This is my public retraction: Josh Olson is not an asshole.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in March, and I’m sitting in historic Black’s BBQ full of close to 3lbs of meat (sides are a waste of time) after already eating once that day at the also-historic Smitty’s right down the street. Amidst the chaos of SXSW, some friends and colleagues have decided to get away from it all with a short drive to the small town of Lockhart with the promise of great ribs and great conversation. Both promises are kept, but at the tail end of the meal while the discussion mostly turns to grunts and existential questions of why that much meat was consumed, a figure sits down next to me and sticks out his hand.
That figure is Josh Olson. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. Man that I called an asshole on the internet.
He’s come down for the film festival (and for the BBQ), and when the seat frees up next to me, he takes it as the opportunity to sit down amidst the empty plates to speak to me about the article I wrote last year in response to his public admission that he would not read your fucking script.
With close friends and film critics like Drew McWeeny, Eric Vespe, and the entire Reject crew sitting around – there was a palpable energy like the kind found on a schoolyard where a bloody nose has been promised. Fortunately, there was no blood spilled that day – only BBQ sauce.
Those searching for the irony of a man (who is irritated by being approached by strangers who bombard him about writing) approaching a stranger (to bombard him about writing) will find it, but I have to admit that the entire discussion was just about as civil as one can get. Olson was a complete gentlemen. In fact, he proved himself to be a very classy guy.
We spoke briefly about the article. He mentioned that he’d gotten loving emails from fellow pros who thanked him for writing the missive. He mentioned that the spotlight he gained from it has snagged him some job opportunities. I congratulated him on both and agreed that, yes, the original situation that sparked his editorial was pretty annoying.
I also mentioned that him getting positive feedback from colleagues was tantamount to any group of similarly-employed people grunting in agreement when one of their ranks brings up a pet peeve.
He asked why he should have to deal with it. I said it was the salt he had to take with his cake.
Then the conversation took a turn toward what the true disagreement was, and it’s something that he and I will most likely always disagree on: the definition of a writer.
Olson never called himself a writer until he got his first paycheck for doing it. He also makes no bones about sharing his disdain for people who don’t get paid yet still use the word when describing themselves – claiming that it disrespects his profession. Also, not getting paid to write makes you a schmuck. His reasoning for this is something that he could better enunciate because for all the discussion we had about it that day, I’m not really sure what it is.
Money, after all, is an arbitrary delineation point. To claim that being handed a check is what makes you what you are belittles the intrinsic value of that accomplishment (whether it be writing or plumbing), and it’s completely discretionary. Does being paid once for an article or short story make you a professional for life? Does being paid $1,000 for an editorial instead of $100 makes you 10 times more of a writer? If Time Magazine gave me a cent for a feature, does that make me any more worthy to call myself a writer than the next guy?
I prefer the simpler, more classic definition. This also happens to be the actual definition. To Write is a verb. Writer is one who writes. As far as I know, there’s no talk about money in the Oxford English entry whatsoever. If you wake up in the morning and write, then you’re a writer. It’s probably too lofty of an example, but by Olson’s definition, J.D. Salinger stopped being a professional a long time ago. Royalty checks are one thing, but Salinger wrote voluminously after publishing his last short story and stored them away forever. This, according to Olson, also makes Salinger a schmuck. Doing all that hard work and never seeing a dime from it.
The truth is that Olson is hung up on an adjective, not a noun. He sees the word “professional” as being somehow tattooed onto the word “writer” because he views it as a profession. That’s not to say that he’s not passionate about the art or that he doesn’t work until his fingers bleed (no one makes it to that level without both), but he certainly sees the task at hand as one that pays his rent. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t buy their bread with scripts isn’t a writer. They’re just amateur writers. And that’s okay.
I see no need to provide further proof of their status as writers beyond the fact that the word “writer” is in the phrase “amateur writer.” This seems achingly obvious.
Although our discussion, like this article, disintegrated into semantics, the semantics are on the side that claims that writing is an activity that doesn’t necessarily require funding to be legitimate. Yes, it’s always nice to be legitimized by someone believing in your work, and someone investing in it with legal tender is the height of compliment, but it’s absolutely not needed to call yourself a writer. If someone asks what you do for a living, that’s a different question altogether.
The point is that if you write, then you’re a writer. If you get paid, you’re a lucky sucker who is fortunate enough to have (most likely) combined hard work and opportunity into making a living off what you love to do. If you’re still an amateur, try not to bother the pros too much (or at least avoid Olson at parties or lunch outings), and if you’re a pro, try not to be bothered when a 10th grader in a creative writing class uses the same word for herself that just happens to be on your business card.
I realize that this editorial has little to nothing to do with film, which is why I’ve posted it up in the editor’s blog. By the end of my meeting with Olson, we were smiling for photographs, and we were even cordial to each other when we bumped into each other at the closing night screening of Four Lions. The disagreement is still in tact, but it was nice to meet the man.
So I take it back. Josh Olson is definitely not an asshole. But he’s definitely got a wrong-headed view about what makes a writer.