A while back I participated in a discussion on Twitter about when (or if) writers should refer to themselves as “aspiring.” We weren’t talking about people who haven’t started writing yet, but will unleash the next great bestseller on the world immediately upon their retirements (seems everyone is an aspiring writer by this definition), but rather people who’ve written at least a story or two; committed creative words to a page. The discussion was about when it’s okay to proclaim oneself a “writer,” or an “author,” without qualification. Where is the threshold between trying and becoming? Or, is there even a threshold? Does anyone who has put pen to paper, no matter how fleetingly or poorly, deserve to be called a “writer?”
Defining what makes a writer is a tricky business. It’s not like other jobs where the role is clear-cut. You’re either are a florist or you aren’t. A police officer, a janitor, or not. Getting hired, and successfully completing the necessary educational or training requirements, determines your vocation. Writing, on the other hand, involves a lot of trying and failing. Lonely hours spent perched before a computer, teasing reluctant words from your brain; countless drafts left unfinished, consigned to the metaphorical trunk, or burned; dozens of form PFO letters from faceless editors.
Yet if you were to ask an average person what it means to be a writer, nine out of ten would say having a novel published by a major publishing house, and available for sale in large bookstores. I’d be willing to bet most writers have had a conversation along the following lines:*
Random person: Oh! You’re a writer?! How interesting! Have you written a novel? Where can I buy it?
Writer: Yes, I have written a novel…
Random person: [wide eyes]
Writer: …but it’s not good enough, so I put it in a drawer and have started on the next one. [pause] Stephen King wrote a number of drafts before getting his first novel published, you know.
Random person: [puzzled, slightly pitying nod]
Writer: I’ve sold a couple of short stories, though.
Random person: Oh! To Reader’s Digest?
Writer: No. [proceeds to describe some obscure short story market, appearing on some obscure website]
Random person: Hm. Well, do you at least get a cut of the profits?
Writer: Um…no. I got paid $5.00. But that’s pretty good, because it’s a reprint, and reprints are hard to sell.
Random person: How many stories can you write per day?
(Left out of this conversation is Random Person’s reaction when Writer confesses to writing geeky stuff like fantasy or science fiction, instead of high literature, suspense, or chick-lit, because that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)
Demonstrating sufficient writerly cred to the lay-person requires either tangible proof (a novel on bookstore shelves) and/or pocketfuls of money (ha ha), otherwise what you’re doing is seen as little more than an interesting hobby. No matter that you revise your drafts seventeen times, have mastered the use of objective correlative, or that your status could change overnight, on the whim of a friendly editor or agent—it’s still just a hobby; we stopped getting paid for trying in kindergarten, or something like that.
Yes, being a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author would be nice, but surely we can call ourselves writers at some point well short of this high water mark, can’t we? I can think of a number of other milestones that might qualify one as a full-fledged writer: completing your first story/poem; sharing your work with someone who’s not related to you; your first submission (and rejection); first sale; first review—bonus points for a good review; first professional sale (i.e. five cents per word plus); becoming a member of a professional writing organization such as SFWA; getting an agent; winning a contest or an award; getting your novel published by an independent publisher, etc.
But, with the exception of simply finishing a story, all of these things depend on outside validation. They imply we’re not writers unless we’re paid, praised, published, or recognized in some way.
That’s certainly one way to look at things, and many of us do hope to get our work out there and (gasp) make a living from it, however meagre, but are we not officially “writers” until this happens?
Truth is, the vast majority of us won’t reach bestseller status (or anywhere close) and will remain in a state of striving. When we reach a lesser milestone, we’ll immediately become impatient to achieve the next. Success will always be around the next corner, and of only momentary satisfaction when caught. It seems the true joy is in the act of writing; the act of transforming blank pages into touching, or disturbing, or funny tales, where there were none before.
So maybe it’s more about how we think of ourselves. If you write, and consider yourself a writer, maybe it’s okay to just say it, without any proof or caveats. Maybe trying is the essence of thing. Maybe kindergartners are on to something.
Or…maybe not. What do you think?
* This may or may not be an aggregation of a number of real life conversations, and there may or may not be residual bitterness.