At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

At what point can you call yourself a writer? After your first publication? After you're doing it as a full-time occupation? Or is it less quantifiable than that? Author Susan Henderson has the answer.
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At what point can call yourself a writer? After your first publication? After you're doing it as a full-time occupation? Or is it less quantifiable than that?

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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.

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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.

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This post is an online exclusive complement
to a spotlight on Susan in the Oct. 2010
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