were seen as money makers and were essentially left to their own devices to write their novel – something that they didn’t need to pay to do. This same experience is my memory of creative writing in school, and the idea behind this that anyone can write without training, guidance or support devalues the study of literature also. Or rather, it fosters this distinction between ‘writing’ and ‘literature’ and if we continue to proclaim the Romantic fallacy of the individual production of literature in a vacuum, we may well miss out on the opportunity to encounter wonderful art because it falls into a category of writing that can be ‘taught’.

I might not write fiction, and am certainly no author, but I write as a professional. As Cayley says in her article, “saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. ” Instead, it is acknowledging the effort and craft that it takes to clearly construct meaning between writer and reader. It is acknowledging that, rather than a chore that we must sacrifice our time to, the crafting of language into meaning is the most important part of our academic life.

I am a writer.

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One Response to What’s the difference between an author and a writer?

  1. rcayley says:

    I really enjoyed reading this–I like the way you frame the distinction as one between two different types of professionals. Thanks.

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