Aspiring vs. Achieving:Claiming the Title of “Writer”

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.

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  • “So maybe it’s more about how we think of ourselves.”

    Absolutely and amen.

    Action follows thought, reality follows action. As above, so below.

    It’s easy for us — no matter what our calling — to fall into the habit of letting other people define who we are, looking to them to tell us where we fit in the world. It’s *far* too easy.

    Added to this is the mild cultural stigma associated with people who pursue a life in the Creative Arts: Actors, Artists, Poets, Musicians, etc. It’s hard to resist the urge to give in to the unspoken apology, to downplay our commitment to our own dreams.

    We hold ourselves back by giving in to this. We shortchange our own self-image when we let the limitations of others define the boundaries of our aspirations. Our work and dreams deserve better.

    The good news is, I think, that it gets easier as we go along. As writers, we define reality. We define ourselves.

    And, when we do, others follow suit. If they don’t . . . no matter. Our reality is broader than theirs. They have to live in our world, not the other way around.

    (Sorry to ramble. Great post, Erika. Thanks for the reminder.)

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  • I didn’t call myself a freelancer until I’d actually published edited articles online (and soon, in print). I’d always seen the dividing line as that element of payment for the actual written word, rather than say, the free fiction on your blog, or something like that.

  • John Remy

    This is an interesting question, and I wonder if one way to answer it is in terms of profession v. calling/vocation. I’ve spent over 15 years as an IT professional, but writing captures more of the essence of who I am, and defines my character more than my knack for databases does. I work to live, but I live for writing. I think that my job might be the best answer for the question, “what do you do?” But writing is who I am.

  • Galendara

    oh, wow, yes. on every point.

    Years ago, after a fairly prestigious opportunity, I proudly called myself “an artist” for a while… but as things dried up, as my own drive dried up… I stopped calling myself that. (For a while I just called myself “housewife”, which killed me ever time, which is so wrong because there is nothing wrong with being a housewife but I didn’t want that label… but… I digress….. um, where was I?)

    Artists use the term “emerging”. at what point am I “emerged”? I admit it; I’m pretty reliant on outside validation (praise, publishing, payment, etc) to help me feel comfortable claiming the label “artist”.

    Lately, I call myself an artist 🙂

  • This line blurs even more now that self-publishing is becoming more legitimate.

    I just returned from a sci-fi con, and declared myself a writer every time I introduced myself, and even though I was honest about where I am in my career, people showered me with more adoration than I thought I deserved. I decided to just go with it. After all, writing a novel is hard, even if it’s not published, and a lot of people respect that.

    And every career is full of people who don’t quite believe they’ve arrived, who don’t feel like they deserve to be where they are. And many people still feel like kids inside, not quite adult, not quite sure how to be like all these other adults.

    Maybe for me that’s why it’s easier just to stand up and say, Yes, I am a writer. Because at one point in my IT career (far to late in it), I realized, Yes, I am a legitimate and smart and productive computer professional, and it’s ok to be the “Expert”. I realized then, as I do now, that no one is going to come down and hand me a graduation certificate. No one gives adults papers of competition like we got in Kindergarten. The people who are important are the people to “do”, the people who hand themselves the certificate at each new level, the people who make the claim and do the work to back it up.

    So yes, I am a writer, an author, because I say so, and because I write. That is all I need. 🙂

  • Stephen King himself described it thusly (from memory):

    “If you are paid for something that you wrote, and you then use that money to pay for your electricity bill, then you are a writer.”

    I am not sure if it pertains specifically to your electricity bill or not.

  • I agree, these are very difficult terms to define. And the truth is, not everyone is going to agree. For me personally–and this is just me–I tend to think of it this way:

    Do you have an idea for a book? Would you like to get it published someday? Awesome, you are 99% of the population.

    Have you actually started to write the book? Have you “studied” the craft of writing in some way–not necessarily the classes, but through intensive reading, or online, or something? Have you taken steps and make time in your schedule for just you and the page? Then you’re a writer.

    Do you have a published book? Then you’re an author.

    By my definitions–and these again are just the way that I personally think about it for myself–“writer” is a pretty broad category. You could have people just starting out, or people on the edge of author-dom.

    As you said though, the most important thing is that you are comfortable with whatever you’re calling yourself. It took me a long time, but I am finally able and happy to say: I am a writer.

  • Ruadhan

    This sounds a bit like the ‘storyteller vs. writer’ conversation. I think that one can make a case that anyone who puts to work to create qualifies as storyteller, writer, AND author. If you want to get picky about definitions, however, my personal definitions are as follows:

    Storyteller: is primarily concerned with connecting with the reader/listener.

    Writer: uses the written word to create works of prose or poetry.

    Author: gets paid for their work, even if just in copies.

    There’s a lot of overlap between these categories, and I would argue that no one is all one or another. But that’s at the thin end, where things get published. At the thick end, where the wannabes and the wouldbes and the willbes hang out, I think you can still make a case that they fit into one or more of the above categories, although ‘I wrote 1/3 of a short story!’ or ‘I wrote 4 pages of notes for my multi-novel series!’ gets me grinding my teeth about sharing an appelation.

  • Even worse, I was calling myself a wannabe writer even after having a short story published until Diana Rowland gave me sh*t about it and told me to stop it. I’m afraid of her, so I immediately did. I can say “writer,” still not comfortable saying “author.”

  • Kainja

    I don’t typically call myself a writer, but will say that I write. Until I’m making a living at it I won’t call myself a professional, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to do a professional job.

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  • I just read an article about this here: http://tinyurl.com/68lcbga

    It doesn’t place the validation of being a “real writer” on something external, but it DOES place it on something concrete: namely, wanting to better oneself as a writer, revision, etc. I think it hits the nail on the head.

  • It’s not about he destination, it’s about the journey.

    It is nice to have that ‘outside’ validation that comes with getting published, though.

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