When is a Writer… a Writer?

This is a subject just about everyone has weighed in on. From Chuck Wendig to Matthew Reilly, the consensus seems to be simple:

If you write, you are a writer. There is no “aspiring.”

Pretty damn good advice, really.

But there’s a problem. Usually, there is one reason for a writer to be inclined to call themselves “aspiring”: they don’t have something published, or (even more likely) a finished final draft. Or maybe not even a finished first draft.

So, there is a looming inevitability for every writer who forgoes calling themselves “aspiring.” It comes in many forms, on a sliding spectrum of well-meaning interest to outright malice. And it usually looks something like this:

“Oh? You’re a writer? Can I read your work?”

For those of us who only have unfinished or unpolished drafts, this question is the closest thing to verbal evisceration I’ve ever come across. And let me tell you, I’ve been well acquainted with quite a few personally-tailored cutting remarks in my time.

There’s really no good answer to that question, or if there is one, I certainly haven’t come up with it yet. Usually, it just leads to a certain amount of evasiveness, sometimes with or without stammering.

“Well. You see. There’s still a lot of research left to do, and editing. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Speaking of Rome, did you know it took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel? That’s the same time it took da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa. Crazy, right? Funny we should bring this up because, you know, artists don’t like to reveal their work too early and my draft might just probably not exactly be ready for publication just yet.”

The last words are out. The room goes silent. It’s too late now, the forces of the universe have already been set into motion. All I can do now is wait and see if their face twists into a look that walks the boundary somewhere between patronizing and pitying.

“… so, you’re not a real writer, is what you’re saying.”

What can someone say to that, truly? Sure, you can cite Wendig and Reilly all you want. You can say that Richard Bach agrees with the sentiment “a professional writer is only an amateur who didn’t quit” even if he didn’t say it himself. You can talk yourself until you’re blue in the face about how all that really matters is that you sit down and put pen to paper.

But let’s be honest here: some people just won’t care. If you don’t have a finished daft and/or a publishing contract, to them you’re not a “real writer.” And that opinion isn’t only held among just the non-writerly rabble, either! I’ve had similar reactions equally from fellow writers, a group of people whom I expected to be the most understanding.

There’s a stigma, plain and simple.

I know where it comes from. After all, haven’t we all come across at least a handful of those people? You know, the ones who say they don’t like to read and don’t like to write, but one day they’re going to write a book! You’ll see, it’ll be the next Great American Novel, because it’ll be based on their life. After all, how hard can writing be? You just sit down and type!

Or, of course, there are those people who do more talking about writing than they do actual writing. Those individuals who are oh-so-enamored about the aesthetic of being a writer… but aren’t all that interested in doing the work. Every other day they have an idea for a new novel, and they’re always excited to show you their notes. Don’t they always have a million notes? And can talk for three hours about the themes and symbols they intend to use, and how they’re researching some foreign act structure to better encapsulate their very particular vision. But then, funny, they never seem to get around to penning the actual story.

It seems that everyone and their brother either thinks themselves a writer or has something to say about what it means to be a writer.

It’s something that’s been lamented for at least a hundred years, if not since antiquity in one form or another:

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

Some things never do change, do they? For better or for worse.

For some of us still knee-deep in our first drafts, though, that does leave us in a bit of a lurch. Seemingly forever stuck between not-aspiring- but also not-a-real-writer.

Sure, there are writers like Stephen King who can go from start to finish on a novella in three weeks, writers who notoriously lock themselves away and become all but complete hermits while writing. Some thrive on the isolation, and it drives them.

But some of us… not so much. I’m not a writer who works well in a vacuum. I want to talk about the craft, about the ups and downs. About interesting tidbits of information, and about how one juggles the daily challenges of life with creative endeavors. This has always been true, with or without a finished first draft.

But am I a “real” writer? Well, I guess that’s up to interpretation. I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember. (Case in point: there is a photographs of me as a 4-year-old sitting in front of a typewriter, intent on writing one of my first “books.”) I’m driven to put pen to paper, to tell stories of other worlds and the people in them.

In the end, I’m not sure it matters right now. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Why not take it together?


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