When Is a Writer Not a Writer?

My name is Richard, and I am a writer.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s the one thing about myself that I’m always proud to tell people (for ‘people’, read ‘anyone who’ll listen’). But, am I? A writer, I mean. What is a writer? At what point, or by what criteria, can one rightly refer to oneself as ‘a writer’? This may seem, at first glance, a rather odd question, but it is one I wrestle with from time to time. Usually around the time I tell someone I’m a writer and feel a faint lack of authenticity, coupled with a loathsome voice in my head, telling me I’m a total phoney.

‘I’m a writer’, I say.
‘You’re a total phoney’, the loathsome voice says.
‘I have every right to call myself that’.
‘Yeah, but you’re not telling the whole story, are you?’
‘I’m relating the important bits’.
‘You’re a big phoney and you smell of poo’.

Let me explain, and at the same time assure you that I do not smell of poo. Not that I’m aware of, anyway.

I’ve written seven screenplays, two of which were optioned for a short while. I’m in the process of writing two novels and I’m a semi-conscientious blogger. I write. I love to write. It’s what I was meant to do. However, like most writers, I haven’t yet reached the point where my craft is my primary source of income. So, I am currently cursed with what people call ‘a day job’. You know, the thing that people advise you not to give up? Actually, my day job is a night job. I work the night shift in a hotel. It’s a thankless, tedious and demeaning job and certainly not the kind of thing you’re going to tell people you do. Not if you have a plausible alternative. Which, God be praised, I do. You see, I’m a writer.

‘Phoney’.
‘Oh, fuck off’.
‘Touched a nerve, have we?’

You see the issue?

So, the questions is, what labour defines you? The work which pays the rent or the work which you love but presently pays you little to nothing? Have I earned the right to tell people I’m a writer, or should I, in all honesty, tell people I work the night shift in a hotel? It’s like being Clark Kent, forever compelled to present that mild-mannered persona to the world, while desperate to tell people you meet that you’re actually Superman. After all, you really are Superman. Clark Kent just pays the rent. Ironically enough, he’s a writer too. I wonder if he gets the loathsome voice in his head?

Is it, in fact, the case that the simple of act of writing makes you a writer, regardless of whether you ever get paid for it? Surely it’s the act that earns the definition, not the result of that act. I mean, is a musician only a musician if his songs are recorded? Is a rapist only a rapist if he gets convicted? No, of course not. That’s just ridiculous, right?

So why, when I tell people I’m a writer, do I feel like such a fraud?

And how much thinking is too much thinking?


7 people thought reading “When Is a Writer Not a Writer?” would be a good idea. Stranger still, they left messages...

  1. Margaret Reyes Dempsey

    I have never had issues calling myself a writer because, well, I am one in my day job as well. But I have felt the need to specify that I was a technical writer (the paying writing job). Sometimes, if the conversation progressed, I’d mention that I wrote novels for fun. No one ever knew what a technical writer was and even after I’d tell them “I write the software manuals you hate to read,” they’d still have perplexed looks on their faces. Then, my novel was published. Now I just say I’m a writer, mostly so I don’t have to explain what the heck technical writing is.

    With that said, and with your blog making me think about this in more detail, I believe writers should call themselves writers whether they get paid for their words or not. The fear of doing so, I think, comes from the reactions of others. Writers are held to a higher standard. Usually, when you say you’re a writer, people assume you’re a novelist and ask whether they’ve read any of your books. When people admit to being a musician, I rarely hear others ask whether they’ve heard any of their songs on the radio. Usually, the next question is “What do you play?”

    Call yourself a writer, Rich, and don’t feel like a fraud. Remember that I’ve had the pleasure of reading your screenplays. No one who can create a story the way you can should ever feel like a fraud.

    Reply
  2. cheyanneyoung

    I know exactly what you mean. I used to feel wierd calling myself a writer simply because I wasn’t published. And sure, there’s a gray area there between writing for a hobby and being a writer, or writing as your profession..

    One thing I’ve started saying (to avoid being called a phoney) is, “I work in engineering, but I prefer to write.” And this usually makes people impressed, or curious, or say something like, “wow, that’s cool… keep pursuing your dreams.” N

    Reply
  3. Deborah Atherton

    I’ve known writers with ten (or twenty) books published who hesitate to say they are writers, because they are the “wrong kind” of books or because they haven’t yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But there is something particularly devastating about cocktail chatter, the kind that makes you shrink into your shoes when you have to explain that, no, you don’t yet have a book they can buy from Amazon. But I’d say, go with “I have a screenplay in development in LA, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, I’m sure you’ll understand.” Fuel your own rumor mill. After all, you ARE an award-winning screenplay writer!

    Reply
  4. Thony

    Who ever said it is what we do to pay the bills that defines us anyway, dude? You don’t want to know the things I’ve resorted to in order to keep a roof over my head, and I’m renting off my dad! I think if I was simply defined as a hotel night receptionist I’d have done myself in years ago. No, there is much more to me, and indeed to you than this crude definition; for we are table setting, buffet preparing, cutlery polishing, terrace sweeping night receptionists!!! …uh, now where did I put them razor blades?
    Seriously though dude, YOU’RE A WRITER, and much more besides. None of which has anything to do with this hive of scum and villainy where I presently sit typing these words. Hang on ..TYPING?! ..WORDS?! Does this make me a writer too?! Mwaaahahahaha!!!

    Reply
  5. Debora

    Found your blog from MOS; hello from a fellow citizen of Creatia! I think we’re writers because we can’t not write, whether we get paid for it or not; it’s wired into our genetic code or something. Scott Adams said it really well here.

    Reply
  6. Cantankerous Panda

    Huh. I didn’t know you were a writer! That’s very cool. Don’t be so down about writing not paying the rent and all– what pays the bills doesn’t have to define you. And you might find success along the way while you’re doing things you don’t love. People say things like “aspiring writer” which I guess could work either for you or against you. If you feel that you are truly meant to be a writer, then call yourself a writer! Just be sure to actually write something, too :P.

    Reply
  7. cathbore

    You are a writer the very moment you pick up a pen and create something. The whole concept of whether one earns money from one’s writing isn’t an issue, I don’t think. Sometimes we aren’t ‘brave’ enough to declare oursleves as writers when the very fact we’re writing and talking and blogging about it makes us just that!

    Reply

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