Writers are like ice cream: They come in different flavors. Some of us are plain vanilla, others are passion-fruit granita with creamy lime curd. Most of us try to find authorial enlightenment, which—like a karma of writing—promises nirvana once we go through enough hardships and lessons.
We are all different. You are special, just like everybody else. A catchy, tongue-in-cheek thing to say, and yet true in some esoteric way, as it can help you better understand yourself.
These are the qualities of this post as well.
The term karma of writing has a catchy ring to it. Just like everything that includes the words “karma,” “Zen,” or… “quantum,” it’s surrounded by a certain aura of mystique. To talk about the karma of writing almost sounds as if I were trying to sell a New Age book, doesn’t it?
Rest assured, I’m not. You see, this post is itself tongue-in-cheek. There is no actual karma of writing, and I’ve made up the seven types of authorial enlightenment, because seven is a satisfying number—would you have taken me seriously if I’d talked about the six or eight types of authorial enlightenment?
And yet, the post is true and it can help you better understand yourself. In particular, it can help you understand what kind of writer you are. Let’s get started!
As I mentioned above, these seven types of writers are something I’ve made up. But just because something is imaginary, doesn’t make it any less true—that sounds like a kōan, doesn’t it?
In other words, these are observations originating from my experience as a writer, editor, academic, and overall as someone dealing with writing, literature, and texts. Perhaps you can come up with your own, more elaborate categorization, particularly if you find yourself between categories.
The key takeaway—which nicely takes us back to the idea of enlightenment—is to ponder on your writing personality.
How, why, and for whom are you writing? Writers need to have a clear picture of such concepts. Otherwise, they might not realize their full potential and, quite possibly, they can become stressed or even miserable in the process.
Let’s meet these types, starting from the bottom and climbing up the ladder, toward authorial nirvana. The overwhelming majority of us are somewhere in the middle, balancing between our sense of self and our obligations.
Keep in mind that this is not a qualitative categorization; being at the top doesn’t (necessarily) mean a high quality of writing. Moreover, despite the karmic metaphor, not everyone attempts to reach the top. It’s perfectly acceptable not to, if you are happy with your current role.
In a writing context, hired guns are those who write because they need to produce text. Typically, they are getting paid for it, and that’s the limit of their horizons—that is, their only motivation and aspiration.
Still, someone can be a hired gun for free, such as a “volunteer” who not-so-voluntarily has to draft a press release for a small club or a brochure for a Tupperware party.
The chief characteristic of a hired gun—and what places them at the bottom—is a virtually complete lack of personality in terms of writing. Texts written by hired guns lack a soul, though they can still be flawless from a technical standpoint.
Motto: “It’s just words.”
Pencil-pushers, as you might guess from the general meaning of the metaphor, are basically mere operators of something bigger than themselves. As writers, pencil-pushers do more or less what hired guns do, that is, produce text because it has to be done.
However, pencil-pushers are at least aware of this not being an ideal situation. Like the archetypal Kafkaesque hero dealing with administrative tasks, a pencil-pusher realizes that writing shouldn’t be like that. Still, they do little to get out of this state.
Motto: “Someone has to do it.”
Wannabe writers, despite the rather negative connotations of the word, are often talented, idealistic, and know what they ought to do in terms of developing their craft and career. However, for a variety of reasons, they aren’t able to do it.
It sounds tragic, and for at least some of the reasons, it indeed is. Perhaps due to personal problems, lack of confidence, or their life situation in general, wannabe writers spend excessive time and energy procrastinating—which is a strategy of avoidance and a defense mechanism.
Many wannabes might still have some sort of writing income, or they might publish their work and share it with others, but they generally focus more on seeing why development wouldn’t work, rather than trying to make it work.
Motto: “I wish I could do more.”
In this seven-stage scale, the professional writer sits squarely in the middle. If we take this scale to be a balancing act between personal desires and external obligations, the professional seems to have found the equilibrium point.
The operative word here is “seems.” To many outsiders, a professional writer is success personified. They might work as journalists with some degree of freedom, and some might have their own business. Many academic writers fall into this category.
The problem with professionals is that they often lose track of their priorities. Professionals are probably exceptional at fooling themselves into buying the same story outsiders do, that is, that they have found the equilibrium. In this framework, the routine of “success” can severely damage the professional’s deeper writing aspirations.
Motto: “I’ve made it in life. Haven’t I?”
Now we are moving toward the upper levels of the writing karma scale. For our purposes, a writing hero is someone who has a generally clear idea of what needs to be done, as well as the determination to attempt it.
A hero is like a wannabe in better circumstances or with more courage (in lieu of a better word). Compared to professionals, writing heroes are more honest with themselves. This keeps them hungry and inspired.
Ironically enough, heroes don’t feel as satisfied as professionals. In a sense, they are not in that equilibrium point professionals are, which makes them feel somewhat restless. However, it’s this very restlessness that fuels their motivation.
Motto: “I grow old ever learning many things.” (Phrase attributed to Solon.)
Writing gurus not only know perfectly well what they must do to promote their own writing development, but they teach others, too. Some teachers, bloggers, or general writing entrepreneurs fall into this category.
Another difference between a hero and a guru is that the latter doesn’t feel as restless as the former. For a writing guru, there isn’t as strong a pressure to do what needs to be done. In other words, there isn’t any emotional reaction to the process of developing as a writer. It just is.
Gurus keep evolving, but it feels as if the evolution itself is the goal, not any benefits arising from it.
Motto: “Things are what they are.”
The artist has reached writing nirvana; the absolute enlightenment. Note that an artist doesn’t need to be a fiction author—nonfiction writers can perfectly well fall into this category, as long as they fulfill the one and only requirement: not to care about elements external to writing.
Artists write texts without the slightest attempt to please others. Things such as audience reception, marketing, financial gains, or even—in some cases—personal safety or well-being are all irrelevant compared to what artists want to express.
For an artist, the only point in writing is for an idea to materialize as a text. Whether others will understand it or even see it is inconsequential.
Motto: “…” (Artists don’t say anything; they only speak with their work.)
First of all, if for whatever reason you feel a bit taken aback or resisting of what you just read, then good. It means you ponder on yourself as a writer. The first step in changing a situation you’re not happy with is to acknowledge it.
As I said further above, this list is not exactly the result of deep, scholarly research; it’s facetious. Moreover, remember that the categorization is not a qualitative one, nor are the top levels what one should necessarily aspire to become. Indeed, some heroes, gurus, or artists are not people you’d like very much.
A funny example to prove the point is the story surrounding the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and his lost book. The reason it was lost is what makes it relevant to our discussion.
Bakhtin, an avid smoker besieged during the German invasion of Russia, had run out of tobacco paper. Looking around, he saw the only copy of his manuscript—the result of 10 years of work. You can guess what happened next.
Michael Holquist, the editor of Bakhtin’s book The Dialogic Imagination, reveals the reasons behind Bakhtin’s decision to smoke his manuscript. Holquist mentions that the story “gives some idea, perhaps, of how cavalierly Bakhtin regarded his own thoughts once they had already been thought through.”
This is how artists operate. Whether it’s something any one of us should do is an entirely different discussion.
Is there a karma of writing? I don’t know. As I said, I made it all up, but imaginary things can be real, too.
What I do know is that pondering on yourself as a writer can never be bad. If it’s a list, a course, or a rubber duck, so be it. Anything that inspires you to ask yourself whether you’re happy with the way things are in your writing development is good.
For me, a karma of writing is ultimately a context: something as simple (yet infinitely complex, I know) as understanding the forces acting on your proverbial pen. Some of them pull you toward your authorial goals, some away from it.
Often, it’s only a slight change that’s needed to nudge us onto the right track, the one we’ve always wanted to take.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.