The Definition of a Writer (And a 3-Question Quiz)

My writing “career,” whatever that means, began in January 1998. That was when I sat down and started writing my first novel seriously with the goal of publication. I didn’t want to publish one novel though, or two or three, or even ten. I wanted to publish a lifetime’s worth. How many will that be? I don’t know, because I’m not dead yet.

It’s an ambitious goal to set out toward though for a person who’d never written even one little novel yet. I’ve now written 25+ of them, 20 of which have been published, while the other 5 or so (I sort of lost count with a few sloppily finished ones) will never see publication. They were my learning novels–one written each year for the 5 years it took me to sell my first book.

But my first sale didn’t mark the beginning of my career, such as it is. I was a real writer with or without a sale, and if you too struggle with the question of whether or not you are a “real” writer, as I did many, many times over the course of those 5 years and even a few times since, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Are you so passionate about reading that you do it constantly?

2. Are you so passionate about writing that you count the act of it among your happiest moments?

3. Do you write regularly?

If you answer those three questions with a “yes,” then there’s no doubt you are indeed a writer. (Well, actually, you could just answer questions 1 and 3 with a yes and still be a writer…)

First, I don’t believe anyone who doesn’t read regularly  and with great relish can really be all that genuine about their desire to be a writer. More likely, he or she desires fame, fortune, ego strokes, and a fat book contract.

And for question number two, let me clarify. It’s not that writing is always or even regularly a happy act, but when it’s good, there’s nothing better. If you’ve ever hit that sweet spot of creative flow, you know what I’m talking about. 80% of writing might be pure unadulterated work, but the joy of being in “flow” is worth all the slogging it takes to get there. (I’ve actually figured out a few tricks for reaching a flow state faster and more regularly, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Question 3 is obvious, but also requires a bit of clarification. I was talking to a friend this week about the ebb and flow of the writer’s life, and she bemoaned the fact that she has no energy for writing at the moment. Her life has been an utter shit-storm of Big Life Events lately, and in the midst of all that, she has lost her energy and passion for writing. Of course she has. It’s certainly happened to me. Writers can’t be engaged endlessly in the act of writing–especially not writing novels every day. There may be months or even years when other things necessarily have to take priority.

I am always a happier and more fulfilled person if I am writing daily, but sometimes I have to take a break from novel writing. I will haul out that old metaphor about giving birth to a novel–it really isn’t so different from giving birth to a child…without medication…alone in a field with no one but yourself to help guide that baby out. So when life gets rough, maybe you turn to a journal, or writing poetry, or just writing letters (okay, emails) to friends, but always, if you are a writer, the written word has a power very little else has. It is a way of thinking about and experiencing the world that you return to again and again throughout your life.

In this uncertain world, we have no control over what agents and publishers do, but I hope after reading this post you can at least stop worrying about whether or not you are a real writer. Being a writer means taking solace and pleasure in the process, from day to day, month to month, year to year, which adds up to a lifetime.

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