word craft


A Professional Dentist

A pro­fes­sion­al dentist?

I was read­ing Gaudy Night, the 1936 nov­el by Dorothy Say­ers, (a very inter­est­ing and good British writer) when I came upon a curi­ous pas­sage, an exchange which takes place between Fred­dy Arbuth­not, a wealthy man about town, and Har­ri­et Vane, a writer:

“…but [said Mr. Arbuth­not.] mild old gen­tle­men do some­times break­out into a spot of tut-tut­tery. How about a brandy? Wait­er, two liqueur brandies. Are you writ­ing any more books?”

Sup­press­ing the rage that this ques­tion always rous­es in a pro­fes­sion­al writer, Har­ri­et admit­ted that she was.

“It must be splen­did to be able to write,” said Mr. Arbuth­not. “I often think I could spin a good yarn myself if…”

I have had this exchange count­less time dur­ing my long writ­ing career. Indeed, I heard it three nights ago when com­ing across an acquain­tance in a movie lob­by. And it is not about my advanc­ing age because I heard it many years ago when very much younger.

That it appears in this book, which was writ­ten before I was born, sug­gests how often the ques­tion is asked.


I sus­pect it comes about because of the very use of the words “pro­fes­sion­al writer,” in Sayer’s text. Most peo­ple, I believe, find it dif­fi­cult to under­stand what being a “pro­fes­sion­al” writer means. Con­sid­er, the term is nev­er affixed to say, a den­tist. Would you ever use the term pro­fes­sion­al den­tist? Or Pro­fes­sion­al priest? As con­trast­ed to ama­teur den­tist. An ama­teur priest?

True, you can make a dis­tinc­tion between a pro­fes­sion­al cook and an ama­teur cook.

Which, com­ing around to the orig­i­nal ques­tion, sug­gests peo­ple have a hard time think­ing about what a pro­fes­sion­al writer does; that is to say, makes a liv­ing by writ­ing. Sure­ly, writ­ing must be a hob­by, a pas­time, a diver­sion, per­haps even a dis­trac­tion. Because, if you’ve been to school, you can write.

Every­body writes (not real­ly) but few write books. There­fore, the pro­fes­sion of writ­ing, by which, among oth­er things, you pay one’s bills, doesn’t seem quite plausible.

And indeed, the ques­tion, “Are you still writ­ing?” is often fol­lowed, as above, by the state­ment, “I have often thought of writ­ing….” whatever.

No doubt peo­ple come across more pro­fes­sion­al den­tists than they do pro­fes­sion­al writers.

There­fore, per­haps the solution—and the answer to that ques­tion— “are you still writing?”—is for writ­ers to open offices, so that read­ers can make an appoint­ment, and lis­ten when an author reads from his or her work.

I can just hear the pro­fes­sion­al writer start­ing the ses­sions by say­ing, “Now lis­ten care­ful­ly. This won’t be but a moment’s pain.”

4 thoughts on “A Professional Dentist”

  1. I have had the same kind of com­ment as a “pro­fes­sion­al” librar­i­an — “what fun to come to the library to read every day”, or “I would like to do what you do when I retire” or even worse — “how many hours do you vol­un­teer here?” Being a librar­i­an or a writer is hard work! (I’ve tried being a writer and failed miserably).

    • When I was work­ing full time as a librar­i­an, I was sit­ting at the front desk, when a chap walked up to me and said, “I wish I could get a cushy job like you.” I replied, “It takes brains.” He turned beet red, and retreated.


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