Friday, December 16, 2011

Calling Ourselves Writers

I recently suggested that there are no writers--at least not in the sense that there are doctors, medical schools, and a well defined course of preparation and practice in order to become one.

Have I now committed political suicide by flip-flopping? 

No. This is another example of the contradictions inherent to the writing life that you must wrap your head around.

My earlier point was that aside, perhaps, from becoming a tenured writing professor there are no established and accepted career paths that will, if followed, make you a nationally-acclaimed novelist. The only common denominator among the handful of people we would generally recognize as writers is that they wrote a lot for a long time. Schooling, jobs, writing habits--everything else was incidental from a predictive perspective.

And yet there is a time when it is important to call yourself a writer.

Sarah Callender, at Write it Sideways said,
"I don’t know about you, but for a long time, whenever a well-intentioned someone asked what I did professionally, I instantly became a mammering, mealy-mouthed mugwump. It just felt so audacious, not to mention goofy, to utter the sentence, “I’m a writer!’"

"Until one day it hit me. My under-confidence was far more damaging to my own work, to my own creativity, than [a friend's] over-confidence was to his dreams.

"We writers need to see ourselves as writers so that others will see us as writers.

"But ... we writers need to do the very, very hard work that will give us the knowledge, the certainty, that even if we are still unpublished, even if agents aren’t wooing us, even if we’ve submitted to seventeen thousand contests and publications yet have no acceptances or prizes, we are writers because we put our tush in the chair and get words on the page every day."
Giving yourself permission to be what you're preparing for but have not yet achieved is very much in line with the phase of Dressing the Part from the arc of the Virgin's Promise. It is consistent with the making version of, "fake it till you make it."

How do you take the idea of yourself as a writer seriously when publication and public acknowledgement of you as a writer is years away?

By calling yourself a writer, you have both the permission and the obligation to make a dedicated effort. If you're serious, for example,  about keeping a job, you'll do what's necessary to get yourself out of bed, make yourself presentable, and arrive at work on time--and you'll do it every day of the work week. When other demands or distractions arise, you say, "I'm sorry, but I have to go to work." Thinking of writing as your job (or second job) may seem like a sure-fire way to leach all the joy out of it, but if you treat it as an indulgence you'll either feel guilty or succumb when another good thing comes along to occupy your writing time.

Similarly, calling yourself a writer means adopting the discipline of a writer. Discipline is more than simply writing each day (thought that's certainly a good start). The discipline that makes a difference means a focus not just on doing the job each day but on getting better at the job each day.

The key point, as Callender says, is that calling yourself a writer means you accept the "very, very hard work," that comes with the title. Writer isn't an entitlement, it's something you live up to.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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