I started writing online in early 2006. It wasn’t until December of 2011, nearly six years later, that I got my first check for the act of writing. And that book wasn’t ultimately published in mid-July 2012.
When did I become a writer? Before? During? After? Always?
When does one earn the right to say: “I am a writer”?
Even now there are people who would say I am not one, that even with my books and all the publications that have featured my writing I don’t deserve to call myself that because I write for this site, because my books have a business focus, because I am young, because whatever.
It is a discussion and distinction without clear lines, one that is marked by jealousy, condescension and pettiness. But I actually think it’s an important one nonetheless. One that when held properly doesn’t discourage anyone, but instead empowers them. It’s worth thinking about, wherever you happen to fall on the artist spectrum.
Here’s a reason for starters: the act of calling oneself a writer holds so many potentially great writers back. We’ve all seen them, writing for an imaginary audience, unable to improve because they’ve given themselves the laurels and credit before they did the learning. Worse still, misuse of the term devalues the craft and the struggle of the people who have actually earned the right.
Let’s start with who isn’t one. A few months ago, as I stretched before a Crossfit class, one of the coaches asked us all what we did. “Oh, that makes two of us,” she said, when I told her what I did. No, sorry, you’re a Crossfit coach. Unless you want me to start calling myself a trainer because I gave the guy next to me some advice earlier.
In life, it is important that you make the distinction between who you are and what you do. Too many people make this mistake—I call it the narrative fallacy. It’s thinking: if I buy a typewriter, drink scotch and smoke cigarettes, I’ll be just like Hemingway. It’s thinking, I write a lot of blog posts and imitate writer’s routines, I’m living the life of a writer. Of course, objectively there is a huge gap between them and us, but we can’t see it, because we’re too caught up in our own stories.
These people never write anything good. It’s not until they get over pretending and weaving some narrative about themselves, that they really begin producing.
I have a stock portfolio, which I trade in every so often. But I’m not an investor. I have money in a few different startups and have made some tech plays. But I’m not an angel investor. I’ve started a few different marketing companies and I have self-employment income, but guess what, I’m not an entrepreneur. Just because you have done something, doesn’t mean you are something.
Telling myself those things wouldn’t make me any better at them, in fact, it’d make me conceited and delusional about my participation in difficult fields. It puts my identity in the way of objectivity and humility.
But you know what would be a perfectly acceptable and respectful thing to say? That I would like to be one of those things. Or that I aspire to them or that I once did. (Personally, I don’t, but you get my point.)
Falsely putting yourself in a peer group is like dishonestly counting your hours on the path the mastery. It’s like telling yourself you read a book that you didn’t actually read. You’re cheating and deceiving yourself. This is half the reason that writers react negatively when they hear hobbyists or beginners use the label—because they worked goddamn hard to get where they are and don’t like to hear it thrown around lightly. They also remember this temptation from early in their career and remember how much time they wasted with it.
There is a difference between just sitting down silently and meditating, but of course, often only the practitioner knows the difference. This is how it goes with writing.
Look, as a label, officially becoming “a writer” isn’t something that other people get to bestow on you. Just because a publisher or a hater didn’t like your work—or some committee told Holtzapffel his work wasn’t good—doesn’t mean much. But at the same time, it’s not something you can or should bestow on yourself either.
Here’s the questions I think are worth asking:
How much of your time do you—or have you—actually spent actually practicing the craft? Does it dominate your waking mind? Does writing pay your rent? Or part of it? Will it one day? Does it change how you interact with the world? Is there an actual audience who has consumed your work—who anticipates it and identifies with it? Does that audience include other people in the writing community (publishers, outlets, editors, other writers even)?
Undoubtedly, there are great writers of the past (and present) who may have had trouble fulfilling all those requirements to the letter. But guess what? You and I probably are not them. They are, as the saying goes, the exceptions that prove the rule.
When you answer these questions honestly and conservatively, and the math still comes back in your favor, start to think about using the word then. Until that point, practice the art of humility, defer the label.
I say “start” because it’s not a black and white line either. Writing is a process. And so is becoming a writer. While the job itself is an act, it is also a state. It’s one that you should treat with respect rather than flippancy—so you can aspire to it, and aim your efforts towards accomplishing it. If not cheating yourself isn’t enough of a reason, don’t cheat the peers who you supposedly admire and want to be like.