Are you a writer or are you an aspiring writer? How do you define yourself? This is the controversial question we tackle today.
If you are looking for a heated topic among writers, just ask this question: “At what point do you start calling yourself a writer?” That’s the question Robyn Petrik blogged about, then put to the Writing Resources Community.
The first response caught me totally off guard; Chris Smith responded:
“Definitely not before you get paid!”
That is when I realized how varying are the opinions on this topic. So let’s begin by recognizing that there is plenty of room for everybody’s opinions, and that mine will be very clearly articulated below – and you should feel free to agree or disagree in the comments at the end of the post.
Let us also get one red herring out of the way, since otherwise it is bound to come up. By “writer”, we are referring to the person who composes text. By “author”, we are referring to the person whose name is credited on the text. Very often the writer and the author are the same person, but sometimes they are not. Robyn begins her post like this…
“You hesitate to call yourself a writer. You don’t include it in your online bio or social media profiles. You don’t tell your friends that you’re a writer and you don’t introduce yourself as a writer to people you meet. You may refer to yourself as an aspiring writer from time to time, but never just a writer. There’s always an adjective attached clarifying that you are not a real writer yet.”
Sound familiar? Then you are not alone. So when do you call yourself a writer? When you publish your first book? When the first book actually sells? When somebody other than your mother buys a copy (that might be the 40th copy)? When you sell enough books to cover the cost of publishing? When you actually sell enough books to cover the cost of publishing and pay a reasonable wage for the time you spent researching, writing and marketing?
Does selling a book make you more of a writer than if you never sell? Or does it just make you more of a salesperson?
What if you never want to write a book? What if you write newsletters or blogs or marketing materials or speeches? Are you a writer? What if you write short stories, but never publish them – you write just for the joy of writing. Are you a writer?
According to those who believe being paid to write is what makes someone a writer, selling the book is the critical distinction. Here is how Chris articulated it in the Google Plus discussion I referred to earlier:
“The definition of a writer is not someone who writes just as I can paint the interior walls in my home but it doesn’t make me a painter. I can sit in 8th grade art class and paint something. I’m still not a painter. Like GW, I can retire, take painting lessons, and produce a few works, but it still doesn’t make me an artist.”
As you can tell, I pretty strongly disagree with this view, and my reasoning has nothing to do with writing; my reasoning has to do with my view of a person’s identity. To put it simply: don’t let anybody else define who you are. Yes, that pretty much sums up my position on the matter.
As soon as you define “writer” as somebody paid to write, you saying that other people get to define who and what you are. Allow me to give an example.
Let’s say Patrick is working on a screenplay, but he can’t seem to knock on the right doors or find a producer who is interested. But by golly, Patrick still needs to eat. He needs a roof over his head. He needs clothes on his back. So he moves furniture to earn the money he needs to pay for food, shelter and clothing, after all.
POP QUIZ: Is Patrick a writer or a furniture mover?
If you follow the logic that you are a writer only if you are paid to be a writer, then the corollary is that you are a furniture mover if you are paid to move furniture. But wait. Let’s look a little closer at what is really happening here. Patrick writes to write. He hopes to make money from his writing, but that’s not his motivation. He writes because he is a … wait for it … a writer!
Patrick moves furniture to eat. And to keep out of the rain. And to avoid violating public decency laws. He needs to make money, that’s his motivation. He moves furniture because he is an … wait for it … an eater! And … wait for it … a dweller. And … you know what to do … a non-nudist.
And he is a writer.
The problem with calling Patrick a furniture mover is that “furniture mover” does not define what or who he is, but what other people are willing to pay him to do. Mrs. Jones of 24 Caramel Lane simply does not need his lovely screenplay today. But she sure needs someone to move her furniture. Her needs are not what defines who Patrick is; they only define what she is willing to part with her money for.
Getting paid to write doesn’t make a person a writer. Getting paid to write makes a person an entrepreneur.
When it comes to definitions, there is plenty of room for honest disagreement. But I’ve been a writer since I wrote for my high school newspaper, becoming co-editor in my senior year. I have been a writer of poems and song lyrics on nobody’s payroll. I have since become a published author and a prolific blogger. I ghostwrite articles and I have written reports and news releases as an employee and as a freelancer. I think I have been many writers.
But mostly, I am a writer when I feel that I am. Because putting words together to express an idea is a huge and defining part of who I am. In the words of Dr. Phil:
“The authentic self is the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you not defined by your job, function or role. It is the composite of all your skills, talents and wisdom. It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”
Are you a writer? What are your thoughts on this?