According to the Russian Book Chamber, over 110,000 books are published in Russia every year.
One hundred and ten thousand! That means there are literally thousands of writers in today’s Russia.
Just imagine: thousands of writers!
Those numbers are the result of a historic evolution: thanks to the Internet, people now use written language en masse, both for communication and self-expression. One result of this new stage of civilization in terms of language use is the democratization of writers’ social status. Writers have ceased to be rare celestial beings. The saying “a poet in Russia is more than just a poet” [from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “The Bratsk Station”] is no longer valid.
Once upon a time, reading, too, was a sacral activity–and not just because of widespread illiteracy. Reading was for the elect! Then, slowly but surely, more people began to read and it became a prerequisite to a normal social existence. But writing—that self-expression in written language—even with the elimination of illiteracy, remained the purview of the lucky few.
And now there are thousands of writers. It’s an occasion to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a writer today—who are they and what are they like? We decided to ask our teenage Papmambook contributors what they think of writing and whether they believe writing is a profession. Can you learn to write books?
Here’s what they answered.
Makary Semerikov, 12, Moscow
How can you tell if an author is really a writer or just produces texts?
How does someone decide to become a writer?
What does it mean to be a writer?
Some children are constantly coming up with stories or games—they just can’t help themselves. Like Astrid Lindgren, when she was little. Of course, she became a great writer. The worlds that lived in her heart needed to break free. There are some people who take creative writing classes for a few years but never become writers. They just play around with writing for a bit and move on.
And then there are people who get into writing as adults. Maybe something big or terrible happens and the person decides to share their experience, so they don’t have to carry it around, or explode with everything they’re feeling. A writer shares and ends up expressing what many other people are feeling, too. That’s very tempting: to hold the keys to peoples’ hearts. Then they can leave their regular office job and start writing full-time, and live off of the money they make from selling books. But I don’t think there are too many people like that. A real writer pours his life into his books and there’s not a lot of time left over for anything else. So maybe it’s not a job after all, but a way of life? Or even a force of nature like fire, which can warm you, but also burn you up.
If you think of a profession as an activity that brings use to society, a writer is a rare line of work, something like a parachute tester. It’s a dangerous job! A writer exists almost outside himself, even as he looks deep inside his inner world and also closely observes the outside world. It’s like he lives in three dimensions at once. That’s a lot to handle! Maybe that’s why there aren’t all that many writers. Even though there are plenty of books.
Katerina Omelnitskaya, 12, Orenburg
I think writing is a hobby. But if a writer tries to make money with his written pieces (and manages to), it’s that happy coincidence when a hobby becomes someone’s job.
Sometimes, people just can’t not write. That happens when there’s no more room inside for all the feelings and emotions you’re experiencing, and there’s no one you feel you can share with openly. Then all that lava you’re holding in pours out on the paper. That’s one of the reasons some people choose to keep diaries. And sometimes that helps people, or even saves them. But a lava of emotions, unlike volcanic lava, won’t scorch the paper. And that means anyone could read what you write. Then the person who wrote it will feel even worse. So I think having a diary like that is not a great idea. You can’t be a hundred percent sure someone won’t read it.
I think that might be what makes a writer different from others. They transform their emotions, anxieties, pain, and loss into the emotions and feelings of fictional characters. Writers have different levels of skill of course. So, yes, the lava of emotions won’t reduce paper to ashes, just the heart. But a real writer knows how to raise a wonderful, unique phoenix from the ashes of personal suffering. That phoenix is a book. And “manuscripts don’t burn,” right?
Polina Andreeva, 17, Moscow
My imaginary writer just can’t make up his mind. He’s stopped, confused, considering the question. The writer walks around it, holds the issue up to the light, and still doesn’t know what to think.
If writing is a profession, can you learn it? Yes, and no: you can learn to write properly, express your thoughts clearly, write with style and parody other authors, understand how different genres work…but if you have nothing to say, not even the best teachers can help you. I think every work is a part of the writer, even for a fantasy novel or a cookbook, because experience, memories, and impressions come together to inspire a story.
Say Bobby writes a book and his whole family reads it. Bobby is just six and hasn’t considered sending his story to a publisher. Is Bobby a writer? “Of course not!” But he has an idea, right? An idea he wanted to share, several readers, even different reviews of his creativity (his nine-year-old sister makes fun of Bobby’s book and all its mistakes). Who cares if Bobby’s book hasn’t been published? Why can’t we call him a beginning, run-of-the-mill writer?
Now imagine that a great, but unknown author finishes one of her best books, and hides it away in a desk drawer, along with her previous work. She’s never let anyone read her stories, she writes only for herself. Can you be a writer without readers? Probably not. I think one of the main purposes of any book is to be read. It doesn’t have to be published and readership can be low. Of course most writers want to have as many readers as possible, because that increases the chances of someone truly reading it, understanding something for themselves, and reacting, responding internally to the author’s statement. I like what Sergei Dovlatov wrote in Pushkin Hills, that you should go ahead and write a masterpiece, shake the reader to their core. Even if that’s just one single living person. Dovlatov said it was the challenge of a lifetime.
“Writer” is not a profession, a writer is a human being.
My imaginary writer perks up. Now there’s one clear thought in this sea of doubts and questions. He adds: “A writer is a person who has created or is creating a reality in a book, a reality that comes to life under the reader’s gaze.” He grunts approvingly, and decides that for now, that’s that.
Varvara Nason, 15
I think a writer is more than a profession.
Writing is the work of a lifetime. As Stephen King says, to be a good writer you have to devote a lot of time and energy to it, and practice every day.
Anna Semerikova, 14, Moscow
I’ve never met anyone who had “writer” on their university diploma. But I’ve seen the diploma of a historian who later became a writer. I don’t think “writer” exists as a profession in the sense that you can’t study it, though of course there are literary institutes. When you attend teacher’s college, you learn certain approaches you can use with kids. When you study to be a surgeon, you’re taught how to make an incision. But who can teach the right way to write? How can you learn to be Alexander Pushkin, or Ivan Turgenev, or Gerald Durrell? Can you? I don’t think so, otherwise books would all follow a single template, and literature wouldn’t develop. When a writer writes, he pours his heart, his mind, and his experience into the text. How can you reproduce and multiply that?
But if you think of a profession as an activity that brings you recognition and money, then of course you can be a professional writer, meaning someone who writes books that sell well. As far as I know, professional writers have literary agents that take care of all that. Does that mean that writers sell part of their hearts and souls? Of course not. I think Pushkin answered that when he said you can’t buy inspiration, but you can sell a manuscript. He’s considered the first professional author in Russia, in the sense that he made his living writing books.
I think a real writer is someone with a God-given talent that can be realized in text. A writer can be anyone by profession—a doctor like Anton Chekhov or a sailor like Boris Zhitkov. A writer can work at a morgue or teach at a university like Joseph Brodsky, or be a diplomat like Alexander Griboyedov. The list is practically endless.
Alexandra Dvoretskaya, 16, Yaroslavl
“Write an epic about a minotaur and a wedding. Make sure the story has a moral and evidentiality markers, and leave it open-ended.”
“Oh, we don’t know how to do that.”
“No one does. It’s not about what you know how to do or want to do. We just need someone to write an epic about a unicorn and a wedding. It’s gotta have a moral and evidentiality markers. And make it open-ended.”
I mean, it’s nice when you’re paid to write something specific. Or told to write something and then they decide whether to pay you. You struggle, pushing something about a minotaur wedding and an amphibian man and then you’re told that no, amphibians aren’t really in anymore. So now we’re going to write about unicorns. But then you don’t make any money on that either. If you think things through, you might decide you’d be better off handing out flyers, where you’ll spend less time and make more money.
A writer often has to consider what the masses want. What if the masses want sappy novels with little to no plot? So what do I do if I just don’t have it in me to put something like that down on paper? What if I’m embarrassed to keep milking our ancestors’ glory and keep writing tired old fantasies about the Great Victory in WWII, a topic already exhausted by journalists and writers? Where will I get enough sugar to make that novel sappy enough for teenage readers?
I suppose writing—as your only or primary job—would be a good fit for a very lucky, or very sick, person.
Oh, there are definitely authors whose books come out regularly. They’re in every bookstore and on every e-book platform. But those are the lucky few. The rest write without any intention of publishing, or send futile manuscripts to publishers, or quietly go mad while writing yet another novel that gets stuck in the middle and once they’re disappointed in their literary activity, seek acknowledgement elsewhere.
These days, it’s a good PR-manager and not a talented author that ends up finding the reader. A couple days ago I saw a highly-rated (and probably high-selling) book on Litres [a Russian e-book platform]. The comments section was filled with quotes from the book. The best one was something like: “She stood at the foot of the bed and put her hands on its headboard.” I can’t help but wonder if the author’s father is an oil magnate. Otherwise it’s not clear how the author was able to finance the book’s publication with a fairly good, pretty famous publisher.
It feels like only someone who marries into money or grows up in a wealthy family can afford to be a writer by profession. That way there’s always someone to finance periods of creative torment, rises and falls, publications and rejections. Otherwise, the writer might have to survive on unemployment benefits.
How about studying to be a professional writer? I once wandered over to the Philology section of the Job Fair. It’s a fairly prestigious major, with just six full scholarships available. They brought out a graduate–pride and joy of the university, they said. It turns out she’s the advertising manager for a gym. It makes you wonder, where do those six philology grantees end up every year?
You can and should be a writer. But earning your living as a writer is not a good idea.
Eva Biryukova, 16, Chelyabinsk
I think writers are very sensitive and very perceptive people. I’m convinced that writing is not a craft or a way to make money, not a profession. Writing is a calling, a talent given from on high. No matter how much someone studies, they won’t create anything interesting, even if they read thousands of books about how to write well. That’s because a poem or a story isn’t born in the mind—it comes from the heart. A work lives with the writer and the writer lives through the story along with the characters as he works. I think that everything you write will be empty and shallow if you write without soul, without diving into your text, living and breathing it.
Sometimes you read something and it’s written with such a light touch, as though anyone could write something like it. So you get this desire to write a story of your own, but nothing comes out of it. The ideas don’t stick and the right words don’t come to mind. If you don’t have a gift, you can’t write anything interesting. I think a gift and a profession are two different things. A real work of writing has to have soul, and how can that come through when the author is a professional, someone who sees writing as just a job?
Many famous writers didn’t have a specialized education—they simply wrote from the heart. They lived out each day and saw what others didn’t notice and were able to put their thoughts down on paper. Can you actually learn to do that? You can learn a craft or a trade, but not inspiration, feeling, art.
In order to write, you need a very good imagination, a good sense of language, sharp observation skills, a certain sensitive inner self. No, you really can’t learn those things. And that means you can’t learn to be a writer.
That’s why I believe that being a writer is not a profession. It’s a state of mind, a special gift. But that doesn’t mean that a writer doesn’t work hard—writing is serious labor and incredibly hard mental work.
Ksenia Solyanik, 11, Moscow
I think a writer is someone who writes lots of books. Someone who writes not for the heart, but for a publisher. A person who takes a subject and writes and writes, and writes about it again.
J.K. Rowling, for example—there’s a writer. I mean, she may well have written the first two or three Harry Potter books for the soul. But the ones that came next—books four, five, six…it just worked out that way: Joanne Rowling the teacher became J.K. Rowling the writer, author of the Harry Potter Books.
Writing is a good profession but it’s important to write about what matters to you, not about what pays. Not to depend on the preferences of publishers and readers. I think it’s most important that you never bend to someone else’s ideas about what to do and continue to write for yourself.
Yes, it’s likely everyone who starts out by writing for themselves, but then submits their work to a publisher, eventually becomes a writer and comes to depend on others. But that doesn’t have to happen, if that person truly believes in themselves.
Say someone publishes a book with a bad ending. And readers want a sequel, but with a different ending. That’s how the person slowly turns into a writer.
But there’s got to be people who became writers not just because of readers or anyone else? They simply wrote for themselves, wrote what they liked. People like that aren’t fixated on writing for someone. I think they’re geniuses. They didn’t give in to someone else’s opinion, they stayed true to themselves.
That means there are two kinds of writers:
1. Someone who writes for a publisher. They just write what they’re told, maybe without putting in any particular effort. A writer like that depends on the opinion of the masses.
2. A person who writes for the soul. They want to write and they write. Someone like that won’t do something they don’t want to do. If they decide it’s the end of their book, that’s it. And people like that are writers too.
Being a writer is a profession for some and a hobby for others.
Yulia Kabachenko, 15, Chisinau (Moldova)
I remember that when I was little I pictured a working writer as follows: white shirt and glasses, briefcase in hand, and lots of people expecting something from him. Every day, the writer would sit down at the computer and tap away at the keyboard for hours on end.
That unromantic image is nothing like what I imagine now: a writer free to create, sitting with a cup of tea, with a faint light glowing in the background, tortured in his creative struggle over an unfinished text.
So what is a writer like, then?
As I thought about it, I decided that there are two kinds of writers: professionals and “missionaries.”
A missionary writer, once he’s had his say, can confidently end his writing career and still leave behind an important influence on literature. A great example is Franz Kafka, who was recognized as a writer only posthumously. He studied law, worked in an insurance company, was rarely published in his lifetime, and wrote a will that instructed that his works be burned after his death. Even though Kafka said writing gave his life “some justification,” he wasn’t a writer by profession. Writing was his way of life. He needed an outlet for the emotions that tore him up inside. He couldn’t not write, he needed to.
All the “missionary” writers have an idea they need to express, an idea that’s practically placed inside them that they must share.
I think another example is Margaret Mitchell, who spent a very long time polishing her only legendary novel, Gone with the Wind.
Professional writers, on the other hand, seek to earn a living, and have to produce work a lot faster, generating plots and coming up with characters. They write for others, for the public, and, as with any other professions, they offer up their product. I’d say two clear examples of professional writers are Andrey Zhvalevksky and Evgenia Pasternak. They were actually physicists and earned money from more than just writing. When I say “professional writers,” I don’t mean that missionary writers are any worse in terms of literary skill. They just have different goals and it could be that professional writers have to be more aware of others’ opinions. I think both professionals and missionaries are equally important to literature. There’s always a gray area, too: after all, missionaries can become professionals, and professionals can decide to write for themselves.
Evelina Bilyak, 12, Krasnoyarsk
I think there should be an alternative answer to any question. I would rephrase the topic to ask: “Is being a writer a profession or a state of mind?”
Let’s start by asking: What is a profession anyway? The way I see it, a profession is required, hard work. Wikipedia gave me an exact definition: it’s a line of work, usually the way a person makes a living, a profession that’s the result of study. I felt like writing doesn’t match up with that criteria at all. A line of work implies something hard, and writing isn’t hard. It’s easy—if, of course, the words come from your heart. And writers write not to earn money, but because they can’t not write. Just look at our teenage contributors. We may not be real writers yet, but I don’t know a lot of real ones yet anyway. :) When the lockdown began and the editor-in-chief wrote that Papmambook won’t be able to send out books (our payment) for the time being, we all said that getting books was a nice perk but not the reason we write and publish our essays. So for a writer it’s much more important to pour their emotions out on the page, share their impressions with others, than to get paid for their efforts.
I did end up finding one shared trait between writing and other professions, though. I used to think that it was something you couldn’t learn to do, but now that I get back my edited texts, I catch myself thinking that I’ve started to be a lot more careful with my words. Even though it’s really hard, I try to cut out those favorite, wordy parts. I guess I could say I’m learning how to write.
A writer isn’t a profession then, it’s a state of mind.
Yana Kabachenko, 15, Chisinau, Moldova
Why do we ask ourselves if being a writer is a profession, when we don’t question the status of accountants, programmers, or lawyers? Those are also lines of work where people do well with certain skills. It’s like there’s something different about writing: it’s a profession, but for some reason it’s hard to call it that.
Let’s play the “associations” game: say the first three words that come to mind when you hear “writer.” For me, it’s “ideas,” “reader,” “hard work.” Someone else might think of books, inspiration, creativity, or talent.
When I looked at these definitions as a group, I realized that writing, just like a typical recognized profession, has one big advantage. It’s very freedom-loving. With every written book, a writer expands his own boundaries—explores new ideas, produces new characters and plot twists. You can’t rest on your laurels when you’ve got your readers who want to be surprised and entertained. Imagination and creativity are also related to freedom—freedom of thought. Even though working on a book is painstaking work, it’s also a creative process, which every writer adjusts to their needs. In a word—being a writer is a profession with features that make it more unusual and demand twice the work.
A conclusion of sorts
I once met with a group of children in Novosibirsk. The conversation started the “usual” way, with the question: “Why did you choose to be a writer by profession?”
I told them: you see, I didn’t choose. And writing isn’t always a profession. Let’s think what else it could be.
The kids said: Oh! So it’s a hobby then?
“A hobby is great of course. But it doesn’t sound like much of a commitment. We think of hobbies as something you do in your free time. Maybe there’s another word?”
The kids said: Ah! We know! Something to do with inspiration!
“Now that could lead us somewhere. Though it’s taken me a long time to figure this out. Let’s try something together. What’s the root of “inspiration”? What’s another word that ends in “-spiration”?
“Respiration!” said the kids.
That’s right, I said. Now watch. I’m going to take a breath. A very deep breath.
And I took a very big demonstrative breath, until my eyes were big and round.
“See what’s happening? Now what do I need to do?”
“Breathe out!” - said the kids.
“What if I don’t? What’ll happen then?”
“Well,” said the kids. “It won’t be good. You won’t feel well.”
“Now I think you’ve explained what inspiration is all about.”
“But no,” said one girl, who wasn’t satisfied with that simple answer. “How do you write?”
I didn’t have to answer. Because Kirill (a serious, active boy, who looks like he’s had an insight) came to my rescue.
“She just explained it all to you! She breathes in so much so deeply, that now she has to breathe out. Or she’ll suffocate. What don’t you understand?”
A humane look at writing, I’d say.
Marina Aromshtam, Editor-in-Chief of Papmambook website
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
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