When can you start calling yourself a writer?

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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?