Am I a writer (and what does that even mean)?

Yesterday, someone called me a writer. So I laughed in his face.

Then he asked me why I thought that was so funny, and I didn’t know what to say. Just to put the conversation into context, this was someone I don’t know very well, who I’d just told about my theatre reviewing and blogging. So as far as he was concerned, I write stuff, other people read it – and that makes me a writer.

The truth is, I do spend most of my time writing these days. Whether I’m at work coming up with marketing copy, at home composing a blog post or on the train assembling my thoughts into a theatre review, the end result is the same: words on paper. There’s even the draft of a novel from last year’s NaNoWriMo languishing on my computer, waiting for me to come back and make it readable.

So why is the idea of being a writer so strange? Perhaps it’s because in my head, a writer is someone like Dickens or Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. All of whom are so many light years out of my league that I can barely even think of us in the same sentence.

Or is it because I think of a ‘writer’ as someone who makes a living from putting words together? I’ve never made any money from my writing (unless you count the stuff I do at work, which isn’t quite the same thing), so if we’re using this definition, I’m not a writer.

But I do find it interesting that in my Twitter bio, I quite cheerfully describe myself as a blogger (because I blog) and a theatre reviewer (because I review theatre) – and yet I get uncomfortable applying the same logic to writing.

working from home

I have no problem putting these kinds of labels on other people, mind you. One of my friends revealed today that she’s written stories, fan fiction, plays, songs and scripts, which – in my head – makes her a writer… but she doesn’t think so. And I know someone who takes amazing photos, but can’t think of herself as a photographer, and I’m constantly telling her off about it. No doubt she’d do the same to me if our roles were reversed.

Before I started writing this post, it occurred to me to see what definition other people use when they talk about writers, so I asked some of my colleagues for their views. In doing so, I may inadvertently have started an office debate club. But that’s another story.

The responses varied from ‘someone who writes novels or movie scripts’ to ‘anyone who writes, no matter what genre; even a shopping list can be as expressive as a novel’. One person was adamant that you don’t have to be published to be a writer, another said you qualify if you write something and share it with others, and someone else thought if you write something that evokes an emotional response in its readers, then you can consider yourself a member of the writers’ club.

Then it all got a bit philosophical, when one of the guys started talking about the paradox of the heap: if you start with a grain of rice and keep adding one at a time, at what point does it become a heap? And this can also be applied to writing – if you’ve written one blog post, does that make you a writer? Probably not – unless it was an amazing one. But if you keep writing them, at what point do you cross that line? As someone else pointed out, it’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer, where there’s a clear qualification point. So who gets to decide the tipping point?

And here’s another interesting question: if person A writes something amazing but never shows it to anyone, and person B writes something mediocre that gets published and becomes a huge success (I’m not naming any names; you’re free to draw your own conclusions), does that mean B’s more of a writer than A? (And what does that mean – more of a writer? Surely you either are one or you aren’t?)

Sunny lunchtime

As you can probably tell, we love a good discussion in our office. Almost as much as we love cake. But still, it’s funny how everyone’s answer was slightly different. Who would have thought one simple question would open up such a huge can of worms? Or should that be words…

So let’s come back to that conversation I had yesterday. Who was right? I guess everyone’s answer to that question will be different, depending on their own personal definition of the word. I’d honestly never even considered it before, and although my automatic response was laughter, I’m now starting to wonder if the most important thing you need in order to be a writer is just the confidence to say that you are one. So let’s give this a try:

I’m a writer. Because I write stuff.

That feels very weird, and for some reason I had to fight the overwhelming urge to add ‘so there’ at the end of it, as if someone’s about to argue with me. And I think, on reflection, that’s why I laughed yesterday – because to make this claim feels like I’m somehow elevating myself, which goes against all my natural instincts.

I don’t expect to start believing overnight that I’m a writer, just because I typed it out once. I don’t even really think telling myself every night before I go to sleep is going to do the trick – at least not very quickly. But maybe for now it’s enough to just not laugh in someone’s face when they say it. Because we all have to start somewhere, right?

What do you think makes someone a writer? Do you consider yourself to be one? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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15 thoughts on “Am I a writer (and what does that even mean)?

  1. This was a lovely read! Thank you so much for this. I feel EXACTLY the same – and I react the same way as well. My significant other has started calling me a writer, and that doesn’t sit with me. Neither does blogger, really – I feel as if having only started a couple months ago means I’m not yet a real blogger. Or like you suggest with writing – I’m not making money from it, so that means I’m not a true blogger, right?

    But the way you point out that friends who take pictures, or play music, are photographers are musicians really puts it into perspective. We all have such high expectations of what those things are that we hesitate to put ourselves under that category! I feel like I should just own the title, even though it makes me so uncomfortable.. and I probably won’t!

    Thanks again, I really enjoyed this post!

    1. Thank you! I was a bit nervous about posting it, so I really appreciate your comment – and it’s great to know I’m not alone! Although I think if you’ve got a blog and you’re posting regularly, even if it’s only been a couple of months, you can legitimately call yourself a blogger. I think when I started my blog, it hadn’t really occurred to me that people did make money from it, so it never crossed my mind that I might not be a ‘real’ blogger! And by the way, for what it’s worth, I think you’re a fantastic writer 🙂

  2. Great read! I think everyone is a writer, they just don’t see themselves as one. It’s like the old story of asking a group of kindergarteners who is a singer or who is an artist? They all raise their hands. But by the time they get to middle school, high school, or adulthood the number of hands in the air greatly decreases because their own definition of what a singer or dancer is changes. Just my two cents.

    1. That’s actually a really good point – when I was little I used to tell people all the time that I was going to write books when I grew up, and somewhere along the way that turned into something I was ashamed to admit to people (at least until very recently, when I’ve started to relax a bit about it). Thanks for reading!

  3. This was so funny because I very, very, very recently started to consciously think of myself as a writer once more. When I was a young child (and easily thought very highly of myself) I told anyone who would listen what I was, and then I got self conscious and thought, well surely I’ll never be great and surely I’ll never make a living off of it… similar to what you were thinking. “I’m not good enough to call myself that.”

    Lately I’ve been thinking that, while words like author, journalist, blogger, reviewer, playwright, and essayist might denote specific roles and perhaps experience, qualifications, and production, you are a writer simply if that word and that identity resonates with you.

    1. Me too! When I was little, I used to tell everyone I was going to write books when I was a grown up, and somewhere between then and now I got embarrassed about it. I think you’re totally right though, writer is a label we have to apply to ourselves when we’re ready. Thank you so much for commenting, it’s lovely to know I’m not the only person who’s struggled with this!

  4. Great post -if you love to write, why not call yourself a writer? Doesn’t have to be tied to compensation -they’re all just labels anyway. I think the connection piece is what does it for me. When I started getting comments about my blogposts waaaaay back when, and interacting via my blog, that’s when I really felt I could call myself a writer. Now hardly anybody reads, ( to be fair I just stopped my 2year hiatus- so I’m ok with it) but it would be nice see comments again.

    1. Thanks Karen – I know what you mean actually, feeling that someone’s enjoyed a post I’ve written makes a huge difference. What’s your blog link? I’d love to take a look 🙂

  5. I always hesitate when someone asks if I am a writer. I’ve had a couple of short stories published, wrote a weekly column for a paper, and blog – yet rarely call myself a writer. I met Jodi Picoult at a book signing and she asked me if I was a writer. I told her I was trying to be a writer. Then she asked if I ever wrote anything. When I said yes, she said “Then you ARE a writer” 🙂

    1. Oh wow, thank you so much for sharing this! That must have been pretty inspiring. And it definitely sounds to me like you can call yourself a writer! 🙂

  6. I enjoyed reading that – and it has given me food for thought. I have always thought of a writer as someone who has written a novel/book, or who writes for magazines, or has written a play or TV/film scripts etc. I’ve been doing my blog (notice I didn’t use the word writing!) for a few years now and have never thought of myself as a writer. Hmmmm.

    1. I know, it’s so funny – I’d never thought about it before this conversation either. My gut reaction was ‘but I’ve never been published’, but then when I started to think about it, I realised that didn’t entirely make sense. I have now updated my Twitter bio to say ‘writer’ in the hope I start to believe it! And I’d also say if you’ve been blogging for a few years then that probably makes you one too 😉

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