Writers and writing

I am uncomfortable with badges in general. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker (incidentally who does that these days?). Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man and so forth. Badges pigeonhole people. They are diminishing not encompassing. Badges belittle. So I am uncomfortable with their overusage. In any case, few of the above descriptors apply in 21st-century parlance. Everyone is either a media consultant, a lifestyle guru, communications analyst, or website designer. Even the dustmen are now tarmacadam surface cleansing technicians, whatever the hell that means.

Not surprising then that such descriptors unsettle me. More to the point I am specifically uncomfortable with badging myself. For much of my life it has been easy, sequentially climbing each rung on the academic ladder: student, doctoral student, postdoc, lecturer, senior lecturer and reader. I never made it quite to professor before my academic career ended, a fact that still rankles some two decades later.

In terms of broad subject arena, I used to describe myself as a neuroscientist and, whilst I led a neuroscientific research lab, it seemed reasonable. But those days ended nearly 2 decades ago and any current claim to that noble epithet is, at best tenuous. If you don’t conduct research, it’s hard to call yourself a neuroscientist. With the onset of retirement, my grip on any neuroscience title hangs by a thread.

Friends – well, the kinder ones – tell me ‘neuroscientist’ is still appropriate, reflecting perhaps the primacy of past achievements over current standing. That makes me feel a little better even if I’m not sure I buy it myself. But if I’m not a neuroscientist, then what am I?

It feels a little awkward to call myself a writer. I have friends who are genuinely writers, their work published, acknowledged and recognised as such. I don’t mean blogs and bloggers although (seeing that I am digging myself into a hole) some of those can also legitimately be considered the work of ‘writers’. Many however are not, being little more than vehicles for political rants, social commentary, hobbies and interests. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs an outlet and, if a blog provides such a mouthpiece, so be it. It works for me, a convenient space to contain and constrain my ramblings and meanderings. I’m happy to hold my hand up as a blogger. But a blogger is not necessarily a writer.

I certainly don’t consider myself to be a writer or any suchlike. Writers are people like Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, Austen, Joyce, Elliot, Dickens and Kipling. Those are writers. And there is a world of difference between what they did and what I do. But, in the sense that I am paid (sometimes) for what I put on paper, I suppose I am a writer of sorts. And you can see why I’m uncomfortable with the title. It doesn’t sit well.

For me, writing is a noble profession and writers estimable practitioners of the same, their work unconstrained, free-flowing and imaginative. Others might define it differently as little more than a process by which facts are conveyed. For me, that’s not writing. Technical writing is a grim bastardisation of the profession. I know. I’ve been there. In one of the darker corners of my curriculum vitae are the several years I spent fruitlessly trying to get back into academia. Nobody, as I know now but didn’t then, wanted ex-academic fortysomethings. But the kids still needed feeding so I reinvented myself, dividing my time as a psychology lecturer with the Open University and as a medical writer. The former briefly pandered to my lingering academic pretensions while the latter paid the bills. I wasn’t proud.

Let me put in a disclaimer here. I have a good many friends in that industry that I admire and appreciate. Lifers. And maybe for them this was the chosen path. But not for me. I resented writing other people’s research. It felt wrong. Still does to be honest. It didn’t feel like writing. One day I will shine the torch more deeply into those dark recesses. But not today.

It brings me to my final point about writing. Writing is not the squawking of a caged bird. Writing must be free. Writing is soaring the thermals at sunset, catching insects on the wing. That’s writing. And that’s the work of writers. And I know one thing for sure. I’m not there yet.