What Makes a Writer?

I got asked this the other day, and to me it seems like a simple question, but it also feels worth exploring.

By basic definition, a “writer” is someone who writes. There are no other criteria. One doesn’t have to be published, or well known, or have an agent, or have done a book tour. You don’t have to write fiction, or poetry, or anything for public consumption; if you keep a journal, for example, it still counts. So long as you write, you’re a writer.

So long as you write. If you stop writing, you are no longer a writer.

Hang on, hang on, I can hear you screaming. But “writer” implies activity. As a noun, it still suggests an active verb. If you used to write but don’t any more, I’d say you’re a “written.” But that sounds weird, so maybe you’re just an ex-writer.

Jesus, don’t kill the messenger. Okay, yes, once you’ve written something, the words become immortal. (Heh heh. See what I did there?) Even if no one else ever sees them. Even if you erase them. Once they exist—or have existed—you’ve become a writer. And since the words last forever (in a sense), don’t you keep that title of “writer” forever too?

It’s a tricky question. But, you know, if you quit a job as a banker, do you still call yourself a banker? Some people might, but they usually do it out of a sense of shame and a need to be something. So if they have no new job, they may say, “I’m a banker,” even if they aren’t one any more. But if they’ve moved on to some other job, or if they’ve gone back to school, they’ll fill in the blank with that information. “I’m a cat wrangler,” or, “I’m a student.”

If you quit writing, you aren’t a writer. Just as that ex-banker might say, “I used to be a banker,” you could say, “I used to write.” But calling yourself a writer if you no longer write is a bit of a lie, to yourself as well as others.

This is more, I think, than the poser of the question wanted to know. The truth is, when we hear someone say they’re a writer or author, we immediately want to know what they’ve written because we make a set of assumptions. We assume they wouldn’t call themselves a writer unless they’ve at least published something. Sometimes we assume they wouldn’t call themselves a writer unless they’ve published a “real” book put out by a major publisher. It’s a shame that writers must contend with these assumptions. I hate, when I tell someone I’m a writer, and they ask, “Oh? Anything I would have heard of?” As if, if they haven’t heard of me or my books, my work must not be any good. Going back to the banker, if I were to arch my brow and ask, “Any bank I would have heard of?” that would be quite rude, I think. But somehow it is deemed okay to treat writers this way.

If you’re looking for validation—for permission to call yourself a writer—ask yourself why. I wrote for years, was even published in a few magazines and journals, before I allowed myself to answer, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” And even then, it was only after I’d left my job in publishing that I adopted the title. Even though I’d been a writer for a long time. Leaving my day job was like being stripped bare, and “writer” was a scrap of fabric I could use to cover my nakedness. In our society, people who don’t work or produce in some way are considered worthless. “I’m a writer,” was my way of trying to prove I had societal value.

But calling myself a writer or author feels right now. It is what I do. Besides mother and wife and daughter and PTA board member, I’m a writer. I’ve embraced that. And it doesn’t matter any more whether anyone else sees value in it or likes my work. (Though I feel good when they do.) I write for me, because I enjoy it.

So. Are you a writer? If so, why? Let me know in the comments.

Published by

M

Writer/Screenwriter

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