I was reading Gaudy Night, the 1936 novel by Dorothy Sayers, (a very interesting and good British writer) when I came upon a curious passage, an exchange which takes place between Freddy Arbuthnot, a wealthy man about town, and Harriet Vane, a writer:
“…but [said Mr. Arbuthnot.] mild old gentlemen do sometimes breakout into a spot of tut-tuttery. How about a brandy? Waiter, two liqueur brandies. Are you writing any more books?”
Suppressing the rage that this question always rouses in a professional writer, Harriet admitted that she was.
“It must be splendid to be able to write,” said Mr. Arbuthnot. “I often think I could spin a good yarn myself if…”
I have had this exchange countless time during my long writing career. Indeed, I heard it three nights ago when coming across an acquaintance in a movie lobby. And it is not about my advancing age because I heard it many years ago when very much younger.
That it appears in this book, which was written before I was born, suggests how often the question is asked.
I suspect it comes about because of the very use of the words “professional writer,” in Sayer’s text. Most people, I believe, find it difficult to understand what being a “professional” writer means. Consider, the term is never affixed to say, a dentist. Would you ever use the term professional dentist? Or Professional priest? As contrasted to amateur dentist. An amateur priest?
True, you can make a distinction between a professional cook and an amateur cook.
Which, coming around to the original question, suggests people have a hard time thinking about what a professional writer does; that is to say, makes a living by writing. Surely, writing must be a hobby, a pastime, a diversion, perhaps even a distraction. Because, if you’ve been to school, you can write.
Everybody writes (not really) but few write books. Therefore, the profession of writing, by which, among other things, you pay one’s bills, doesn’t seem quite plausible.
And indeed, the question, “Are you still writing?” is often followed, as above, by the statement, “I have often thought of writing….” whatever.
No doubt people come across more professional dentists than they do professional writers.
Therefore, perhaps the solution—and the answer to that question— “are you still writing?”—is for writers to open offices, so that readers can make an appointment, and listen when an author reads from his or her work.
I can just hear the professional writer starting the sessions by saying, “Now listen carefully. This won’t be but a moment’s pain.”