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When can you start calling yourself a writer?

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

One thing I noticed right away at Columbia College Chicago is that the professors referred to students—even those of us, like myself, who’d never been published in our lives–as “writers.” Even my acceptance letter to my program was addressed, “Dear Writer.” This was flattering, but each time it happened I giggled to myself in that self-conscious way you laugh when you feel like a complete fraud.

I mean, I do write. A lot. So I guess I’m a writer. But I’ve often pondered whether there is a certain threshold one has to cross before they can really refer to themselves as a writer without sounding pompous or delusional. I mean, last night I threw a piece of chicken on the Foreman grill and ate it for dinner. I cooked something. Does that make me a chef? And I regularly blast Bruce Springsteen while cleaning the floors of my apartment. Being a Springsteen fanatic, I sing along loudly and passionately to every song. But does that make me a singer?

I am proud to say that I’m a high school teacher, and I have a desk, a parking pass, and a paycheck every two weeks to prove it. I’m certified to teach by the state of Illinois. But writing has no such certification, so it’s easy to put it aside when you’re feeling busy or lazy or burned out. After all, writing is really hard work. And watching TV is really easy.

But maybe, by calling us writers, my professors are trying to teach us that it’s a matter of creating your own fate. Maybe once you begin calling yourself a writer, you might begin to look at writing as less of a hobby and more of a job. What if I brought the same level of devotion to my writing craft as I do to my teaching job? What if I wrote every day as if my livelihood depended on it?

I want to be able to call myself a writer, more than anything, but I also want it to be true. So my question is, when will that be? When are you allowed to call yourself a writer? Is it the first time you get published? The first time you get paid for your words? Can you only consider yourself a writer when there’s a book on a shelf with your name on the spine? Or is it more a matter of attitude and determination? Does the simple act of writing—and believing it means something—make one a writer?

What are your thoughts? Was there a particular moment when you began referring to yourself a writer? Is anyone else facing the same identity crisis as I am?

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16 Responses to When can you start calling yourself a writer?

  1. Toni Salyers says:

    I’ve been writing since I was fifteen. I strive every day to improve my writing. Even when I read books, I carefully note the way more successful writers structure their work, and in doing so I find ways to improve upon my own. I think that qualifies me as a writer.

  2. Tracey says:

    You are a writer when you decide that writing is what you do–when you give up your current career and writing becomes your day job. And that’s even before you’re published. Your day job just doesn’t pay very well until you’ve sold something.
    When people ask me what I do, I say, "I am a writer." And one day soon, I plan on seeing my book featured in the window at bookstores! Until then, I’m a struggling artist in the true tradition of many great writers. I am a writer and one day I will be a published author!

  3. I guess I considered myself a writer when I first saw my words in published print in 2004. Even though it was poetry… it was still published for the world to read. It was after that that I got the writing bug and took a course in "Creative Writing" and got a diploma with highest honors. I then went on to write and publish a children’s book and lots of articles, short stories, poetry, book reviews, movie reviews, product reviews and so on. I now have four books and am taking a course in "Writing Stories for Children". I have expanded my horizons to not only writer, but poet, illustrator, and photographer as well. I also plan to take courses in those areas to strengthen my knowledge. I believe that you are what you say you are the very instance that feel like you just have to write, or you just have to take that photograph, or you just have to…… You may not make millions at first, but that is no reason to give up on it happening. Doing what you love makes you a better person so that you can be a better wife, husband, mother, father, daughter, son, or friend. That makes it worth doing alone.

  4. Holly Day says:

    My father used to always tell me that I wouldn’t "really" be a writer until I started making money at it. Later, when I started making a little money here and there from fiction and poetry, one of my many employers told me that I wasn’t really a writer until I started making a living at it. Now that I make a living at it, I’ve got more people telling me that I’m not really a writer until I can afford to live as well as the characters in TV shows about "real" writers. So I guess I’ll never be a real writer, because at this rate, my writing won’t ever buy me a yacht.

  5. Mark Ordon says:

    Any writer’s workshop or how-to-become-a-writer book will tell you that you have to convince yourself you are a writer as soon as the first words hit the page or screen, respectively. I had a hard time believing that….

    Yes, I said to myself, I do write, but I still felt my writing was a pastime. I had real jobs: as an IT admin and a translator. Not a writer.

    This was until I started running.

    Even though I could barely run a mile and nearly hyperventilated, I was duly tagged as a runner and now openly consider myself as one.

    I sometimes feel the equivalent of hyperventilation when I am trying to produce what I deem as a pitiful excuse for fiction written by a pitiful excuse for a writer. But a writer nonetheless.

  6. Mary Whitman says:

    We headed down to the duck pond, Chicken Nugget Happy Meals in hand (I know, I know. Don’t judge me). He saw his first subject right away, an aggressive acting white duck with more than a few ruffled feathers sticking out every whichaway and humongous webbed feet that looked like they could smack us silly if the experiement went awry. I crossed my fingers behind my back for luck, because seeing my precious four year old get smacked down by a stupid duck was NOT what I had envisioned for this little outing. Not at all.

    Keeping his eye on his subject, he rattled through his golden-arch handled box until his chubby little hand emerged with the perfect golden salty french fry for the experiement. Smile bursting across his face, he flung the fry straight at the head of the duck and laughed out loud at the results. He ate it, mom! He ate it! Ducks like vegetables!!

    "YOU are a SCIENTIST!" I announced.
    "DUCKS are VEGETARIANS!" he concluded.

    I couldn’t wait to share this story with someone. To share it and in sharing it, to keep it forever. But life got in the way because I carpool the kids, and I make the beds and I do the laundry and I cook the dinner (Oh, come on, McDonalds is only a rare treat… sheesh!)… and I never did share the story of our little experiment.

    Until now. I shared it here and now because your question made me smile this morning while my now nine year old little boy is still upstairs fast asleep and the duck pond hasn’t been re-visited in several years. Your questions touched a nerve and reassured me that because my heart is only full when I share these moments with someone – even years later – that I can call myself a WRITER. (and the mother of a SCIENTIST!)

    Thank you for a thought-provoking start to the day! Happy writing!
    http://www.susanandmary.com

  7. Lara says:

    You hit on it when you said "I threw a piece of chicken on the Foreman grill and ate it for dinner. I cooked something. Does that make me a chef?"

    Writers are, they do. Authors however are published writers.

    Anyone can cook, you’re right. You have the desire to produce food to consume, for yourself or for family/friends. Chefs are paid to produce food to order, to be paid for it, by people who they do not know, and who do not know them, and open themselves to the criticism that can be kind or cruel, well-founded or not.

    Writers create stories and describe the images and ideas that fill their head on paper, because an inner compulsion to translate and wrestle with these concepts concretely requires us to do so.

    Authors take that compulsion to write and are intent on sharing it beyond a protected circle of friends and family and get out there, to people they know not, and who do not know them, and publish their work, willing to brave the criticism that can be both kind and cruel, well-founded or not.

  8. purenight says:

    I consider myself a writer in much the same way as I consider myself a man or as I consider myself an American. It has more to do with my identity as a person than it does with what I do as a profession. I’m a writer because I write, but am I an author? Cyclists are referred to as such because they ride bikes, but they do not have to be Lance Armstrong to be called cyclists. Or NASCAR drivers to be called motorists. Or published authors to be called writers. Why must we concern ourselves with titles? What else would we call someone who writes, regardless of publication? How would we refer to them? I am not "someone who writes." I am a "writer."

  9. Personally, I consider a writer to be anyone who writes. Simple? Yes, the becoming a writer part is, but the difficult part comes in staying a writer. Anyone who sits down on a regular basis and puts words on the page is, in my opinion, a writer. It doesn’t matter how much or little they’ve accomplished, they’re putting in the time and determination to hone their craft and I think they’re as deserving of the title as anyone.

    In the same way, I don’t care if someone has put a whole series on the bestseller’s list. If they’re not currently writing (exceptions made for deceased writers and those on reasonably short hiatus), I don’t consider them to be writers proper. Please don’t think that I’m bashing them; that’s not the intention. I reverently refer to many of these former writers with the golden title of "author" (which I associate with publication) and admire their mastery of the craft.

    Just my opinion. :)

  10. Zachary Grimm says:

    Hi, Jessie. I guess (and I’m probably wrong) that I really felt like I could call myself a writer after I finished the first draft of my main novel I’m working on right now. BUT, I honestly have no idea. I know that NOW I call myself a writer, and to me, NOW is what’s most important to me. It’s what’s going to get me to NEXT, and AFTER THAT.

    I’m inclined to agree with Jeff Marler, above. I’m comfortable with it, so I consider myself "a writer." :)

  11. Jeff Marler says:

    I believe it comes down to how a person feels about writing. We often attach part of our identity to what we do and there is a certain expectation that if you are (job/career choice)-er, then you are expected to have credentials to back up the claim. If you are a teacher, then you most likely have a state certification to back it up. If you are a lawyer, then you have a plaque on your wall certifying that you have taken the requisite tests and paid the fees.

    Writing is different. For many people, you are a professional writer if someone else pays you to write, but that is an inaccurate measurement. Why? Because then you have to start analyzing the credentials of those who are paying for the piece as well. Not to mention the fact that there are bloggers and those who write for free for publications. Since they don’t receive a paycheck for their writings, they must not be writers, right?

    Those that practice law or medicine without a professional certification can get into all sorts of trouble representing themselves as a lawyer or a medical practitioner. A plumber or a carpenter both have legal obligations they must fulfill before they can call themselves such.

    But what happens to the guy who calls himself a writer at every opportunity, whether or not he’s published a single word? Nothing. It does convey a certain professionalism, but in the end, I think it depends on the individual. There is no legal responsibility to gain certifications or pay dues to call yourself a writer. Call yourself a writer if you’re comfortable with it or wait till you are comfortable. It doesn’t change who you are.

  12. Luis says:

    I guess it happens when the degree of surrender is so strong you feel you do not write, but the language uses you. So you master an art and allows art to master you. There is a strange sense that everything around you is write-able. And it also happens to be very demanding (when you feel exhausted without really making much physical effort, when thought triggers and sentences form in your head and then you are suddenly talking to yourself).

    In other words, when you are kidnapped by your writing.

    And sorry, this is Brazilian english, so ignore my mistakes.

  13. Look at all of the greats. Especially the Russians. Writers go to prison and write. Writers are sentenced to death for their words, and they write. Writers write because they have to, it’s a calling. That’s all there is to it.

  14. Once upon a time I found myself in a management training course, sponsored by the government consulting company where I worked. There were folks from all over the organization, mostly faces I knew, but a few strangers as well. My closest colleagues and I sat near each other in that way that people unsure of what they’re in for band together without verbalizing their fears.
    The trainer passed out a self-scored list of attributes for us to fill out individually. These had things like, "trustworthy," "hard-working," "accessible," and the like, with a scale of 1 to 10 for each, and we were supposed to rank ourselves as "managers." There were maybe 40 items on the list.
    I noticed that two women I knew well were fretting over these papers. I asked, "what’s the problem," and one said, "I just don’t know, am I a 4 or a 5," on something for which I’d have ranked her 8+. Another woman seemed just as nervous. We started talking. They didn’t see themselves as good managers, necessarily, worried they were frauds, were willing to give themselves relatively low scores, not that the numbers were of any consequence beyond this training.
    I told them, see those two guys over there? They marked themselves 10 on everything.
    My friends were agog. I offered that those two were probably the worst managers in the training group, because they saw no room for improvement and had no capacity for self-reflection.
    So my short answer to your question is, once you start pondering about whether you can call yourself a writer, you’re probably a writer. And if it turns out you’re delusional, I have great confidence that you’ll figure that out, too.
    Hi, I’m Everett, and I’m a writer. And I don’t always believe that when I say it, but I keep writing anyway.

  15. Wendy says:

    Other people began introducing me as a writer, then I began defining myself that way then I started getting paid to do it…Even if I stop getting paid to write, I will still believe that I am a writer…

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