Everyone knows—to be a real writer you must have a beard , regardless of your sex.*
What does it mean, when you say “I’m a writer?” I can’t answer for you, but I was surprised that some wished to answer for me when I chose the title “aspiring writer” for myself eight months ago, and then decided to stick with it.
If you are writing then you are a writer some said. Writing what I said? Novels, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, reports, newspaper copy, scientific papers leaflets, Christmas family newsletters? Fiction I was told. So biographies, histories, factual etc don’t count? Oh, OK…
Some said that it was how often you wrote… you’re writing regularly, yes? Then you’re a writer… Alright says I, what about my four year-old son, he writes every day, so do office workers, and managers, journalists etc. Yes, but they’re not writing fiction. So if I write say, 6 days one week, then ½ hour the next, then I’m not a writer that week? Don’t be stupid. Oh, OK… This definition seemed a little woolly to say the least.
I was also just thinking: Well don’t you have to be any good, to be considered a writer I mean? No others said, writing isn’t about what you actually do, it’s about who you are. Right… So even if I turn out plots on a level with:
“Jack threw the ball. Jane dropped the ball. Jane bent down, but the ball rolled away. Jane chased the ball. Jack chased Jane. A policeman saw Jack chasing Jane. The policeman chased Jack. Jane caught the ball. Jack grabbed the ball from Jane, ‘It’s mine!’ ‘Don’t be an ignorant scruffy lout ,you,’ said the Policeman, and hit Jack with his truncheon.”
Then I send it to a publisher, it gets canned, but still I’m counted as a writer because I am what I am… This was a little nebulous and cosmic for where I was. I’m trained as a scientist, so gimme some facts!
I have problems with all the definitions above, not because they don’t fit some, but because they didn’t fit me. I was trying writing out, to see if we’d get on like a house on fire (all my efforts would come to nothing), or we’d make-out like old friends (thrilling initially, but too embarrassing to continue in the long run), or it would be my swan-song (I’ve never heard one, meaning that anything was possible). So after some poorly fitting boxes, and misrepresenting a few clichés I thought about what writing meant to me:
I was ‘aspiring’ because I wanted to be a writer, but I knew I wasn’t one, yet. Anything that is a craft, requires expertise, training, and you start knowing that at first you cannot match what you see others doing means you can’t be it yet, right? I wasn’t a writer because I was starting from scratch, and knew next to nothing.
Then there’s the talent question. I also want to be able to out mutton-chop Bruce Lee, and being a concert pianist, the next Olivier, or Picasso all sounds awesome. When I was thirteen I wanted to be able to solve the Rubik’s cube in under twenty seconds, so I’d be cool…
“You can be anything you want to be!” say all those lovely books. Reality check! I may be able to be whatever I want to be – but I have to have the talent for it! Then I need to put the effort in to discover what abilities I have, if any, and polish whatever I find. To assume I was a writer on day one just seemed plain arrogant. I can say I’m the Purple Headed god of all Platypuses native to Alaska… Read that however you want, and it’s still a vacuous statement.
So… Experience: zilch. Talent: unknown. Ambition: some. Sounds like ‘aspiring’ to me. Settled.
Then time came along and complicated the issue. My experience started to grow a little and some other people started to say I had talent without me offering favours my wife would disapprove of, or Twinkies. I was giving up a lot of time to writing. It mattered to me (but then so does tomato ketchup). I stopped other hobbies to write. I enjoyed it. Did that mean I was a writer? I was told not to be so ‘emo’, and that of course it did. I wish I was that straight forward, because I still didn’t feel like a writer. Others were obviously more experienced, and talented, and I could see the gulf between them and me.
So I looked to publishing and competition wins. Does official recognition give access to this exclusive club? Again, that alone was too simplistic. I’ve read several very talented people who aren’t getting the recognition I would expect (I will ego stroke you on Twitter, and charge one chocolate per tweet).
For me the question of aspiring vs. is remained. I was puzzled, but surprised others were quite so passionate about it. Maybe they were becoming bored of my introspection by then, “Just shaddup already!” (Well done for reading this far by the way).
Even the Font of All Knowledge – The Internet, couldn’t answer the question. I found a huge number of varied definitions and opinions. Then revelation – this was good! Ha! Now I could invent my own definition… So for better, or worse, here’s how I ‘made it up’:
I hadn’t told my family I was writing until this week. Why? I wanted to surprise them, and have something of value to show. If I was facing failure I could anonymously crawl back under my rock. There was also the space to find my balance with no expectations, or well-meaning questions I had no answers to. For me, telling my family was a Big Deal.
Then there was some of the therapy theory I had floating around in the back of my head from years ago. Human lives are made up of roles: husband, wife, ice-cream van cleaner, cake decoration sprinkler, brother, friend, listener, hobbyist, etc. We have our identity, our personality, intellect, beliefs etc, but what we do is not separate from who we are, neither does it define us, but it is part of us.
Nor is what we do done in isolation… everything we do as part of, or in opposition to, society connects us to, and affects, others (writing challenge – get as many commas in a sentence as you can). We may wish it otherwise, but suck it up, cos it just does. Self, family, friends, and acquaintances are the other players with whom we enact our roles; it’s just that this is for real with no rehearsals. Theory over; it was just so you know what I’m wittering about.
So, for me, to be a Writer, enough of the following needs to be true:
My Peers acknowledge it: I can say I’m a writer ’til I’m blue in the face, but if I don’t know one end of a pen from the other I’m just deluded, not a writer. When other writers say you are one of them, you have talent etc, that’s a pretty good sign.
Those in Power acknowledge it: You get an agent, you are given an advance, or you win a respected competition. ‘Them, The Men’, the ones in power, have given you some kind of official stamp of approval. They are tough to impress: I’ve heard tell that some publishers don’t count self-published e-books as being ‘published’. There’ll be no ready-identity-badge, “Writer’s Plunge the Inky Depths!” bumper stickers given out here.
The Punters acknowledge it: Family/friends who aren’t sycophants tell you, “You can write.” Readers actually go without beer or chocolate to buy your work, or at least rate you favourably on Amazon. The definition of writer also varies with the group of people you ask. ‘Normal’ members of the public will give definitions that fit their own expectations: Is the potential writer published (in print)? Has the potential writer finished a novel? Is this writer wannabe just an antisocial saddo with BO, who spends too long inside, alone, staring at a computer screen wearing nothing but their underpants? Surely, if your potential readers won’t acknowledge your credentials, any claim you make of being a writer is null and void?
I can acknowledge it to myself: It’s when I think I have enough expertise, and talent, to compare myself favourably with others. Not that I’m there, but I’m at least on the same continent. It’s when I feel like a writer (yes, the cosmic is still there, but as an element, not the whole).
For me, it’s not a ‘now I am, now I’m not’ digital switch. It’s like an hourglass, with scales at the bottom; Slowly the weight of evidence grows, until the tipping point is reached.
I tipped over this week.
Family who I know won’t BS me say I can write, some other writers say they can see talent, and several, as I’ve mentioned, have told me to stop aspiring. I can see I’ve grown. I’m still not there yet, but not I’m not quite the thick-hick from eight months ago either. Three out of four was where I tipped. No one ‘in power’ has seen fit to deign me with an approach, or advance, or commission (don’t be shy if you’re reading this ). Maybe one day, if I keep working .
Your tipping point may be different. If you say you ‘always knew’ then I’d argue you had faith (seeming knowledge/certainty without evidence) in your ability/identity. You actually became (will become) a writer at a later date – no others acknowledging you, see?
I was an aspiring writer, or I’d be an arrogant git. Eight months of experimenting, trying, and gathering the evidence, and the jury is favouring a verdict of writer (who’s still learning), and I’m not the judge! So now, I will come out and say it, “I’m a writer!”, because others say it’s so, and because I get so flippin’ annoyed when I can’t get a story to work, it shows writing means enough to me that it has become part of who I am. I may even need to write more than I need ketchup. If you know me, you’ll know what that means…
So, where are you? When did you ‘know’? Have you made it yet? Are you falsely ashamed of aspiring? Am I full of it? Comments welcome below… please clean up after venting your spleen…
N.B. Anyone who brings up the question of the definition of ‘author’ shall be taken outside, and summarily shot. Dead.
Addendum: I’ve been thinking a little more about this, and I think I missed something. There is a group of writers who write for themselves only, or a select group of friends/family. If you spend hours each week pouring over poems, stories, extensive journalling etc then you maybe in a unique category all of your own. You write solely for the joy of writing, and because it really is who you are… If that’s you, then feel free to include yourself under the moniker of ‘writer’. You aren’t seeking external validation or input of any sort, so that criteria doesn’t apply. But consider this: your craft may grow faster, and be inspired in completely new and exciting directions by interacting with others. It’ll take some courage, but I took the leap and my writing hasn’t been the same since…
* Image used under Creative Commons License. Click image for details.