March 4 – Literature: Ann Petry

First black woman writer with book sales topping a million copiesAnn Petry wanted to be a novelist from the moment a teacher praised her writing in high school, but as happens to so many of us, her parents wanted her to do something more practical. So she studied pharmacy (her father’s profession) and worked in the family business for many years. But she wrote and published short stories on the side.

While working in an after-school program in Harlem, Ann saw for the first time how sheltered her life had been and what most African Americans in the early 20th century had to go through. This inspired her to write The Street, her first novel, which was so wildly popular she became the first black woman writer with book sales topping a million copies. She went on to write several additional novels.


Author vs. Writer

The other day, I read a bio of a fellow writer that said something along the lines of “I’m a writer. I’ll earn the title ‘author’ when I’m published.” This gave me pause and it made me sad, because it reinforces the misguided idea that there is a class difference between being an author and being a writer.

Looking at publishing as the reason a writer becomes an author (much like a child becomes an adult) leaves out a large segment of the writing population and sets up unrealistic expectations. Many people are chosing to self-publish. Does the moment they press the “publish” button automatically make them better than or different from everyone else? What about people who write for themselves or for their family, with no intention of publishing? Does that make them any less authors? I don’t think so.

Yes, getting published is a huge deal. It’s professional validation and does wonders to get your work in front of a large group of readers you otherwise may not have access to, and let’s be honest, it usually involves an increase in income. But it isn’t some magical initiation whereby you get a new title. You are still doing the same thing you’ve been doing, just with an advance/royalties and more accountability. When that glorious day comes, by all means, celebrate! Be proud of your accomplishment! (I know I will be.) But please don’t think it makes you Grand High Pooba or High Priestess of the Written Word. (Those come with being on the best seller list – or so I’ve heard. 🙂 )

Really, it boils down to semantics. Oftentimes, I use the words “writer” and “author” interchangeably, because really, they mean the same thing – someone who writes. If you asked me which I prefer, I’d say “author,” only because to me, that is more evocative of the literary nature of what I do. You can “write” anything (and I write all day long for my day job, so I know): newsletters, articles, ad copy, cereal box text, instruction manuals. But the word “author” seems to me to be more reserved for those who write literary works: books, poems, plays, etc. That’s why I like it. It speaks to who I am. I’ve been using it since my writing became more than an occasional hobby and I plan on using it well into my future days as a best-seller.

In my mind, if you write something, you are already an author, regardless of whether or not your work ever sees the light of day. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, of course, but I think to view authorhood as something to be achieved – like winning a gold medal – is just silly. If you want to aim for something, aim for an audience of adoring fans, a certain level of self-satisfaction, or even certain sales numbers. Those things are great goals, but they do not an author make. Only words poured out from your heart onto paper or a computer screen can do that.

So, embrace who you are. If you write and you want to call yourself an author, do so – because you already are. If you don’t like the term and want to be known as a writer, go for it. Class warfare within the writing profession does nothing other than separate us, when what we need is to work together as a community to support one another. Our community is what we make of it, and I, for one, hope we are willing to include everyone, from the novice learning his/her craft to the household name.

What do you think? Is there a difference between being an “author” and being a “writer?” Which do you prefer? Why?