What makes a person a writer? Answering this question should be easy, right? We all know what a writer is. But do we really?
When I was a teenager, I was sure that soon I would officially be a writer. That I would finish that and that story and get it published and then there would be no question about what I was feeling anyway. I was still young and I felt that there was still so much time.
I was told by everyone that writing is just a hobby and that I could do it in private as long as I learned something decent or studied (I chose the latter option).
“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” (Robert A. Heinlein)
I did not want to believe them. Becoming a writer had always been my dream. But somehow, deep down in my heart, they scared me to death that I would not be able to make a living with writing. So I chose to pursue writing as a hobby and see what would happen.
The result was, however, that I never did finish that story. Writing used to be my favorite pastime and I did quite a lot of it while still at university, but when I started working full-time, there was just no time or I was simply too tired. Stress drains creativity, and I have had plenty of that since then, not so much from the work itself but from unpleasant surrounding conditions. Other hobbies came up that also demanded time.
Now, I feel as if I can never concentrate long enough on one tale. I have several works-in-progress sitting on my hard drive in various stages of unfinishedness. I find it difficult to just sit down and work on a story that I haven’t worked on for a while. It feels like you kind of loose touch and need to get into it again. I have so many ideas, but due to lack of time or energy most of them end up in the drawer.
There are other difficulties as well. I rewrite too much. I’m hardly ever satisfied with my own words. But having trouble writing was never a sign of not being a writer. If you ask some famous writers, the opposite is the case:
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” ( Thomas Mann)
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” (Joseph Heller)
But still, I’m now close to the age of — ehem — 29a, 29b, 29c … 😉 and I still haven’t really finished a longer piece of fiction. Neither non-fiction, for that matter, for which there are also some unfinished drafts sitting in my drawer.
The only longer pieces of writing I ever finished are my term papers and theses that I handed in at the university, of course I finished those, but I don’t know if anyone aside from my professors would want to read that stuff. Again, drawer …
I would never dream of telling anyone that I was a writer. And yet I still feel like one, not exclusively, but decidedly.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself. I did take part in a literary reading (with one more coming up), and I did publish a short story in a university newspaper once… I continually fill my writer’s notebook with ideas. And I’ve been blogging for almost one and a half years now, even if I’m still working on some kind of frequency. So, does that make me a writer?
This is on the verge of becoming a real identity crisis for me. What is a writer?
Criterium One: Professionalism
The ultimate consensus is that if writing is your profession, you are a writer.
Firstly, I have a really hard time identifying a person with their job. Of course, especially in artistic jobs like writing, if you choose that profession for yourself, you must have a real passion for it. Otherwise you’d just do something that provides a regular income.
But in general, for me, a job is just a job. It is something I do. Not necessarily who I am. I have held several very different jobs. There are so many more that I could do. Who of these people am I? If I change my job, do I automatically become a different person?
Another problem with the writing profession: very few professional writers can actually live from writing alone. Only a handful of best-selling novelists can actually say that if they wanted to, they’d have to do nothing else but write. All the other professional writers do other freelance work on the side, many teach creative writing classes, and others hold a day job to feed their family.
Where do we draw the line? Percentage of income from each job? Time spend on each profession? Who’s to decide?
Secondly, even if we do agree that a professional writer is a writer, this does not automatically mean that non-professional writers are not writers. They just don’t work as writers.
Criterium Two: Publishing
Many writers only dare to call themselves writers in public once they have published something.
But what about the time before the publishing, when they were actually writing the book? Were they not writers then?
True, many writers aspire to have their work published by a publishing company. And of course publication is the Holy Grail, it gives one’s work acclaim that someone else, a professional publisher, considered their work worthy enough to be published. We might argue whether all the work that is being published is necessarily better than that not published. But that is a discussion for another time.
Indeed, I can well imagine that holding your first publication in hand gives you the feeling of having made it as a writer. And I look with awe at everyone who made it, don’t get me wrong.
Still, you have yet to convince me that someone who has not published anything is not a writer. They are just not published writers, that’s all.
In fact, there are many people who write — and who write really well — who do not have the aspiration to publish. Some write diaries and journals for their own enjoyment, some write down their life story or short anecdotes for family members and friends. Some just do it for the fun of writing something.
And if we are honest, the concept of publishing has become a bit, well, complicated in the last decade. Many writers — even very good ones — today don’t want to bother jumping through the hoops of publishers. One writer I know can’t even choose her own titles. She has to take what the publisher thinks will sell. Sometimes it is good to have an extra pair of eyes look at your work to make it better. Sometimes too many cooks just spoil the broth.
There is self-publishing, e.g. with books on demand, others just go ahead and open up their own one-man publishing company. You can sell your own e-books on Amazon or iTunes without needing any publisher.
In the past, self-publishing had a bad reputation. As in: Oh no, no-one wanted his book, it must be really bad; now he’s wasting his money to print it himself.
But today, many people have realized that publishing companies don’t always choose their works by quality, but by how well they think they will sell or how well they will fit into their publishing program. Some publishers don’t spend money on copy-editing anymore. So being published by a publishing company is no longer automatically associated with quality.
In the past, it was nearly impossible to sell your printed books without a publisher. Bookstores won’t take you on and advertisement campaigns are very time-consuming and expensive. Today, with the internet, I wouldn’t say it is easy, but it is very well possible to promote your book with a small budget.
I’m not saying that professional publishing has become bad. Only that new valuable alternatives have arisen. Through self-publishing, niche topics get a chance. Unknown authors get a break who might have been rejected just because no-one knows them yet or because they are not good at selling themselves. Rumor has it that some successful e-book authors have received contracts from publishing companies.
And what about bloggers? Bloggers publish posts that can be read by millions of people all over the globe. Isn’t that also a kind of publishing?
Criterium Three: The Act of Writing
So, does my argument boil down to the act of writing? If you write, you are a writer? But don’t we all write? Letters/emails, speeches, business reports, presentation scripts, homework assignments, diaries, recipes etc. Are all people writers, then?
Maybe they are. Maybe some just more than others.
Maybe we need to pinpoint a certain repetitiveness. Do you have to write regularly to be a writer?
Then again, who is to decide on the frequency of writing? In a book on diary writing I once read, the author described a woman from ancient China who had gaps of several YEARS in her diary entries, and still her writing was well-written and poetic and full of passion for writing.
I love to participate in writing groups. There are often participants who have not written much in their life before. But when they pick up a pen and paper in the course, you see that there is real talent slumbering within them. So maybe we have much more writers amongst us than we realized.
Criterium Four: The Need to Write
We are all dancing around the basic issue: Why are we doing it? Why are we writing? If you ask me, motif is the basic distinction between a writer and a non-writer.
People who write emails and reports at work or essays at school write, yes, but not because they want to. They write because they are forced to. Extrinsic motivation, so to speak. Unless they discover writing as a new hobby through this channel, they are not very likely to write outside of this pressure.
Whereas people who are writers at heart couldn’t live without writing. We are intrinsically motivated. Whatever reasons we might have to write: communicate ideas, express ourselves, capture thoughts, have fun playing with words … we all share this basic need to write.
Writing is not just something you do. It is a way of life. Writers often see things that others miss. They are open to nuances. They see ideas for stories lurking everywhere.
So my feeling is that …
- if you write
- and you do it because you feel the urge to do so
- and if you go through life bumping into writing ideas,
… you are a writer at heart. No matter what you write about, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, and no matter how you choose to publish your work (if at all) …
Some may be better at it than others, some might be more successful with their writing than others, some may want to become famous with their writing, some don’t. But we are all writers.
What do you think? Do you feel like a writer? Why (not)?