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.
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?)
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.