True story :
A friend of a friend goes to a posh dinner party.
‘And what do you do?’ the hostess asks her.
‘I don’t do anything,’ the friend says. ‘I’m just myself.’
‘Well,’ says the hostess, ‘That’s not good enough!’

Apocryphal story:
A dinner party guest asks the writer what he does for a living.
‘I’m a writer,’ he says.
‘Oh really?’ says the guest. ‘I’m going to write a book when I retire.’
‘What do you do?’ asks the writer.
‘Brain surgeon.’
‘Funny, that,’ says the writer. ‘I’m going to take up brain surgery when I retire.’

Such stories put me in mind of all the times when I’ve been asked what I ‘do’ - the added implication being for a living. Conversations usually run along the following lines:

Host: ‘And what do you do?’
Me: ‘I write.’
Host: ‘Are you published?’
Me: ‘No.’

Host’s eyes assume a distant, glazed look and he finds a pressing reason to bustle off to harass some other poor soul – preferably one with a career. After all, why be bored by someone who hasn’t ‘made it’ in their field?

It can be tough to stand up and say ‘I’m a writer’ when your work isn’t being published. And yet that’s what we are. Writers. We may not be making much (or any) money from it, but we may work just as hard and with just as much commitment (possibly more, since we write with nothing but hope) as those who are published. And all this for no paycheck at the end of the month, no return for our investment of time and energy, not even, often, a reader or a witness. Yet we may be regarded as ‘dabblers’. Second rate. Amateurs.

In fact, we are amateurs. In the original and best sense of the word, since it derives from the Latin amo – I love. We write because we love to, have to. And loving someone, or something, means being committed to it. Attending to it regularly. Wanting the very best for it.

It’s time we as-yet-unpublished, committed writers had a name. So here’s a suggestion:


Prose-Ams are amateurs (lovers of the craft of prose) who practise that craft in as professional a manner as we can.

A Prose-Am is likely to do most or all of the following:

- read widely in their chosen genre
- learn their craft thoroughly – from courses and workshops, from writers groups, from ‘how to' books
- spend inordinate amounts of time writing
- gather with other Prose-Ams to exchange information and expertise
- take criticism and separate the useful from the non-useful
- learn to trust their own gut instinct, their own voice, their individuality
- research their market thoroughly
- revise, revise, revise
- submit intelligently formatted, grammatically correct manuscripts
- learn to take rejection (and how!)
- develop the traits of persistence and tenacity, together with the skin of rhino and the sensitivity of a deer.

So next time that party-host spits peanuts in your face and asks what you do, draw yourself up to your full height, thrust your shoulders back, look him in the eye and say:

‘Me? I’m a Prose-Am. And I’m proud of it.’


Rebecca Nazar said...

Here, here, consider me one of the fold! Let's all unite and rewrite! :-) Great post, Susie.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, Rebecca - love the new Prose-Am slogan!

Julie P said...

I'm a Prose-Am and proud of it! We love writing and don't care who knows it.

Administrator said...

Me too:)

But hey, Susie, we are published - on Blogger anyway;)

Great post.

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

What a great retort. I have tried saying that I'm a trainee writer.
I have had a book published but it's non fiction which, to party hosts, is not good enough either.

PS found your through Jane's blog - I think:)

Caroline Green said...

My name is Caroline and I am a Prose-Am...I like it!
I think a badge would be good though.
Great post Susie.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Hi Fiona - glad you found us! Those party hosts sure are picky people!
Ooh yes - a badge!!

Administrator said...

Nice to see you here, Fiona! Off to look at yours..:)

Lydia said...

Don't you think it's a question of people's perception? Since (of course) anyone can write, can't they? We therefore, are being pretentious by claiming to be writers. I am published by magazines but I still feel pretentious when I say I'm a writer and see the eyes glaze over! You're right, Julie - time to stand up and be proud. Here's to Prose-Ams!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Yeh, Lydia, I think many people also consider writing to be a self-indulgent business, as well as a bit weird/eccentric. As if, in saying 'I'm a writer' we are somehow being too big for our boots or, as you say, pretentious. Do people make the same judgements about musicians, say, or artists?
And do they have any idea at all how many years of apprenticeship we go through in order to learn our craft?

Gillian McDade said...

Proud to be a Prose-Am too! :)

Love the post, Susie.

Derek Thompson said...

Too true, it's the Puritan work ethic turned inside out. The muse desires a lover not a profit and loss statement!

Jeannette said...

"So, what do you do?" -- That question always stymies me too! You're right, the "do" in that question is assumed to be "do for a living". But who wants to be defined by their job?? (Oops, I mean "career"...) Maybe there are some people in the world who only do pretty much one thing, I guess then it's an easy question to answer...

Karen said...

What an excellent post, and a great new description of what we do - love it!

Geraldine Ryan said...

I've stopped saying it now. I just say "I work from home." Can't be bothered with the follow up questions.

litlove said...

Bravo - what an encouraging post!

Kirsty said...

Hey Susie,
yey, up the Prose-ams.
That party piece has become something of an urban myth and keeps popping up, and I recently discovered its origin - it was an experience of a life writer, Bill Roorbach, and he wrote a piece called On Apprenticeship about it -he swears he is the real party guest involved. He says we are all doing our apprenticeships, and when somebody asked if we are published we should look at them in exaggerated horror and say, 'Good God no. I'm an apprentice!' (or words to such effect) - like they must be stupid for asking such a dumb question. After all, you wouldn't ask an apprentice mechanic how many engines she had designed, or how many garages they ran, would you?
And yet, while I totally agree with this sentiment, there is some awful part of me that can't wait to be able to answer, 'yes, I am published actually'.
Great post.

Kirsty said...

By the way, don't know why my name comes up as Kirsty - well, I do but it's too tedious to go into here - it's me, Kath Morgan. Will try to fix this silliness at some point.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Kath - Kirsty! tee-hee - that's really interesting and I'm off to look at this bloke and see if I can find his piece immediately. Have been thinking a lot about apprenticeship recently (and not just because The Apprentice is on!). Thanks.