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At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

Categories: Breaking In (Writer's Digest), Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns.

The moment you tell people you’re a writer, they ask the inevitable question, “What have you written?” They have no idea the shame involved in answering this type of question though they are, in a sense, asking you to justify the hours you spend each day scribbling your ideas down on paper. And it’s not likely they’re asking you to describe the many unfinished projects you’re tinkering with on your computer. They want to know the titles of your books.

    


Guest column by Susan Henderson, two-time
Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of
Up from the Blue (HarperCollins, Sept 21, 2010).
She lives
in New York and blogs at
LitPark.com,
and The Nervous Breakdown.

 

“Well, I’m working on a novel,” you say. “But mostly I write short stories for magazines.”

Your brief answer is, in part, designed to mislead them. A pause in the conversation might give them time to imagine your byline in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The other reason you stay silent is because you’re not about to tell them that your most recent publication is in WeeLittleEzine.com, or that you’ve never been paid for your work.

“So what do you write about?” they ask.

You consider starting a conversation about your interest in human frailties, inadequate love, and the dark side of the human heart. You’ve tried this before at neighborhood barbecues when everyone around you is talking about lawn fertilizer and Little League, and it’s your tendency to talk about these other things that make you stand out as the weirdo.

Maybe you should just keep these thoughts to yourself. Maybe you should just wait until you’ve revised the manuscript you have on your hard drive—that thing you call your “novel” on more confident days—before you go calling yourself a writer.

But the truth, and you know it down deep, is that it’s not the published book that makes you a writer. You’re a writer because of the things you notice in the world, and the joy you feel stringing the right words together so they sound like music. You’re a writer because you can imagine something in such detail that it comes to life. You’re a writer because you’re obsessed with making your ideas clearer, tighter, fiercer. You’re a writer because you have every reason to stop (it takes too much time, pays too little, and the rejection hurts too terribly), but you can’t do it. It’s not that you love to write so much as you need to write.

You’re a writer because you’re weird in the ways you want to continue being weird. And because even as you’re pretending to listen to the conversation that’s now wound its way back to lawn fertilizer and Little League, you’re digging in your purse for a pen (okay, a lipstick will do) so you can jot down the way your neighbor’s mouth sags on one side. And as you try to find just the right words, you realize it’s this quality—this human frailty—that finally allows you to connect.

This post is an online exclusive complement
to a spotlight on Susan in the Oct. 2010
issue of WD. If you don’t have a sub to
Writer’s Digest, what are you waiting for?
Get one now!

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12 Responses to At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

  1. Candace says:

    One of the nicest things about your post is the reminder that I’m (we’re) not alone! Thank you.

  2. Kristan says:

    So, so true. You really hit the nail on the head (the shame, the need, the weird). :)

  3. King Kohn says:

    Thank you for your blog. I get this question poised to me many times. I have written 9 unpublished books over the past 2 years; over a hundred songs; a mass of poetry; and, I have a personal journal that is over 3,600 pages long having never missed a day since beginning it in January 2008.

    I believe one is a writer as soon as one picks up the pen and begins the arduous and liberating task of putting into words our feelings and thoughts.

    Paix et amour,
    King Kohn

  4. "You’re a writer because you’re weird in the ways you want to continue being weird." Susan, thank you for a graceful post that captures the laments and the loftiness, the big picture and the day-to-day tremors of the writing life.

    And thank you for providing me with the title of my new self-help book: "Be Weird in the Ways You Want to Be Weird—and Flourish!" I will be working on the proposal to send to agents today.

  5. M. G. King says:

    What a gift of words, to fellow writers! We always have so much pressure to define ourselves by some kind of external success or recognition, in a competitive business that isn’t always kind. Thank you for giving us all a bit more courage to define ourselves by what we love and how we experience the world.

  6. Those barbeque moments are so uncomfortable. LOL. Like any art, writing is hard to define but what you’ve shared is so much better than the cliched "a writer is one who writes." Thanks for this.

  7. Writing is my best method of communication; the "things we notice in the world" are best put on paper, at least for me, and words can then be crafted so that others can understand and hopefully get what I’m feeling.

  8. Mr. S says:

    Great article.

    I draw no distinction between "writer" and "author." That would be tantamount to petty quibbling, for which I have no use.

    G

  9. thelisas says:

    Ah…I will feel like a fraud until I am legitimately published…probably multiple times. Keeping the faith is never easy, but what choice do we writers have? Am I wearing my "kick me" sign straight? lol

  10. Buffy Andrews says:

    Loved your post. You’ve captured this experience beautifully and I think it’s something we all can relate to. Thanks for sharing:)

  11. Beautifully done. You’ve laid out all the reasons why I’m NOT a writer :D

  12. Have you been trailing me? ;) And if we, as writers, have these common experiences, why can’t we all end up at the same barbecue?

    I considered myself a writer by heart and by nature until I started publishing essays and articles, at which time I wore it as my label. I have more trouble calling myself an author because I’ve not yet published a book. But as soon as I do, that’s the title I want.

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