Plumber or Priest? The Conceit of Being a Writer

During a recent talk at a homeschool convention, ND Wilson attempted to smash the lofty conceit that can surround the writing profession like a fog of cheap incense.

He said that being a writer is like being a plumber. Or a UPS delivery guy delivering a package. A writer delivers what is needed, where it is needed, and there is nothing about the profession that is necessarily more sacred than other vocations. Above all, you are in service to others, and not a tortured soul vomiting out your own self-expression.

This is in stark contrast to Anne Lamott. In the introduction of Bird by Bird, her book about writing, she talks about writers who could “create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.” This, after saying that she feels there is something “noble and mysterious” about writing.

This language no doubt helps to puff up the self-importance of wannabe writers reading her book, looking for something to fluff their feathers.

Later on, Lamott goes on a few creepy asides. At one point, she describes one of her friends who had made “poetry” their new religion, and towards the end of the book, in the same vein, she compares the writing profession to the priesthood.

This attitude isn’t that uncommon. It’s part of what helps to power modern journalistic arrogance, resulting in journalists who see themselves as gatekeepers to the temple of truth. This self-image is part of the reason why they get so upset when they are blasphemed, particularly by someone like Trump.

I don’t want to hate on Lamott too much, because her book is packed with great advice about grinding away at the work and how fame, as a writer, is one of the lamest things ever. But I found the contrast striking.

With one, a writer is just a blue-collar worker getting their hands dirty. With the other, a writer is more like one with secret knowledge bestowing their mystical gifts on a grateful humanity, and being given tribute in return. The latter is a bit more flattering, of course. Just like other strains of idolatry and gnosticism.

But a plumber…well, he gets the water flowing. It can be a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

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2 thoughts on “Plumber or Priest? The Conceit of Being a Writer”

  1. Priest might actually be a useful analogy for a writer, if you take into account that they’re not only involved in worship, but also have to perform the hard manual labor of handling and butchering animals all day. I’m sure that wasn’t the sense ‘priesthood’ was being used in your citations, but it seems like it would have been hard, hot, bloody work.

    1. You’re right in the sense of bloody work. I think the contrast is in the sense of status and importance. You shouldn’t get a big head either way, but view yourself as someone just providing a needed service.

      Plumbers are also doing God’s work 🙂

      I think it’s a similar phenomenon that causes the cries for diversity in the technology sector, but keeps those same voices largely silent in sectors related to sanitation.

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