What Makes a Writer

I wrote my first stories when I was about 5 or 6. I had a three ring binder full of them. I don’t know if I thought of myself as a writer then, but I know I’ve been leery of calling myself a writer since then, even though writing is what I do for pay and has been the most consistent thread in the fabric of my life for a long time.

One of my first published pieces, in high school, was an op-ed essay against sodomy laws and in favor of gay marriage. I didn’t think of myself as a writer then, either. Then I was an activist.

In fact, the last time I was sure I was a writer was when I was studying writing in college. Then, nobody was paying me; in fact, I had to pay others to read my writing.

After that I went to work writing copy for video catalogs and direct mail marketing. That did not make me a writer.

Then I went to grad school, where I was a very earnest academic. I wrote all the time. I published some of my writing. I won an award for some of my writing. I wrote more than ever, and felt like I had given up writing.

Then I left grad school and worked as a freelance writer, writing for small magazines and educational publications. At the request of my clients, I wrote about the potential for hemp as a cash crop and the kinds of trees used to make harps. What was the operative verb? “Freelancing,” not writing.

Twenty years after my first paid writing gig, more paid publications than I can even remember, and I am still embarrassed to call myself a writer. I stumble over the word and go vague: “I work in publishing.” Sometimes I use one of my current job titles, “Project Manager,” which is even more unclear. Why?

For one thing, there’s an awful lot of embarrassing drama around writing. I was in high school when I first heard the quotation “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Apparently that is by someone named Gene Fowler.

Yeah, I haven’t heard of him either. (But, most awesomely, he apparently wrote a book called “The Demi-Wang.” Make of that what you will.) In any case, my goth phase is over.

And sometimes there is not quite enough drama around writing. One PhD and twenty years into plying my trade later, and I still wonder what it means when I tell a non-writer what I do and they say, “Oh yeah, I was an English major too.”

A silly thing: If you introduce yourself to someone as a writer, they assume you are a novelist. Heck, for a long time I accepted the notion that the novel was the pinnacle of literary expression, the point at which a would-be writer knows she has arrived.

All of that is to say that I was surprised when, last week, I found myself being a writer.

Of all the losses I mentioned in an earlier post, by far the sharpest was the death of a father and two children, leaving his widow and two other children behind. This tragedy cut through the heart of our community of friends, leaving all of us gasping for breath, struggling for words.

When you are struggling for words, who do you call?

And so, among other things, I found myself helping a father and son prepare words of tribute to share at a funeral that should not have been happening. It seemed an obvious thing to do. There are limited ways of truly helping in a tragedy of this magnitude, but I had a part I could play, because I am a writer.

It’s a small part. Only in books and plays are authors the secret stars: for spectators the wizard Prospero (Shakespeare’s stand-in) is the hero of The Tempest, but in the lives of the lovers, the leaders, even the fools and the villains, Prospero is mostly behind the scenes. He sets the stage, but he does not play the major roles.

So I spent time encouraging, making connections, and helping to find words that would express some portion of what my friends wanted to say. When a shy 14-year-old boy stood up before hundreds of mourners with words directed toward a family still raw with grief, I felt proud of him, not proud of myself. With simple language that was mostly his, he provoked laughter in a morning full of tears and expressed a sincere friendship that I have to believe brought some comfort.

I hesitate even to tell that story because I take no credit for his job, well done. But as I watched what his words could accomplish I felt honored to have had any role in bringing them to life, and satisfied that in this smallest, most humble of actions I was doing whatever it is that writers do. Someone needed words and turned to me to help find them.

That doesn’t mean I won’t cringe and bite my tongue to stop a long string of qualifiers if I need to tell someone I’m a writer again. I’m not a novelist, I’m not a drama queen, and I’m only a wizard when I’m reading fantasy books. (Though come to think of it, I might like to go a week telling people I’m a wizard by trade.) But if 20 years of doing something earns you anything, maybe it ought to be dropping that angst-y stuff and walking through the next 20 a little more lightly.

I was a writer back then, of course, even if I was writing about aftermarket bike accessories or neoclassical prose style. What I’m not anymore is a novice. (Caveat lector: You may not always get my most polished stylings here on the blog.) It’s not so much that I’ve “arrived” as that I noticed there wasn’t anywhere else I had to go.

You may not share my hang-ups about writerly-ness, but what about you? What—or who—makes you feel like you’ve arrived? Have you ever surveyed the landscape of your life and thought, “I’ve come a long way” or even “This old place is better than I thought”?

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About mina

Like a rock: sometimes hard, sometimes crumbly, occasionally brilliant, sometimes dense.

Posted on June 30, 2011, in mind hacks, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I love this so much! It’s brilliant … and brilliantly written 😉 … and so true. Of course you are a writer, but I understand why you struggled to believe it of yourself. Because yes, the perception is that a Writer is a Novelist. Even some highly successful and very talented short story writers I know feel they have to apologise because they haven’t written a novel, and when they finally do so they will be able to claim themselves arrived as writers.

    You are a writer when you write. It’s pretty simple really. Maybe the problem lies with the would-be novelists who want to make themselves a magical reputation, who want to convince the rest of us that writing is wizardry and hard work and something only a special person could manage. The truth is, some of the greatest writers of all time have been “just” letter-writers, play-writers (hello, has anyone read Shakespeare’s novel?), documentary writers, journalists, poets, short story writers, fairy tale writers, tv advert writers, writers of tales for their own children …

    PS, I am very sorry for the awful tragedy that struck your community. 😦

  2. I, too, have been writing all my life and I, too, feel shy about calling myself a writer — sometimes for pay, mostly not. Yes, publications, but still few enough that I can count them. Yes, I feel shy and hesitant to say to someone, “I’m a writer” (and just give “I’m a poet” a try– then you want the floor to open up and swallow you!). It’s other people who have helped me call myself a writer/poet: My first writing professor from college asking if we could meet up at AWP (me? go to AWP?); my first poetry mentor saying “If you life the writing life, if you work seriously at your craft, you’re a writer”; my second poetry mentor telling me she’s waiting to see my book-length manuscript; my 5yo who told her friend “My mom works part time as a poet.” As I hear other people say it, it becomes easier for me to say it. Still, the graphic at this link comforts me: http://ofkells.blogspot.com/2011/06/fridays-thought-are-you-really-artist.html. It seems we hesitant-to-say-it folks are not alone.

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I send my love and condolences to you. So sorry for the loss of your friends.

    • Thanks — I posted that graphic on my pinterest board. I do think having other people say it makes a difference, if you are the sort that doesn’t like to claim it for yourself. I love the story about your daughter calling you a part-time poet — she knows!

  3. I know exactly what you mean. Recently I have been telling people that I “homeschool and write.” I thought it might help me feel like a “real” writer if I said it aloud. I am not sure if it does. . .

    Back when I was writing almost every afternoon it felt more real. And I felt like it more accurately described me than just saying “I homeschool my daughter.” Still I haven’t arrived as a writer though.

    I think I am in the process as Arriving as a Woman. I am leaving the youthful land of insecurities behind. I’m not letting other people define me. I am not so much caring about their judgements or yearning for their understanding. I don’t feel like everyone has to like me. Which, strangely enough, seems to make me more likable. 😉

    I am becoming centered in myself. I know myself and I am confident in who I am. I am much happier. I have arrived but I feel like I have just stepped over the threshold. It feels good.

    • I think some of this whole “writer” thing also has to do with “arriving” as a grown up. I really started feeling it when we bought our house about 20 mos ago. It’s a grown-up house, and I found myself doubting whether I was grown-up enough to own it and live in it. I still do!

      I really like feeling less worried about what people think. I’ve never been good at modifying my behavior according to other people’s desires, but I have certainly given the whole thing a ridiculous amount of energy just by thinking about it. I agree — now that I can step back and say “oh well” when I think (rightly or paranoid-ly) someone is reacting negatively to me, I find that I make connections with people I probably wouldn’t have 20 years ago.

  4. This is so beautifully written! I want to write, but don’t have the training and my insecurity keeps telling me I don’t have the ability. There are so many things that I MUST write, but I can’t get out of my own way to do it. Like art, I know that I can’t just ‘be an artist’. I have to work on my craft and take the time to find my own style and this is the most difficult part. I fall in love with other people’s styles and try to mimic them and then lose my own voice.

    I feel like I have ‘arrived’ in many other ways as a human being. I know who I am and I’m content. My ability to interact with others and run my school are areas of high confidence and low drama. I’m at the point where I want to write in greater depth about the things people ask my advice for regarding Eudaimonia and its pursuit, but that is a hurdle I have yet to cross.

  5. Wow, you really did a lovely job of detailing how hard it really is to give oneself permission to ‘be’ a writer, and to actually tell others that you are indeed a writer.

    My background is Professional Writing and Economics (ugh, I know..), and I’ve done technical writing, nonprofit writing (grants and such), marketing, web content, blogging, etc.

    I realized that the first time I really felt like a writer, (even though I’ve earned a decent living for lo these 20 some years writing), was when, last week, I decided to abandon a novel I’d begun as a personal catharsis piece over 15 years ago and start fresh. The act of abandoning, and for me more of committing to beginning another novel? The most writerly thing I’ve ever done.

    It was my daughter who put it so well for me. She said, ‘Mom, you started this piece a long time ago. You’re an entirely different person now, with a different voice and better skills and a style of your own. Start something new, use the best ideas from that work but don’t try to edit 125 pages of old into your current voice. It’ll make you nuts. Oh, and know I really look forward to reading a finished piece from you. You are, after all, the writer in our family.”

    Writing isn’t what you do, really. It’s just who you are.

    I love your blog.

    • Thank you so much!

      What a great insight about writing. I know what you mean — it’s like you take yourself seriously enough to make that decision and set your early work aside. And what a great daughter! (I’ll assume she gets her wisdom from her mother.)

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