Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who is a Real Writer?

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ––Thomas Mann

A writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops. –– William Saroyan

So who is a "real" writer?

Is it someone who has decided this morning to become one? And then goes to Starbucks and writes Chapter One and a couple of lines?

Or do you have to pay some dues?

Speaking of pay, do you have to get some to be a real writer?

There was a guy who used to hang out at my local Starbucks, typing poems on an honest to goodness typewriter. He said that was the best way for him. He was about 30, and had the hipster look down. He'd type a poem for someone in exchange for whatever they wanted to pay.

He was, I guess, a professional. But was he a real writer?

Should we simply distinguish between those who make a living, or a substantial amount of their living, writing, from those who want to be able to do that?

Or does any of this matter?

Personally, I found it difficult to tell people I was a writer before I was published. After my first book came out, it was still hard to say. When I got a multiple book contract, it got  a little easier. I'd worked really hard and finally it was paying off. But it was only after I had about a dozen books out there that I was able to say without qualm I was a writer.

Now, with self-publishing via e-books getting to be so easy, people can be "multi-published" with a click of an upload. Writers all?

A novelist friend of mine told me this:

To call yourself a writer, you have to engage in it daily with some exchange of money between you and a publisher. Or a client. Or a film or TV company. It has to in some ways be your vocation. As to whether or not you're making a living wage isn't so much the catalyst, but that you are pursuing jobs and publishing your work FOR MONEY. Otherwise, it's a hobby, a fascination, a desire, a work in progress.

Another friend, who has made a living as a freelance writer for many years, told me:

To me, to truly be a writer, you have to pass a gantlet of editors, critics, peers, and the marketplace. Not everyone who types up manuscripts and submits them to publishers is a writer. In my mind, until you have earned the right to call yourself a writer, don't call yourself a writer. So, while I don't blame anyone for saying, "Anyone can be a writer" or "All you have to do is write," these statements really sadden me. I realize that what for me is a holy calling and an ennobled profession has in many ways lost that distinction forever. If anyone with a keyboard and enough money to upload a file to Xulon Press or iUniverse can call himself a "writer," then everything I set my sights on from the time I was nine years old has become relatively meaningless.

Maybe my view is best summed up by the two quotes at the top of this post. If you're a real writer, it's going to be difficult, because you can't just throw anything out there. You have to sweat and bleed to learn to write. And if you want to be a real writer, you can't give up. You have to have a little bit of rebel in you, because people will probably think you're nuts (while secretly envying your passion).

So what's your take? Who or what is a "real" writer?


NOTE: For those of you interested in making your revision process the best it can be, I'm doing an hour long webinar next Sunday called Self-Editing and Revising the Knock Out Novel. Would love to see you there. 


  1. Great subject, one that I'm sure every writer struggles with. After selling a few shorts, I reluctantly call myself a writer from time to time, but like most writers I have bigger aspirations and -like you- I will have difficulty with that word until I reach a certain point. I'm thinking the word here is 'career.'

    In the age of the kindle, I guess everyone will have to have their own definition. Some will say a self-published author is not a writer. I say, if that author is selling thousands (or tens of thousands) of books, he or she is most definitely a writer. Work is done, money changes hands -that's a profession. A career.

  2. My reaction to reading those two sample opinions in this blog was "No one has a right to tell me whether I'm a writer but me." The first sample is far too narrow--tying it to the passing of money, the second presupposes that one person's writing journey is the same as their own.

    For me personally, I didn't feel I'd earned the right to call myself writer until I submitted my first manuscript to an editor this summer. But just because that was MY measuring stick, it doesn't mean it's someone else's.

    As to those who self-publish, from what little I know of the process, people have to shell out quite a chunk of money to do that, which to me means a certain level of commitment and seriousness (even if their motives are less than pure).

    Every person has to figure out when they have "earned" the title. It doesn't matter whether or not others agree.

  3. Good question, Jim. To find the answer, maybe we should ask the same about other professions. Who is a real doctor? Who is a real priest? Who is a real pilot? Those professionals along and others don't have those titles without years of sacrifice, study, training, practice, and risk--lots of risk. Anyone can claim to be a writer. Just write something. But if the question is: Who is a professional writer, then I think the answer must be compared to other professionals. In the most basic form, I consider a writer someone who writes on a regular basis and consistently makes money doing it. Up to that point, I would call it a hobby. And, by the way, that’s exactly what the IRS calls it.

  4. For me writing is a profession. So making money at it is critical to the definition of writer. self-publishing has made it easier to present your work directly to the reader, and get paid for it so a self-pubbed author is a writer imo. Still quality will dictate who remains a writer and who goes away quickly. The only difference is the gatekeepers have changed. No longer must a writer satisfy agents and editors and publishers and marketing departments to get published, they must satisfy readers to succeed. To do that they must still learn craft and work regularly at producing and learn the business. Those who di that are writers.

  5. Thought-provoking post, Jim. When did you call yourself a lawyer? When you started law school? When you graduated? When you passed the bar? I suppose there are gradations in all professions.
    When I first began to study the craft and work to put together a novel, I hesitantly referred to myself as a writer. After my first novel was published, I called myself an author.
    I'll watch these comments with interest. Thanks for stirring up discussion and making me think.

  6. Bk,
    Not sure what expenses you are referring to with regard to self-publishing. There are no cost to e-pubbing with amazon, pubit (bn) and smashwords. As for their motives being less than pure, that statement confuses me. My motives for self-publishing are the same as every writer i know: toget paid for work bought by readers. If the question is quality that is in the eyes of the beholder, but for me i write the best story i can write and all my self-published work is professionally edited by a hired freelance editor so my self-pubbed work receives no less care and attention than my traditionally published work.

  7. I think that epublishing is simply going to carve another trail up the writing mountain. People who self-e-publish, if want to become "real writers," are going to have to persevere, rewrite, market, and find a paying audience of their own. Personally, I think it might be easier to find an agent and a publisher!

    "Self-e-publish." Did I coin a new term, lol?

  8. p.s. Oh, and I started my working life as a journalist, so I never had to have an epic struggle over whether I was a writer or not. I simply had to decide what kind of writer I was going to be.

  9. David, I'm referring to people I know who have self pubbed physical books. They made a significant investment to do so.

    Whether paper or e-book, that author still is the one who decides they are a writer.

  10. Btw, can anyone tell me which famous author, when asked by a journalist what he would have become in life if he hadn't been a successful writer, replied "An unsuccessful writer." To me, that's the spirit of a "real" writer.

  11. I agree that if one desires to be a real writer, from the start he must believe, inside, that this is what he is. That there will be a long period of apprenticeship, that there will be no quitting, that there will be effort and heartbreak and more effort.

    When I was just getting started I bought a coffee mug with the word WRITER on it. I used that mug each day, and looked at the word. I still have it. Though I couldn't say so publicly at first, in my mind that's what I was and was going to continue to be.

    It was only after several years of success that I was comfortable saying it out loud.

  12. Kathryn, I don't know who uttered that quote, but the spirit is correct. There was a lawyer some years ago who was nearly killed in an auto accident. In the hospital he took stock of his life, and decided that writing was what he always wanted to do, and so would do it and keep on doing, even if he never got published. Eventually, he was. He wrote Promises to Keep, a big debut novel, and several others. George Bernau.

  13. Hmm. When is a pianist a pianist? An artist an artist? I've sung in auditioned choirs most of my life, never for pay. Does that mean I'm not a singer?

    I've mentioned here before that I was in the fire service for 15 years, racking up over 4,000 emergency calls (many as the incident commander), but always as a volunteer. Never got paid a dime. Was I not a firefighter? It sure felt like it when I fell through a floor.

    Okay, the firefighting thing required a lot of training and more than a few certifications, so maybe that's the difference. If so, then isn't every graduate of an accredited program in creative writing by definition a writer?

    But wait. My ninth published novel is under contract, yet I have no certifications beyond the fact of the books. I haven't even taken an English class since 1975, my freshman class in college. Still, I knew I was a good writer. I wasn't particularly obsessed with getting published, yet I always wrote. One day, after hundreds of thousands of words penned for my own pleasure, I had a manuscript that I thought was good enough to be published. Turns out I was right. Did the fact of publication transformed me overnight from non-writer to writer?

    If not "writer" then what do we call the preson who is in the process of penning the manuscript that will soon become his or her first published book?

    JOhn Gilstrap

  14. To me, a "real writer" is someone who is bent on making it one's life work, who strives to learn and improve and write for the edification or entertainment of others, whether that means being paid for one's work or not. But the word "writer" is thrown about loosely these days, much like the word "consultant." We are all writers in a basic sense, every time we relate a story or incident, in the telling of it verbally or in written form.

    I began referring to myself as a writer when I began having work published several years ago, and was working toward writing as my full time vocation. But when I was sidetracked by circumstance and was not pursuing writing as a career, I stopped referring to myself that way. When I picked up my vocational writing path again in recent years, I again referred to myself as a writer.

    Perhaps it's more about how people perceive us than how we refer to ourselves. Most people seem to think of us as "real writers" if we've had work published. But only we can decide, on careful reflection, if being a "writer" is what we truly are.

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  16. John's comment is 100% accurate.

    I have eleven titles available in e-book and one in print with August Moon Publishing House.

    I'm a writer and an author and proud of it. My titles sell everyday, just like other writers and authors.

    I was a writer when I wrote my first story over 30 years ago.

    In my opinion...

  17. To me, a real writer is someone who writes. As real Americans are citizens of the countries of the Americas, as people who drive are drivers, et cetera.

    To me, "writer" is the big pool of all of us who write as a hobby or a sacred calling and everything in between.

    In my vocabulary, it's "author" that's hard to earn. That name is given to a select few. It's not up to me to decide who is a "real" writer--but I've always felt "author" comes with a bit more qualifications attached.

    (And, once again, Blogger insists I am not me. Does anyone else have this problem, only on this blog?)

  18. Heavy duty post for any artist. I struggled as an actress for many years. When I was in a show, I didn't have any qualms about shouting out, "I'm an actress." When I was out of work. I kept my mouth shut. Eventually, I drifted out of performance and into playwriting and later into short stories and novel writing. Once I found myself in the thick of my first manuscript, I realized this was where I belonged. After all, writing was my first love. And I believe the reason I never made a consistent living as an actor was because I couldn't bring myself to embrace the label. The label didn't resonate in my soul. Sure I can act, and I do it well from time to time, but in my soul, I am a writer. I have always written and always will. When someone asks me what I'm going to do on any given day, there is only one answer. "I'm going to write." I don't go around telling anyone I meet that I'm a writer. But inside I know I am. And because I can embrace that truth about myself, I know that one day my manuscript is going to be published. Publication will lead to a career, I can quit my day job and I'll be able to tell everyone that I am a writer. Or once a person is published are they really an author? Just saying. Maybe it's best to leave the labels to other people and for we who write, to simply write. Thanks for coaxing us to think.

  19. I call myself an aspiring writer or an aspiring author. You are right in that it is difficult to consider oneself a writer when one is not published.

    I also do not want to shortchange people who work hard and research and outline. Maybe the more you sweat, the more of a writer you are.

    I don't think we can gauge whether or not someone is a writer based on what they have published. If we did that, then was Emily Dickinson merely an amateur writer at the time of her death because only seven of her poems were published, and highly edited at that?

  20. This is a tricky question and I can only answer for myself. I didn't call myself a writer until I got my first publishing deal - but I still find that many people continue to treat it as a hobby rather than a profession. I suspect it's the nature of 'the arts' - you just have to believe in yourself and (in my opinion) when you feel ready to stand up and call yourself a real writer, then you are one.

  21. When people ask me what I do, I usually say that I am a writer, sometimes an Author. I am usually introduced by people who know me as an author.

    I think how someone answers that question is that person's business. They alone have to live with the answer and defend that to others. How you see yourself determines what you say, how others see you is usually (and mercifully) a mystery.

    The first question people always ask after learning that I consider myself a writer, is to ask what I write, if I have published, and after that if my books are in stores, or on Amazon. Other people seem to think unless you are in stores, you aren't an author. I disagree. A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone who writes. I guess it's all a matter of perspective. I was a writer long before I was an author. Call yourself what you want. It's your life.

  22. To be a writer, you must write.

    I see no reason to make any more distinction than that. I think there are plenty of people out there who would like to make more of a distinction because of their own insecurities. They’re looking for something that will tell them that they have arrived as a writer. Life doesn’t work that way. I don’t even like this distinction between those who write as a hobby and those who write as “a job.” I’ve seen some beautiful paintings done by people who painted as a hobby. The fact that they were doing it for personal enjoyment rather than to pay the bills didn’t change the quality of their work. I make money from my writing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider it a hobby. Ironically, the writing I do that I don’t consider a hobby makes me no money at all.

  23. Through the application of a mixture of the various logics applied via this post and the comments to the post I have come to a conclusion.

    Based upon my actions, vocations, imaginations and dining preferences I am a professionalamatuervolunteer-mechanica-farming-actor-devildogish-logger-nailer-mailer-cooking-comic-techie-medic-teacher-preacher-talker-stalker-tooter-shooter-bongobanging-singing-dancing-boy scout firelighting network administrating-radio-podcast-story teller feller.

    ...oh...and a writer.

  24. I agree with what BK said here: "But just because that was MY measuring stick, it doesn't mean it's someone else's." I don't really know what my measuring stick is yet. But I'll know once I reach it.

    By the way, I really liked that book, The Art of War for Writers (by James Scott Bell). It was really informative and helpful. One of my faves :D

  25. Personally, I call myself a writer, because I write almost every day, and have been for over a decade (with some dry spots here and there, admittedly :P). I think that qualifies me as a writer. However, I refuse to call myself an author until I publish a novel through a non-vanity press. That's the way I look at it. Writing is what I do, but being an author is a profession.

  26. This is a question I ask myself all the time. I still don't really have an answer.

    Before I was published I had no trouble calling myself a writer. Once I was published, I then called myself an author. But to many, at the time anyway, being published digitally didn't amount to a hill of beans so I still wasn't a "real" writer. Then I decided to self publish my backlist and according to many, I still don't amount to a hill of beans. I've made peace with all that though since my hill of beans looks more like a mountain every day.

    My favorite writerly quote goes something like this: sit down, open a vein and write.

  27. Jim-

    Someone said recently, you're a writer when you write. I like that. Many writers are afraid to own it and that's a shame.

    You become an author when you publish. Your work is out there to read. That's a different state, one perhaps more vulnerable, certainly more bold.

    I think there are states beyond that, though: noted, lauded, award-winning, best-selling, legendary, grand master and so on. Those are labels awarded by others.

    One earns those labels by humbly being what one was first and is always: a writer...who writes...and keeps at it.