Who’s a Writer?

It’s funny how snotty some people get when they ask you what you dooooo, and you reply, “I’m a writer.”

1st question: “Have you published anything?” (delivered with a light sneer)

2nd question: “Anything I’ve heard of?” (even more sneeringly)

And there it is, floating in the air between you like an unclaimed waft of flatulence: the questioner’s sizing you up, determining whether you have any business calling yourself a real writer.

Otis shows up at the keyboard regularly, but her word count is very low.

Even writers themselves aren’t sure when they officially cross over into this magical realm of “real.” Does a fairy alight on some nearby flower and bless us, as in The Velveteen Rabbit? Or must we reach a certain predetermined word count on the hard drive, a specified number of published works, or an appearance in some agreed-upon “respectable” magazine?

Each questioner seems to devise his own set of criteria for determining whether we’re authorized to call ourselves “writer.” This judgment often centers on the question of remuneration. But the funny thing is, the common question isn’t “How do you pay your bills?” It’s “What do you DO?

A different question altogether. How would I answer that? At various times in my life, I’ve called myself piano player, pilot, hiker, Ultimate Frisbee player, gardener, audio producer, blogger, journalist. For some of these activities, I have received occasional checks. But I am no less a doer of these things for not having been paid for them. Why isn’t the definition in the doing? In the trying? In the spending of time, the learning?

“What do you DO?” can mean anything.

I garden, therefore I…have poison ivy.

That’s why I never ask the question in quite that way. I’m more specific: I ask, “What is your work in this world?” or “What do you love doing?” The phrasing is slightly awkward, but it gives people a chance to define themselves the way they choose to. It invites more interesting answers, like, “I’m saving up my restaurant paycheck to ride my bike across Canada and blog about the journey.” So, who is this person, really? A waiter or a cyclist/adventurer/blogger? Or all of the above?

Your answer to that question most likely depends on how you define yourself. I’d argue that the happiest people define themselves by the things they enjoy doing most, not by the way they sell their time or skills. And if you love writing more than anything, you might just have to DO something else on the side to feed that habit. Just ask the New Orleans Time-Picayune staff. Or Herman Melville.

I’m thinking about this today because my dynamo writer-friend Kristen House just wrote a wonderful blog post about the question of who gets to call herself a “novelist.” House teaches a novel-writing course to pre-teens and teens; by the end of six weeks, nearly all of her students have finished a 50,000-word draft of their first novel. It’s a fantastic achievement for young writers, the first of many steps in learning to use words, tell stories, and maybe even sell their writing for fun and profit one day.

A parent of one of House’s students apparently didn’t see it that way. Here’s this, from yesterday’s post:

This morning, I woke up to a really uncomfortable email.  A parent of an “A Novel Idea” alumna asked to be removed from my mailing list and told me that she wouldn’t be recommending the program because she didn’t think that everyone who puts a volume of words on a page should be called a novelist. 

My heart wrenched and my stomach twisted into a knot. 

When I read that, my first thought was for my friend: how terrible that someone could so thoroughly misunderstand the point of A Novel Idea. And my second thought was, That poor kid! What awful things must a parent have said to her daughter? And what’s that little swipe of sanctimonious nastiness going to do to some hard-working young girl’s writing aspirations?

Imagine Your Book Here (and keep writing)

Ask anybody who’s ever assembled 50,000+ words—in the form of an unpolished draft in a dusty box, a manuscript slaved over and rejected, or a published book on a bookshop shelf—whether it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I’m pretty sure I know what they’ll answer.

The kind of person who says a kid who creates a 50,000-word story doesn’t get to call herself a novelist? That’s the person who hears you announce, “I just ran my first marathon!” and smirks in response, “What was your time?”

This measuring disease that afflicts us Americans isn’t making us any happier.

There’s a lot to love about American culture; but one thing I think we seriously need to adjust is this cultish worship of success—narrowly defined as winning fame, fortune, and widespread acknowledgement for what you DO. Sorry folks: I just do not think that rich-and-famous lunatic Tom Cruise is more “successful” than my friend Dan Furbish, who spends his days teaching inner-city kids to build bicycles, or Vali Forrister, who teaches teen girls to use their words.

The happiest people aren’t usually the richest monetarily. They’re usually the quiet doers, for whom acknowledgement is secondary or wholly unimportant. For them, the doing is the thing.

And in my book, a kid who gets 50,000 words on paper by age 16 is DOING, in all caps.  Here’s a teenager who just spent most of her summer vacation writing a book, not texting or shopping or flirting by the pool. She’s just learned something vital that many of us never grasp: there’s value in doing something for its own sake, not for the attention it gets you.

Why worry about what labels to apply to her? Just congratulate her, and encourage her to keep up the good work. On a path to a happy and fulfilled life, she’s miles (and pages) ahead of most of us.

Related post: Kristen House’s A Novel Idea program

16 thoughts on “Who’s a Writer?

  1. I had a ‘published writer’ say that to me once, self-righteous twit that she was. Of course, we all know that’s never about us, but about the person mouthing the nonsense. Still hurts though.

    • Oh, no! Are people worshipping you again? Do you need a bodyguard? I will kick some paparazzi @#% if you need me to.

      • haha. you make me laugh, kim! Great post, though. Really. The gibsons and the green-humphries should meet for wine sometime.

  2. “On a path to a happy and fulfilled life, she’s miles ahead of most of us” – Well said and unfortunately she is miles ahead of her mother too… It’s sad that her own family is unwilling to appreciate the long hours and emotional struggles that she went through to get those 50,000 words on paper. Has her mother ever written a novel? Likely not. To all of the ‘A Novel Idea’ writers I say but one thing: Be proud of your amazing accomplishment and know that you ARE a writer and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

  3. I also agree completely. I find that I have to just not care what anybody else thinks of what I am doing. It makes me happy and that’s all that matters. Look how unhappy the millionaires are – if you want proof that money doesn’t bring happiness.
    I can’t believe any parent could say that about her child writing 50 000 words. When will we learn to value each other’s accomplishments without comparing it to others?

  4. I had to share this on Facebook. This applies to so much more than writing. It must be human nature to try to assign a label to people, and that act is so limiting. (That poison ivy thing, though. . .)

  5. This is wonderful … and quite timely. It reminds me of my favorite book, The Little Prince, in which the narrator says (approximately), “If you were to say to the grown-ups, ‘Today I saw a beautiful house with red bricks, geraniums in the windows, and doves on the roof,’ they would not get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say, ‘I saw a house that cost twenty-thousand dollars!’ Then the grown-ups would exclaim, ‘My, what a pretty house that is!'” Thank you for this blog entry.

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