Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Are you a writer or an author? (03/15/08)

Featured writer: Marilyn Petty

Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Barbara Toboni
Betty Rodgers
Betty Winslow
Christine Falcone
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Karen Betaque
Marilyn Petty
Susan Bono
Thursday R. Bram

Are you an author or a writer?

by Marilyn Petty

"Author, Author," shouts the crowd until the curtains part and Author emerges to wild applause and ear-piercing whistles. Success, honors, prizes, adulations! Authors belong to the public. They appear on stage, behind a mike, at book readings, signing and selling their books to adoring fans. They are at ease before an audience, witty, avuncular, champions of the downtrodden, helpers of the needy . Authors are terribly, horribly visible to hordes of people, masses of strangers. That is why I am a writer and not an author.

Marilyn Petty is busy sequestered in her writing den in what might be Santa Rosa - or not - far from any madding crowds.

Right Where it Hurts

  by Arlene L. Mandell

Ouch! What a painful question. Of course Iʼm a writer, have been these many years, with hundreds--perhaps thousands--of published works everywhere from reliable, mainstream Good Housekeeping magazine and The New York Times to tiny, intriguing Brevities, a 3" x 4" poetry publication from Sacramento, CA.

But Iʼm not an author, if by that pretentious word you mean someone who publishes (even self-publishes) books. Could I put together a book or three? Probably. But the sun is shining, and Maxwell, my golden retriever puppy needs me to play Toss a Well-Chewed Stick, and Iʼm too young (only 67) to write my memoirs. Yet.

Arlene L. Mandell is more or less retired.

Just Say It

  by Barbara Toboni

"What if all restraints were taken away, what would be your dream job?" This question was asked by our college professor one day. We took turns answering.

"Author." I said this at the late age of 48, older than most of the other students in class. But the word, spoken with reverence, caused people to turn around and look at me. It was as if author was a dark secret I'd been keeping to myself for years.

And writer? Writer is like the understudy, whereas author is like the major motion picture star. Now appearing: AUTHOR.

Bravo! Fans would jump to their feet.

At the time the instructor asked me to be more specific. "What type of author would you be, fiction, non-fiction? What do you write?"

"Poetry and some short stories," I answered.

The instructor said, "Don't plan on making lots of money." There was laughter.

"I know," I said.

And I continued to work as a bookkeeper. Isn't that odd? Book keeper?

Barbara Toboni authors in Napa, CA.

Are you a writer or an author?

  by Betty Rodgers

Contemplating this issue's question, I turn to the dictionary and search for a clever idea, something more interesting than how a reader would typically respond to the connotations of the two words. No surprise, the definition for "author" is "writer," and vice versa.

I tackle the assignment anyway, writing madly for a few minutes. Then I pause and read over the rough draft. One word comes to mind: trite.

My most potent memory of the word, "trite," is from 7th grade English class. Our strikingly beautiful teacher, Michelle Karlton, had asked us to pen an essay about something we'd done over the weekend. This was in the early Sixties, and I had a glorious time recounting a visit to a Monterey coffee house where my cousin's band was playing. I wrote about the musicians, the beverages, the people there and the rickety bookshelf laden with Steinbecks, Jack Londons, and, of course, the beat poets. One title in particular, "Pink Beans Boiling," has stayed with me undoubtedly because I wrote about it. I waxed eloquent about "how the other half lives," and was horrified when the essay promptly came back with Mrs. Karlton's boldly red-penciled "trite" written in the margin. As a humble reminder, this essay has a permanent home among my keepsakes.

Mrs. Karlton expected much from us. She looked and acted a good deal like her idol, Sophia Loren, demanding that we question the status quo of our everyday lives. She taught us about listening to the new, revolutionary FM radio stations for unclouded opinions and ideas, to read the ingredients on bread wrappers and consider the cumulative effects of those preservatives on our health, and to read, read, read.

Many years later my mother sent a newspaper clipping about the death of Michelle Karlton. The teacher had been driving her sports car on the Garden Highway in Sacramento when a tree fell and killed her instantly. The article recounted the vast number of students whom she influenced over the years, and cited her flair for fashion. I could envision my former mentor that day in a convertible with the top down, a scarf tied around her head, big movie-star sunglasses, and the radio tuned to Bill Moyers or All Things Considered on NPR.

I wonder how Michelle Karlton would respond to the question of author versus writer as I recall the Walker Evans quote my husband uses on his website, "Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." I'm certain Mrs. Karlton's opinion would be anything but trite, and that she would say it doesn't matter what we call ourselves as long as we are learning and writing.

Betty Rodgers eavesdrops, listens to NPR, and reads labels in Boise, Idaho.

Someone Else Can Look it Up

  by Betty Winslow

Well, without looking the two words up, "author" says to me someone who writes about people and events he or she imagined into being, while "writer" is simply someone who writes, often for other reasons than publication. In that case, I'm a writer. I love fiction, but don't seem to have the knack of coming up with it on my own. Oh, I can do dialogue--but plots and characters and the rest, not so much. I'll write non- fiction, book reviews, poetry, and other stuff as the spirit inspires, but I'll leave fiction to those who do it well.

Betty Winslow, writing all sorts of other stuff in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Wearing it Well

  by Christine Falcone

My husband loves to tell people I'm an author. I'm forever correcting him, making sure to note the fact that authors are published (aren't they?). We go round and round on this point, me preferring the cozy hand-knit sweater of "writer" to "author". I can don the title of "writer" easily, walk around the house in it, take a break from my laptop and fix myself a cup of tea without so much as a scratchy label at the back of my neck.

Oh, I don't feel like writing about this today. I feel like writing about the sea of golden yellow mustard I see in field after field along the back roads of Marin and Sonoma Counties. I want to write about the profusion of wild flowers dotting every green hillside. I want to write about the sad, black eyes of the dead baby seal washed up on the beach last Friday, how my tears came at the empty echo of its cries for its mother. I want to write about how nice it is to be reunited with my family after my weeklong writer's retreat to Stinson Beach, my daughter's sweet voice not just something at the other end of the phone anymore. She cried this morning when I dropped her off at school, big whale tears, unrelenting until I offered to take off my sweater and leave it with her, even though I knew I'd be cold the entire morning. Ah well, a small price to pay for her happiness.

Am I a writer or an author? I am a writer, I suppose, because that's what I do every day. I write. And I have aspirations to one day be a published author. If nothing else, so my husband can stop embarrassing me at dinner parties.

Christine Falcone isn't sure if she's a writer or an author. She's grappling with the question while working on a new novel inside the beet-colored walls of her writing studio.

Oh God, who am I?

  by David S. Johnson

I was writing my epitaph when the bus hit me. The LSU Tiger Girls dance team - resplendent in their snug-fitting purple tops baring their bronzed midriffs still glistening from their recent work-out - clamors off the bus and surround my twisted body on the asphalt. Some cover their mouths and some begin to cry. A beautiful brunette picks up the piece of paper I was writing on.

Here lies David, a brilliant author, writer, essayist, scribe, teller of tales, raconteur…
(If we knew the html, each word would be crossed out...Ed.)

The wind shifts and she covers her nose to a fierce stench. It is then that everyone realizes that I have soiled myself on the pavement.

I am dead, but comfortable in my lack of existence. I am still lying on my back but not on the pavement and with clean britches. I look up to see the most beautiful being in the universe standing over me. Not quite male, not quite female and not quite human. The figure leans closer to my face and looks into my eyes. I start to weep.

"Shit your pants, huh?" the figure says.

I shake my head. "What?"

"Yeah, that's got to be embarrassing. Especially in front of those women."

"Who are you?"

"Different folks know me by different names."

"Are you God?"

"You can call me Herman." Herman helps me up and I follow him down a beach. The waves wash away my footprints as the sun sets on the horizon. "So, what were you working on?"

"My epitaph."

"How apropos."

"Not really. It was an idea I was working on for an essay."

"Well the good news is you don't have to write the essay any more."

"I know, but I told Ms. Susan I'd have it in by the end of the week. She's gonna kill me."

"Already taken care of. What was the essay about?"

"Whether I was an author or a writer. I never wrote a book, so I don't feel like an author and I feel weird saying I'm a writer. I feel like I get the same disapproving looks from people if I were to tell them I was in a band. As if people are waiting to ask, Yeah, but what are you going to do when you grow up?"

Herman chuckles. "Do you like what you do?"

"I do, but I don't write often and when I read short stories or essays from literary types I just scratch my head. I don't think I'm literary enough to be considered a writer."

"You were hit by a bus while writing your epitaph, weren't you? I say that reeks of irony. Literary types love that kind of stuff. Though it may just reek of unfortunate circumstance and not be true literary irony. I could never get that one straight."

"Me neither." We walk for while on a beach that has no end. "Where are we going?" I ask.

"I don't know, I was following you."

"Really? I was following you. I thought there was some after-life revelation you were taking me to."

"Nope. I was just giving you your idea of heaven, which I have to say is pretty cliché. You'd think a so-called writer could be a little more creative."

"I never said I was a writer. I said I don't know what to call myself. People call you a bunch of different names. Which one is the right one?"

Herman stops walking and says, "It doesn't matter what folks call me, as long as they read what I have to say."

David is alive with clean underwear and still trying figure out who he is Baton Rouge, LA.

Are you an author or a writer?

  by Don Edgers

John Steinbeck, during an interview in Sweden after receiving the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, responded to the question about how he looked upon himself as an author: "I have never looked upon myself as an author — I don't think I have ever considered myself an author. I've considered myself a writer, because that's what I do. I don't know what an author does."

I cringe at the last sentence, because he was giving an impromptu response - something writers seldom do on paper. Before making a written response to the question, some checking of facts or definitions concerning "author" and "writer" would be in order. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "Author" is defined as the original writer of a literary work - one who practices writing as a profession, or the originator or creator.

All of us who submit to Tiny Lights would meet at least two or the criteria to be labeled author.

Synonyms for author include: inventor, architect, builder, creator, designer, framer, and mastermind.

So all of us who (v.) assume the responsibility for content of published text, author. Thus, we are not writers or authors - but both.

Don Edgers is a writer and author in Port Orchard, WA (writer/author Debbie McComber’s stompin’ grounds). Don’s latest book, Fox Island, was released in March by Arcadia Publishing. Check out his book titles on His

Are you an author or a writer?

  by Karen Betaque

I learned what an author is at the age of six or seven. On rainy days my younger sister and I would make a fort in the living room out of a card table draped with old sheets and curtains walling us into a cozy space where we let our imaginations ramble. Our games would vary but a favorite was a box of playing cards, a game called Authors. More interesting than Go Fish, or Old Maid, but just as simple, this game was won by matching the names of famous authors with their pictures.

That's how I learned what an author looked like. Louisa May Alcott was one of the few women admitted into the pantheon of bearded and mustached authors with the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Lewis Stevenson and Mark Twain. This game led us to conclude that to be an author one must be older than our father, have three names (unless you were an eccentric like Mr. Twain), and dress in a waistcoat with a stiff white collar and a buttoned vest. Most had graying temples, rimmed glasses and stern, sober expressions.

For hours in our hideaway we concentrated on matching every serious face to its name. Some we knew from the bedtime stories our parents read, others we learned overhearing adult conversations. Many we were meeting for the first time in this game and would read their contributions to literature in future years.

Bedtime reading was sacred in our house. It was a time spent with the whole family; each of us taking turns choosing which author's work would send us off to dreamland. Mom read to us about the trials of Jo and her sisters in Little Women. When Dad took his turn he was more interested in adventures in far away lands, so Kipling was his favorite but he would often grant our request for a favorite poem from A Child's Garden of Verse.

As we matched up the authors in this game of cards, we knew we were absorbing information about very important, accomplished and acclaimed individuals. Many of their names were embossed on the spines of books that lined our parents' bookshelves. These were people whose written work was worthy of cloth or even leather covers. Most of these volumes lacked pictures so we knew they spoke of grown-up things. These qualities placed the tomes in a category of adult curiosities to be approached with awe and respect.

In the years since those that are set in the glow of early childhood memories, my concept of author has refined. Facial hair, dated fashions and having three names are now only the patina on my emotional response to the word. I fully understand the broad dictionary definition; "Anyone who has written a novel, essay, poem or other literary work can be called an author."

But your question was how do I think of myself? I am quite satisfied with the label "writer." I like the looseness of the term. A person can be a writer if they write and write and never finish anything and the moniker still holds after they publish several bestsellers. The word designates the doing of the craft rather than the result.

My idea of an author is not someone who has named himself (or herself, as the case may be), but a title assigned by readers' acclaim. It's a reward given in appreciation for stories and thoughts, crafted with skill, floated upon our imaginations, making a rich experience. The kernel of this thought, begun in my childhood, has ripened through the years.

Karen Betaque is a writer on her way to becoming an author in Santa Rosa, CA.

Are you an author or a writer?

  by Marilyn Petty

"Author, Author," shouts the crowd until the curtains part and Author emerges to wild applause and ear-piercing whistles. Success, honors, prizes, adulations! Authors belong to the public. They appear on stage, behind a mike, at book readings, signing and selling their books to adoring fans. They are at ease before an audience, witty, avuncular, champions of the downtrodden, helpers of the needy . Authors are terribly, horribly visible to hordes of people, masses of strangers. That is why I am a writer and not an author.

Marilyn Petty is busy sequestered in her writing den in what might be Santa Rosa – or not – far from any madding crowds.

Not Who You Are But What You Are

  by Susan Bono

I used to think of it this way: you're a writer when you're composing, an editor during revision, and an author after a work is complete. But lately I've recognized another role wordsmiths play. You are neither writer nor editor nor author when receiving critique. I don't have an exact name for it yet, but when you're dealing with critical feedback, you're a cross between a court reporter and a spy. Read on for a scenario that attempts to illustrate.

The next time you're in the hot seat in a writing workshop or critique group, imagine you're the trusted personal assistant to a gifted, powerful editor. This editor, after a lifetime of turning countless writers into respected authors, has herself finally written a book and requested feedback. Everyone in the office knows that in spite of years of dishing it out, your boss responds to constructive criticism in one of two ways: as the indignant author who defends every word, or the insecure writer who thinks each comment requires her to explain what she really meant. No one who's read the manuscript wants to deal with the inevitable drama the critique will generate.

On this particular day, you've arrived at the coffee urn, there to discover a clatch of your employer's most astute colleagues so engrossed in discussion they don't notice you. No matter how you felt about your low profile in the past, this time your invisibility is really paying off, because they are discussing the editor's story in a relaxed, candid way, something they could not do in the editor's presence.

This is your big chance to help your deserving boss and move an important project forward. So you slide a notebook out of your pocket and begin jotting comments as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Opinions are coming thick and fast. They're sometimes contradictory, or even unclear. But if you call attention to yourself, the spell will be broken, you will be exposed and suspect, and the honest exchange unfolding before you will come to an awkward halt. You can't think too hard about the rightness or wrongness of any particular insight, because pondering might cause you to miss the real key to the puzzle. You just keep reminding yourself that the real decisions belong to the editor, anyway.

In your role as the smart, sensitive, caring assistant, you discreetly collect as much information as you can with as much neutrality as you can muster. Later on, when the office is quiet, you slip back to your editor's side, get her comfortable with a cup of tea or whatever she might require, and with equal parts honesty and tact, share your findings. You can expect some resistance, some indignation, even some tears. But you have the time, the patience, and the experience to support your editor as she sorts through the comments. You can check in with her to see if she needs more tea or a hankie or a piece of chocolate, but mostly your job is to tell her she knows what's she's doing and leave her to it.

In the end, you may never know which of those captured comments helped your editor solve the mystery that is every rewrite. Sure as shooting you won't get any glory. But when the finished draft appears and it's even better than anyone expected, you'll be glad you listened so quietly and carefully. She couldn't have done it without you, you know.

Susan Bono is taking notes for the Big Shot in Petaluma, CA.

And what do you do, dear?

  by Thursday R. Bram

When I was in elementary school, I informed all the world that, when I grew up, I was going to be a writer.

Today, I am just as sure that I am a writer — not an author. For me, authors have always written books (and often so long ago that said author has since passed on). So far, I've written just about everything but a book: articles, poems, even a few chapters that hoped to grow into a book.

Even if I were to publish a book or two, I believe that I would still refer to myself as a writer, rather than an author. After all, it's what I've always wanted to be.

Thursday R. Bram blogs on the business of writing at

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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