My all-time favorite writer is James Agee. If I could read just one book over and over for the rest of my life, it would be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his journalistically rich and yet highly poetic account of the dirt-poor Alabama sharecroppers he studied and stayed with for eight weeks in 1936. As prose, it is both artistically pleasing and very challenging; it would indeed take a lifetime to absorb the depth of his reportage, his remarkable writing style, and his thoughtful editorializing (which often takes the form of guilt and humility at bearing witness to the sheer decrepitude of his subjects’ lives). Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is simply an astounding work of nonfiction. And yet Agee also wrote fiction – his novel A Death In The Family won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously – as well as screenplays (including The African Queen) and poetry; he was also a noted film critic.
Agee’s versatility is something that I, as a professional writer, admire greatly. Years ago, I interviewed a local author for a weekly newspaper. At the time he was a poetry professor at a community college who had just published his first novel. Over drinks at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, he told me he used to be known as “the poetry guy,” but now colleagues were calling him “the fiction guy.” We had an interesting conversation about the misconception that one can only be a certain kind of writer.
Throughout my career, I have never wanted to be pigeonholed. My degree is in journalism, my first job was in public relations, and then I became a copywriter, which is essentially what I’ve been doing the last 26 of my 30 post-collegiate years. Still, ask me what I am, and I will proudly say, a writer. Though I write nonfiction in my day job, and have worked as a freelance journalist, I have also written a novel (on a dare), short stories, poetry, song lyrics, and a couple of one-act plays. I’m not saying they’re all shining examples of their respective genres, but I have interest and facility in all of these areas.
And yet when I tell someone I’m a writer, they want to know which kind (or if I’ve written something they might have heard of). Am I a technical writer (for some reason, that’s what most people ask first)? A novelist? Journalist? Screenwriter? When I say that I am a copywriter, the other person tends to look disappointed, as if a copywriter is a cheap knock-off of an actual Writer. This New Yorker cartoon really hits home with me:
In an interview granted just months before his untimely death in 1975, Rod Serling was asked about his legacy. “I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now,” he said. “I don’t care that they’re not able to quote a single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer.’ That’s sufficiently an honored position for me.”