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What Makes You a Writer?

April 23, 2014
You might be a writer if you use this, but you also might want to update your technology. (image via Wikimedia)

You might be a writer if you use this, but you also might want to update your technology. (image via Wikimedia)

I don’t talk about my writing much.  Nobody  I know asks me about my writing because I haven’t told anybody I know that I write. If I told people that I wrote a blog and ebooks, then they would want to talk about my writing (or feel like they were obligated to talk about my writing when they didn’t really want to, and I don’t want to put them in that position). I don’t mind writing about what I write, but I don’t like to talk about what I write. I’ve had bad experiences talking about my writing.

Twenty years ago, I (semi-pretentiously) said I was a writer or wanted to be a writer, and that led to a bunch of awkward conversations. I’d explain my projects/ideas, and they always sounded lame when I tried to describe them. For example, I once wrote a manuscript about a private detective who pretended to be a psychic. He used his notoriety to drum up business, but it also got him into trouble, like when his predictions turned out to be wrong. Even though I liked my idea, and parts of the book were pretty good, I hated talking about it at social gatherings where I barely knew the people I was talking to. Eyebrows would go up.

“Psychic detective?” they’d ask.

“Fake psychic,” I said.

“Then how does he solve crimes?”

“By doing detective work.”

“Are you a detective?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know anything about what detectives do?”

“I have a couple friends who are private investigators, and they tell me stories.”

“Really? Who?” They probably asked me that because they’d rather have talked to a real private investigator than some guy who said he was a writer.

“They don’t want people to know they’re private investigators.”

“Why not?”

“It’s easier to get information from people if they don’t know you’re a private investigator.”

“So you could be a private investigator, and you’re just not telling me.”

“I could be, but I’m not. I’m not a fake psychic either.”

“You’re not a detective or a fake psychic. Then you’re extremely unqualified to write this book.”

“Maybe, but I’ll still sign your copy if you buy one when it comes out.”

I was optimistic back then, but the skeptics who cross-examined me were right, kind of. The psychic detective was a good idea for somebody else to use. I had no business writing something like that when I was in my mid-20s. I should have been writing stuff like Having a Few and Getting Some or The Writing Prompt or even “The Literary Girlfriend.” I was extremely qualified to write those.

If anybody asked me now if I was a writer, I’m not sure if I’d say yes or no. I don’t make money from my writing, and that’s an important criteria.   Some would say an activity is only a hobby until you can live off it, but I wouldn’t go that far. I have a job that has nothing to do with writing. I don’t write my blog or ebooks when I’m at my job. I pretty much focus on work when I’m at work (some coworkers don’t have that philosophy). When I get the time at home, though, I write. And I take it seriously. That’s the important thing.

I’ve been writing a blog for three years. Today is the third anniversary of Dysfunctional Literacy, and this the 400th post (it just worked out that way). I missed the first two anniversaries. The good thing about blogs is that they don’t care if you miss the anniversary. They say they don’t care, and they actually don’t care, so you don’t get punished if you forget. I’m not sure writing a blog makes me a writer, but I’ve been at it for three years, and if a writer can sustain a project for three years, that means something too.

I might not spend enough time each day writing to be considered a writer. I come home from work tired, and if I’m lucky, I can get between 30 minutes to an hour to write and/or edit. When I think of a writer, I think of somebody who pounds the keyboard for several hours or more every day. Or they claim to, and I can’t claim to.

It might be easier to consider myself a writer if friends/acquaintances knew I wrote, but I don’t tell anybody I know about Dysfunctional Literacy or my ebooks because I don’t want my employer to find out about them. I don’t mention my employer at all on this blog (except that what I do has nothing to do with writing), so I can’t be seen as a representative of the company I work for. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if it matters from a legal standpoint, but I don’t want it to be an issue. Plus, I don’t want some young punk at work picking an argument with me at the café about what I wrote on my blog about James Franco’s novel (it sucks. I didn’t read it, but I know it sucks). I don’t need that hassle.

Writing this has helped me figure things out.  If anybody asked me whether or not I considered myself a writer, I’d say no, but I’d be lying. I do consider myself a writer, but I just don’t like to talk about it.

*****

If you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you’re a writer or thinking about writing. Do you consider yourself a writer? What does it take to be a writer (other than writing)? How much is money an issue? How much (or long) do you need to write to consider yourself a writer? How awkward do you feel talking about your writing to people who don’t write?  And feel free to answer any questions about writing that I haven’t asked.

*****

A shy writer + a cheerleader + a sick teacher + a class that hates everything = The Writing Prompt.

Now available on Amazon!

Now available on Amazon!

56 Comments
  1. Happy anniversary! I’ve enjoyed your blog a lot. You’re consistently funny and self-depracating…it’s sweet (not sure if guys like to be called sweet ;-)). Someone said to me, “If you write, then you’re a writer.” I think I judge by my level of passion and commitment…a few years ago I was working fairly hard on my writing, working on personal essays and sending them off to different places in the hopes of getting published. If I kept that up I would call myself a writer. These days I just write casually in my blog and my interest in writing has cooled off for the time being so I don’t feel justified in calling myself a writer (that’s okay).

    • Yikes, I spelled “deprecating” wrong!

      • I’m getting slow. My smart*** teenage self from 30 years ago would have caught that right away (and maybe even have mentioned it), but I didn’t even notice it.

    • You write really good, insightful book reviews, which is why I read your blog, even though my taste in books is far different than yours. Do you tell many people about your blog?

      • I appreciate that! I told only one or two friends about it in the beginning, then more recently began posting my links on my Facebook page but to a very limited group within my circle. I’m still self conscious about it and am considering cutting some people out (like those who never respond). Like you I definitely make a point of keeping it away from
        people related to work. I write about such personal stuff and aside from my first name and thumbnail photo I try to stay as anonymous as I can…

  2. Congrats on the blog’s third birthday! Interesting question, while I believe anyone with a passion for writing can call themselves a writer, I have never called myself a writer before. It is something I enjoy on a currently inconsistent basis, and I would rather people read my work than talk about it.

    • Oh no! Should I have used “birthday” instead of “anniversary”? I didn’t even think of that. “Anniversary” makes it sound like I’m married to my blog, and my wife might get ticked off at that. I try to be precise with my word choice, and I think I might have messed that up. Aaaarrgh! And to do it on my blog’s birthday/anniversary is really embarrassing.

      • Bahahaha! Not at all, anniversary works too! My mind was just being creative, thinking of different ways to say the same thing. That reaction honestly made me laugh.

  3. laurajosephineauthor permalink

    I would call myself by my actual occupation, but I’m a writer in the same way I’m a reader and a gamer. I only recently started telling people I write and that I love to write because until now it was only a sort of escalation from the make believe games I played as a child. I’ve had a few people ask me if I’ve been paid to write with that skeptical look on their faces that tells me that they have met someone who is “an artist” before and they’re not buying into it, but I honestly don’t think that it is relevant. I’ve been paid to act in commercials and children’s musicals but I would say “I’ve done some acting work” not that I’m an actress. I think only you can say what you are and if that is “blogger” or “writer” than that is something.

    I for one really enjoy your writing, and if I wanted to talk about something we discussed with someone else, I’d happily say “my friend, the writer”! 🙂

    • “I’ve had a few people ask me if I’ve been paid to write with that skeptical look on their faces that tells me that they have met someone who is “an artist” before and they’re not buying into it…”

      That’s exactly what I was trying to say. I really don’t want to be in that situation again. You’re right, their opinion and the money thing might not be relevant, but I still don’t want to have that conversation, especially if I don’t know them very well..

      • laurajosephineauthor permalink

        I get such a thrill of satisfaction to claim that I have been paid to act because of those people who have that “holier than thou” attitude because they take themselves seriously or whatever it is, but to be honest the commercials were the most boring and unsatisfying work I’ve ever done. I think I still have to classify it as a hobby for now, but saying that I’m a writer doesn’t feel any worse than saying that I’m a knitter or that I’m an emailer!

        That’s how I feel, but if I don’t know someone I don’t go telling them about my hobbies. I like to feel safe with someone, safe that they aren’t going to sneer at me or ask the wrong questions. For the record, pretend psychic detective sounds like an awesome book and I’d definitely read it!

  4. I always say I am compelled to write. I can’t consider myself a writer yet because to me that is a profession and I would have to be doing it full or at least part time to call myself that. But that is just my own definition.

  5. Kiera permalink

    I love this post, perhaps because it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who keeps her writing life to herself. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I’m embarrassed or something stupid like that. But I think you hit it on the nose: situations where I have to explain myself or what I want to write about are daunting prospects that I’d rather avoid. So even if this makes it tough for me to consider myself a writer, I know that I am. And that’s enough.

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    • I liked your explanation on your Youtube Channel (I hope it’s okay that I mentioned it here). When I saw that, I thought, “Hey! You talked about it before I even thought about writing about it!”

  6. It sounds to me like you are afraid of telling people you are a writer, and that’s just silly. I understand why you are, but you are letting the people who criticized you before control how you feel now. Your writing is really good and you should own it. There will always be people who won’t get it or who won’t like your writing. When I get excited about an idea and I tell my writer friends about them, of course they won’t be as excited about it as I am. They can’t envision it. The thing is, the idea isn’t the finished product. If you tell someone about your idea and they tell you that you ‘aren’t qualified’ to write it, screw them. Who are they to tell you otherwise? What are they doing with their lives? You don’t need other people to approve your work or your ideas. That’s not what writing means to me. Writing is about putting your thoughts on paper, about storytelling, and about understanding yourself further by looking back on what you’ve written. It is more a personal thing than a public thing. But how are you ever going to grow if you don’t own up to what you are passionate about? The world needs more people who stop letting others’ opinions of them control what they do/like. I am living in Japan right now despite my family and peers’ opinions. But who cares? They aren’t here to complain anymore. I just think if you let them get into your head, it will be your own fault for not being successful. Hiding isn’t the way to go when you have talent and something to share with the world.

  7. to me, people are writers when they write. I never understood why money has anything to do with it. are you only a gardener if you sell a tomato? I love giving my books away for free. it makes me feel free. I’m fine with writing as a hobby or as an amateur or whatever you want to call it. although it does drive me nuts that people don’t see that value and money are not the same thing. anyway I enjoy reading your blog and your stories and I think you’re a fine writer

    • Thank you! I understand getting a kick out of people reading what we write, especially when there are so many other things people could be doing other than reading our stuff.

  8. Nooo, man, don’t subscribe to thinking you have to BE a detective to write a detective. That’s so limiting! It’s fiction and, provided you research, you can do what you like. Idea sounded neat, by the way.

    As for your question: yes, I self-identify as a writer. I talk too much about writing not to! I find others keep me accountable. But, hey, no worries if you want to keep your writing aspirations private. It’s ultimately your decision. We aren’t obligated to share every facet of ourselves with everyone — particularly if they’re likely to misunderstand.

    • I agree, you don’t have to be a detective to write a detective novel (just like you don’t have to think like a killer to catch a killer, which was a lot of detective books/shows/movies said for a long time). That’s what I had private investigator friends for, but 20 years ago I was more likely to be influenced by what others said. Nowadays, I’m more likely to nod politely and daydream while somebody else tells me what they think (but I don’t do that when people write to me what they think; that would be rude).

  9. For me writing was always something that came natural to me. My pen hit the page and I would just write. I’ve been writing for a while now but its hard to call myself a writer. I’ve attributed too much value to that title. I’ve made the shoes too big for me to fit them right now. I have a few short stories online, and several unfinished novels so I guess I do ‘write’ and therefor I am a ‘writer’ but to me a Writer (With a capital W) is someone known for their writing. They don’t have to make money from it, but at least have some fans.

    • I like that; there are “writers,” and there are “Writers.” Right now we’re “writers,” and maybe… just maybe… one day we’ll be “Writers” or even… “WRITERS!!!!!!”

  10. Writing is a source of excitement and stress, happiness and disappointment. Really, writing is life even if you don’t make a damn cent at it. Your work is solid, you know it is, so keep at it:)

  11. annabelmcquade permalink

    Pfft. Maybe it’s because I *am* a self-assured twenty-something, but I argue it doesn’t matter if you’re not “qualified” to write something. I’m not qualified to write about eighteenth century England. Really, surely no one is, given there is no one now living with any experience of it? I do it anyway though.
    I do like your blog. You have an unusual way of looking at life, and you’re prepared to say you don’t like novels even if the critics have given them trophies with “Best Effing Novel Ever in The History of the World, No, Like Seriously” on the front of them. That’s something not many people are brave enough to do.
    I think I do consider myself a writer, but only in my head. If someone asks me what I do in my free time, I wouldn’t say, “I’m a writer.” I would say, “I write.” Because anyone can write, but I think mentally I distinguish between those who write, and those who are writers – i.e., those who are paid for writing. I’m only someone who writes. And if I haven’t been working on my novel recently, I don’t even really give myself that.
    (Long comment is long.)

    • That’s okay, long comments are good, especially ones that start with “Pffft.” You have to be careful though when you make up award names like “Best Effing Novel Ever in The History of the World, No, Like Seriously” because somebody might actually use it and mean it.

  12. interesting topic and well written, I concur you, with keeping both our lives separate, I do the same never told my employer about my writing, I never tell my friends too , for two reasons, first: my writer is not up to high standard yet, second: I am not sure how further , would I take this hobby?

  13. CONGFRATULATIONS -You writer you!! Three years that’s amazing. And 400 posts incredible. I think you are a writer look at the dedication it took to get this far. Kudos to you! I guess since I put words down in print for others to possibly read then I could say I’m a writer too. However with only four months and 15 posts under my belt it doesn’t feel like I’m a writer. Like you I really don’t share the fact that I have a blog with really anyone (only the one friend who knows my story). She’s not the type to read it anyway, I share with her some of my favorite things I’ve written, Like the poem I wrote titled “His Birthday Cake” it’s something i’m proud of. Here’s to your next 400 posts!!

  14. That’s why sci-fi fantasy writers are the best. You can never be qualified to write that stuff.🔫👽🚀✒

    • I hadn’t thought about that. If I remember correctly, scientists (or people who at least understand science) used to get annoyed at George Lucas for misusing scientific principles in his Star Wars movies. I’m sure he’s not the only author or screenwriter to do that (or be accused of it).

  15. I love this post. I hate talking to people about my writing, too. It always sounds lame. I should have lied a long time ago… Also, you don’t have to read James Franco book to know that it sucks. I haven’t read it either, but I can count on it sucking as much as people asking me what it is I write.

    Writing a blog for three years is a huge accomplishment, especially considering blog years are even longer than dog years. Your blog is at least 30 years old, so congratulations! Next year you qualify for a mid-blog crisis and a new literary girlfriend.

    • Ha ha! I hadn’t thought about blog years before. It works out if my blog if my blog is 30 years old or more because my next serial (after “The Literary Girlfriend”) is about mid-life stuff.

  16. Have you read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and “Going Pro”? He talks all about this. Both books really helped me gain focus.
    Xox

    • Thanks for mentioning them. I hadn’t heard of either book, but I’ve looked them up. I’ll probably try the free sample of one of them (I love free samples) and take it from there.

  17. I’m with you. Until I have a published book at B&N, I keep that to myself. I’ve taken photographs with a schmancy camera for 20 yrs, but does that make me a photographer? I’ve written in stacks as high as my roof, but I wouldn’t dare toss that term around. Maybe if I got paid for it. I do both for fun. You don’t want people all up in your business, asking you questions. I tell them a housewife, they leave me alone. I don’t even let my facebook friends know about my blog. Too close to home. And congrats on 3 yrs. Maybe Jeff Foxworthy has a skit about “You might be a writer if…”

    • I’m the same way. I just tell them what my profession is, and they yawn, and everybody is happy, especially when they find somebody more interesting than me to talk to.

      You could probably make a successful book out of those pictures you use on your blog. Combine those with the pictures you’ve taken, and you could call yourself both a writer AND a photographer (while meeting your standards), and then brag about it (with much humility) to everybody.

  18. I have felt this anxiety, and existential questioning, in regards to my own writing habit. I don’t think getting paid is a good criteria. I just think doing the work makes you a writer. If you regularly write stuff, blogged or unblogged, published or unpunished, then you are a writer. Now how good of a writer you are is the question. But again this ends up being relative and subjective, and doesn’t ease the angst.

    I think it’s sad we live in a world where a beer drinking, pill popping, T.V head, has zero existential angst, while a person who has decided to take take up the art of letters is some sort of weirdo. Still it feels that way. I think it is reenforced by a certain anti-intellectualism which you find in a lot of cultures. People are suspicious of overly analytic people. Suspicion is sort of like curiosity, I like to think. I think the key in like is to turn back into the weirdness. Someone starts asking or talking about writing, you loudly declare, I am a writer! They say you are unqualified, you tell them they are unqualified and they can go right to hell!

    Basically, I just want to say you are a fine writer; nothing weird about it at all.

    • Thank you. I’m not the type of person who’ll tell somebody else to go to hell, but I might think it quite strongly at that person. Maybe I could tell them they’re unqualified. Maybe I could do that.

  19. Happy blogging anniversary.

    I don’t tell people I’m a writer, or think I’m a writer, because I have this idea that being a writer is a job in the same way being a lawyer, or a banker, or a builder is a job. Since I don’t write for a living in my own mind I’m not a writer. On the other hand my best friend thinks that a writer is a person who writes, and he tells loads of people that I’m a writer. I occasionally tell people that I have a blog, that seems more honest; while I know some people make a living from their blogs I think of blogging as a hobby, which is what my writing is.

    Whether you’re a writer or not I do enjoy your blog, especially the Literary Girlfriend.

  20. No. But I want to be.

    Really liked this post.

    • Thank you. I consider you a writer or “Writer” already because you’ve already accomplished some things (which I won’t list because I’m not sure how much you’d be comfortable with) that I haven’t. Plus, you’ve got a good (maybe great) idea for a long-term project that I think a lot of people (including me) will enjoy once you’re ready to unleash it.

      I understand what you mean, but in my mind, you’re definitely a writer.

  21. A problem with calling someone a writer is that there are two ways to understand the meaning of the word: “writer” as in someone who writes versus “writer” as someone who makes his/her living by writing. So people may assume you mean the second definition when you meant the first. Occupations like accountant, doctor, mechanic don’t have the same problem – if you’re one of those, it describes both what you do, and how you make your money. No confusion there. So maybe we should use “writer” for the first definition and “professional writer” for the second, and then somehow make everyone understand the distinction.

  22. Veronica permalink

    Happy Blogiversary! (I’ve been making up words lately). I think about being a writer, but I don’t think I’d be very good at it. When I get stuck with plot lines for stories, my husband is always the one who comes up with the good ideas. At the moment, Thing One and Thing Two take up all my time. I keep telling myself that once they go to school, I’ll have time to write and get good at it.

    • Thank you! I think I’ve used “blogiversary” a couple times since you commented, so maybe Merriam-Webster will add it to their word list soon.

  23. Congratulations on three years blogging. I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’ve been blogging since 2009, but I don’t remember the anniversary date.

    Writers write, right? So, I’m a writer. My novel was published this year by a traditional publisher, a small one. If making money is a requirement for being a writer, I’d have to say I’m not a writer. But I do write, so I am a writer, one that has not made enough money to buy dinner at a restaurant, yet. Thank God, I have a husband.

    Writing a book was fun. Selling it, not so much.

    • Getting published by a traditional publisher is a big deal. To some, that’s the standard that determines whether or not you’re really a writer. Either way, it’s a big deal. Congratulations on your novel!

  24. You are definitely a writer, just to put that argument to rest. 🙂 I generally don’t tell people I’m a writer unless it comes out in conversation. The only people who really care are other writers I know and they usually just want to talk about their own writing, so I don’t talk about my ongoing projects much.
    Congratulations on your blog anniversary. Luckily you don’t have to buy your blog any roses or anything, although it’d be nice if WordPress sent you some.

  25. Congratulations on the the 3 years, wish I could commit to even one year but currently i’m struggling with my second week.
    I love that you have put this out there; like many of the others who have commented, I struggle with a similar issue. In my early 20’s that was all I wanted to do and did in fact call myself a writer to anyone new that I met. This was a bad idea when months and years passed with no published work and not even a finished project.
    Now I don’t tell anyone that I write (with the exception of one extremely supportive and creative friend who shares many of my passions) and I certainly don’t tell anyone about my many stunted blog attempts. I find that when people know that I write, I start to sensor my writing, I am afraid that someone I might know will read what I have written and be offended.
    Writing without the title of ‘writer’ has been one of the most freeing things I have done, I took a year off from writing as I didn’t think it was making me happy and I was putting too much pressure on myself. You know what, it made me more miserable, so now I write what I want when I want and screw anyone else.
    One day I hope to make my ‘pipe dream’ a reality, but hey we can’t all be James Pattersons’ of this world.

    • “…but hey we can’t all be James Pattersons’ of this world.”

      Ugh. James Patterson isn’t even the James Patterson of the world. He needs a bunch of co-authors. But I like your idea of writing without the title of “writer.” That makes a lot of sense to me.

  26. Happy anniversary 🙂 I read this post and it got me thinking about this verse from Keat’s, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ –
    “Heard melodies are sweet,
    Those unheard are sweeter”-
    What makes a writer is imagination….the ability to use words that can jolt a person’s imagination. I like reading and writing, although my handwriting is worse than a 5th grader. I’m not sure if I’m a writer….but I’m somebody who likes to share bits and pieces of my ever wandering imagination.

  27. Someone who writes is a writer. It’s as simple as that. They may not be a good writer, a successful writer, a published writer of famous best-sellers but they are a writer even if they write in a series of notebooks and never show their work to anyone else. To me, writing is as much part of my life as eating or breathing. The question “are you still writing?” is like asking me if I am still living.

  28. I am a writer because I write. It’s really that simple. Am I a published author? Well, not yet, but soon!
    We call people singers who sing for free in their local church choir. We call people painters who’ve never sold a piece. I don’t believe that getting paid is the only measure that allows us to claim we are creative. What about writers who never published during their life time? They were never paid and yet we recognize some of them as Great Writers!
    Although Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory has been called into question, I still use it as a general rule. I think that you need to put in some serious time, be it 10,000 hours or not, to call yourself a writer.
    I do feel awkward talking to people about being a writer, mostly because it’s something so personal it makes me feel vulnerable. I have to explain what I write and promote my work. What if they don’t like it? What if they change their view of me based on my writing?

    • I like the 10,000 hour theory. It makes me grateful that I’m a writer and not an athlete or some other kind of physical performer. They have a much shorter period to get to that 10,000 hours or achieve their successes. We writers have as much time as we have.

  29. Reblogged this on makeyourvoicesmatter and commented:
    Wow..I am a writer too..listening to u speak feels that I am reading myself.I dont tell anyone that I am a writer..not most people are writers and those most people cant understand writers..because writers ..well they are complicated people..they have an abstract personality.I have trouble explaining that to people so I write my heart out..Emotion it put lifes to words and phrases used in forming sentences..☺😊

  30. I started writing just because one day I had a story in my head that I thought needed to written down. After the first three chapters I sent a copy of my work to a publishing house never expecting to hear from them again. They got back to me and wanted to publish my book. The one I hadn’t even written yet. That was very unnerving for me. That was also five years ago and I’m still writing my book. I’m a carpenter by trade so when I say I’m writing a book I get the “Seriously” look. Its been a labor of love, and according to my family its really good. But that’s my family. I would really like to start getting some outside feedback to kinda validate all the work I’ve done. But like you said it takes a long time for anyone to even notice your blog page or anything else you may post. I think your a writer if you feel your a writer. I look for validation of my work but not of how I view myself. To each their own on whether you feel need to tell someone if your a writer or not, but when my first book is finished I’m going to say it proudly, because its not just words, its that since of accomplishment for completing something most people never even try.

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