When Do You Know You’re a Writer?
At some point any person who has lifted a pen, swallowed a fifth of vodka, and decided to write a novel will have to make a decision. A decision that will change their lives, their business cards, and most importantly, their dental plan.
They have to decide when to call themselves a “writer.”
That title, writer, is as subjective as they come; a term coined by the devil while sitting on Chaucer’s bones, flossing with Milton’s small intestine and reading King’s “Under the Dome.” Terrifying in its grandeur, intimidating in its simplicity.
So, at what point do you change your Facebook page from “Aspiring Author” to “Writer?” Where is the line, the moderator, the person who says you’ve made it? When do you give your boss the middle finger, stock up on Ramen, and decide to make this hobby your career?
No one person can tell you when you’re a writer (but pretend I didn’t say that until the end, ok?). But there are some signs you’re on your way.
-Call yourself a damn writer, already.
Hey, I can give you a checklist of writerly wisdom, point you in the direction of the liquor market and push, but you’re never going to walk until you decide you’re a writer.
There comes a day when you have to look in the mirror and call yourself a writer (and while you’re there, check out those bags under your eyes. We call those Merit Badges. Get used to them). You have to introduce yourself as a writer. You have to sign your emails “Gertrude P. Morgenstern, Writer.” You have to make a big, flashy, banner on your desktop that says “I’m here to write, because I’m a writer, and that’s a thing we do.”
No one’s going to take that step for you.
That said, I don’t subscribe to the theory that just because you write you should immediately call yourself a writer. There’s a learning curve, an apprenticeship, a trade you must study before you can stand upright, flask in hand, and declare yourself a wordsmith. Trust me, it sounds like more gatekeeping, but this is a good thing. If I had started calling myself a “writer” when I was twenty I would have never improved. And I needed to improve, because I sucked when I was twenty. A lot.
The title “writer” is something you reach for, a brass ring. Something that motivates you. It’s a term that commands respect, because it signifies someone who has studied the deeper mysteries, the dark crevices of writerly lore and come back in one piece
And once you’ve done all that, and seen the things that can’t be unseen (What happens at WorldCon stays at WorldCon), it’s time to own up and call yourself a damn writer, already.
-Time to publish
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: you can’t write in a vacuum. You have to share your work. If no one’s reading your prose (or poetry, it swings both ways) you might as well be pissing in a well, because readers make writers. And that means publishing.
It’s fine and good to have your friends critique your story—they should, that’s what friends are for—but your craft won’t improve without input from the world at large, so strap on your big boy pants and start polishing your query letter. It’s possible you’ll get rejected. Hell, it’s close to certain. But, believe it or not, that’s a good thing because remember those Merit Badges we just talked about? Rejection is the bastard king of Merit Badges.
Put simply, you can’t call yourself a writer if you haven’t faced rejection.
And when it comes to publication, yeah, rejection’s going to happen. But something else will happen, too. Something special, magical, fragrant (uh…yeah)—someone besides your mom is going to read your prose and tell you it’s good. It may take a while. It may take a loooooong while, but it’ll happen eventually, and when it does?
Well, then you get to call yourself a writer.
Awwwwww, yeah, son. Time to make that paper.
You know what separates a professional musician from a garage band? An equity actor from a community theater? A porn star from a porn, uh, wannabe? (Is that a thing? I’d better do some research.)
They all get paid.
Artists get paid for their work. That’s the difference between a hobby and a career.
Now, your first foray into publishing might be pro bono. That’s alright, we all start somewhere. You have to get your foot in the door, grease some hinges (or whatever passes for hinges in publishing, like I don’t know…booze?), and network.
So, yeah, once or twice for free is great. But writer’s should get paid for their work. If you’re giving the cow away and then there’s some milk, and the Big Six Publishing houses drink that milk and…uh…where was I going?
Oh! Right. Money.
Pay the writer.
And I’ll tell you now, the first time you get a check for copy you wrote…well, it doesn’t get better than that. That mean’s you’ve made it, writer.
Now start printing those business cards.