Monday, December 02, 2013

On Being a Real Writer

I've been thinking about labels lately. How one gets one and whether they deserve to have it. Specifically, I've been thinking about the label of Writer and whether it applies to me.

Most readers of this blog know that I write, though it's not something I'm pursuing professionally for now. For now. Maybe someday. It's the "maybe" that makes me hide from the label Writer.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to seek publication?

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, and this tends to come up a lot when I'm at conferences or do interviews for blogs. I'm an agent and I have an MFA and "do you still write?" is the question I always get. My answer is usually self-deprecating, or when I'm feeling confident, I say something like, "Yeah, kind of."

My nonfiction of late has been this blog and few stray pieces I've never submitted. I've instead completed a draft of a YA novel, and have two more YA projects that aren't even half-finished. Writing is important to me. I care about the characters I create and I know I created them for a reason. Sometimes I need to write. I think about writing more than I talk about it, and I talk about it more than I do it. All of my projects remain unfinished.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to finish at least one thing even if it kills them?

There's always something to blame.

I'm an agent and my clients come first. Then requested material and queries come first. Then going to conferences and networking events and being so exhausted all the time comes first. Then reading for pleasure comes first because it's rare I get the opportunity to do so. Then Twitter comes first and "keeping up with industry news" that quickly turns into who else watched Supernatural last night. Then having a social life and maintaining friendships comes first. Then eating and sleeping and just being quiet comes first.

Writing isn't something I've made a priority. Part of that is because I know I'm not on a deadline. I'm not a Real Writer. I'm not published, nor am I really trying to be yet. My career is my focus, and writing will be second to that.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to put writing ahead of everything else?

My professional and personal life is surrounded by Real Writers. I've sat listening to them talk about their process and how torturous it all is. I've read tweet upon tweet, countless blog posts, on how hard writing is. Beautiful, poetic posts that make me believe that whoever could talk about writing in such a way must be a Real Writer. Not someone like me. Certainly never someone like me, who wouldn't be able to wax poetic about anything with a straight face, let alone the writerly mindset. If only I were a damaged soul who needed a creative outlet because my own mind simply cannot contain the multitudes of my depth.

But no. A Real Writer is someone else. Not someone like me who has never viewed writing as something set on destroying my very essence. For me, writing is just a thing I do.

I write or I don't write. When I do, it is hard and I push myself when it gets harder. Then I stop. Sometimes I don't pick up my pen again (yes, a pen) for weeks. When I reach a point of transcribing to my laptop, I usually get struck by a fresh wave of inspiration and type for hours. Then I stop.

Aren't Real Writers more prolific than that?

I've joined writer's groups, rented houses for self-imposed writing retreats, studied my craft, and found my voice. I did all the things Real Writers do. I read all the things Real Writers read. I appreciate the same words that Real Writers connect with. Yet all I feel is distance between myself and Them.

I'm a writer because I write, but I don't know if I'll ever consider myself as a Real Writer. As I think more about labels, I'm beginning to think it doesn't matter. I never took myself seriously as a writer because I thought being a Real Writer was more serious than it is. But if I'm always the one to mock my own creativity, why should I expect anyone else to take me seriously?

My goal is to embrace that writing is a part of me too, even if it's a part I buried for a while. 2013 was supposed to be the year I "got back into writing," a promise I'd been breaking since I received my MFA in 2008. The difference this year was that I did finish that novel; I did start writing again and treat it as more than just "something I used to do."

Maybe 2014 will be the year I stop caring whether I measure up to Real Writers' standards - or at least what I imagine their standards for Real Writing are. Maybe only then will I let myself believe I, too, am one of Them.

Tell me, fellow writers - was there a moment where you realized you're a Real Writer? Or do you also run from the label?


  1. For me, the moment was finishing the first draft of my first novel and thinking "Holy crap, I did it." By that time, I'd already begun thinking of it in those terms: "my first novel," and I was already planning what to write next.

    And then I discovered what revisions are...

  2. The answer I know I should give and that lots of people do is "You're a Real Writer if you write things." I'm going to put on my super-honest kind-of-an-asshole hat for this one.

    First, though, I should say that I didn't offer up the information that I was a Real Writer until I got a book deal. Why? Because two seconds into any conversation with a non-writer, it's obvious no one takes you seriously until you can tell them when you're getting published. (And granted, there are still plenty of people who don't take me seriously because it's with a small press, but I'm at least far enough along in this whole thing mentally to know no one who reads my book and a similar one from a big house is going to be able to tell the difference. One big step for Dahlkind?)

    But for myself, personally? Here's why I think of myself as a Real Writer, and when I think of others as Real Writers too: I finish things. That isn't to say you aren't a Real Writer in my eyes until you do, but I've had enough "Oh, I'm writing a book too" or "my brother does that" conversations to know the difference between someone who loves the grand idea of it but will shelve it as soon as it gets tough, and someone who will do what (s)he can to push through. Because I think inherent in being a Real Writer is the constant desire to see your projects through, to sharpen your craft in some way, to know you are someone who can carry a book (or other work) from beginning to middle to end with style and coherence. If you're the kind of person who always jumps ship at 50-75%, then I think you *enjoy* it, and you sure like the nice parts before it gets rough, but now you're wandering into "anyone can do it" territory. I think it takes a Real Writer to make it more than that, to persevere to the finished product. Because I can start building a really, really crappy chair that'll collapse from underneath you, but I'm sure as hell not a wordworker.

    1. I like how my comment about being a Real Writer is verbose, inarticulate, and awful. I SWEAR PEOPLE PAY ME TO WRITE THINGS THOUGH.

    2. Dahlia, this is exactly right, though I think your definition of Real Writer accurately describes the difference between "writer" and "author." One is professional (meaning it's a job that pays you), and one is the work that goes into it. My struggle comes from labeling myself at all, but I know I'm not an author.

    3. Oh, that's definitely where I make the "writer"/"author" delineation, but my personal definition of Real Writer still falls in "writer" territory. (I just think non-writers' definition of a Real Writer is squarely in "author" territory.) So, *I* label you a Real Writer for finishing a book, and I'd venture to guess other writers/authors would too. It's the outside world where things get stickier.

      That said, part of what plays into this is the really common missing piece of knowledge that *you have to write a book to sell it.* I would venture to say MOST people who congratulate me on my book deal follow up with something like "So you're gonna write a book?" or want to know when it'll be finished. THERE IS BASICALLY ZERO CONCEPT OF THE FACT THAT PEOPLE WRITE COMPLETE BOOKS THAT HAVEN'T SOLD, let alone that it's the norm. (Sorry, I don't know how to italicize in comments; I'm not aiming to be shouty.) So when non-writers seem to be judging people as "not real" because they haven't sold, I genuinely think this is a huge part of why - the literal lack of comprehension that a book has been written. I like to think that if they understood that, they'd have the same broader definition of Real Writer that I do.

    4. It's interesting that your mind went to "real = outside validation."I was referring more to insider validation. Being a writer among writers, if you will. My denial of calling myself a writer has little to do with sales and more to do with the fact that I don't embody my own definition of A Writer. That's the part I'm working on.

    5. Ha, I guess it is. I've been writing for so long that I don't remember a point at which I thought of myself any other way. It's something I do in my head, something I make time for; writing's what my brain does when it isn't doing anything else. I guess that in terms of internal labeling, I think that once you've got the inclination to write for no reason other than because you want to and can, you're already there.

  3. What a great post! I've been writing for years. I've done all the things you described. I've had my years of it being "just something I do." But it the end, I can't let go of it, and that makes me a writer. I've finally embraced the title. However, I still have to work really hard not to compare myself or my writing to others, because that would probably kill me. :) Here's to hoping for great things in 2014!

  4. Honestly, I hate when people find out I write. There's always a multitude of questions around when I'll be published, and then the tales of all the books said person would write and publish.

    Some people just don't 'get' the industry.

    So no, I don't ever claim to be a Real Writer. It's just not a hat that fits. I'm a writer, and I have to be because when I go a while without writing my temper flares up real bad. This is a question that been floating about for a while but we're all different and we all take our different approaches.

    I think it's really up to the person as to what label they claim. Up until they become a Published Writer, it's all varying levels, really.

  5. There was absolutely a moment for me. It was five years ago this week. For years, I collected dozens of over-written essays and terrible unfinished novels, and then, at a Thanksgiving party, I played this party game with a bunch of friends and strangers where everyone asks a question and you have to match each person to their set of answers. Someone asked, "What are you afraid you won't accomplish before you die." My answer came to me completely unexpectedly. I was afraid I'd never write a novel. I went home and started writing--but this time it felt real. I guess I just needed someone to ask.

    I think it's a decision, sort of like being in a relationship. There might be an "aha" moment or there might not, but every day after that is a choice. You're a writer if you write. (But I guess it's easier to set writing aside for a little while... :)

    Good luck finishing that next project. :)

    1. I like the idea of being one once you feel like one. Maybe it's not about acceptance or living a certain lifestyle or approaching writing in a certain way. I hope I can convince myself of that someday!

  6. The fact that you're obsessing about whether you're a Real Writer or not means you're a Real Writer, LOL. Obsession and self doubt is a requirement to join this crazy club :) Even published authors have their doubts as to whether they're a Real Writer, or it was just some accident, and any moment they'll be called out as a fraud. I agree with Dahlia, too, that finishing things is an important key if we're labeling things, here... though I never have been a huge fan of labels :) You're a Real Writer unless you give it up for good.

    Personally, I didn't have a moment when I realized I was a Real Writer... I've just always known that's what I am and what I'll do. I wrote like crazy in my teens, took a long hiatus for life stuff, and now I'm back at it. What I stress about is whether I'll ever be brilliant and amazing and breathtaking as opposed to just good. I don't want to just be a good writer.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  7. This was a beautiful post. I'm going to agree with Dahlia on the people don't consider you a real one until you're published aspect.

    That being said, I consider myself a real writer. While I don't remember the exact day, the moment was when I started telling people. For instance people would ask what do you like to do, and I started to say writing. It took a lot of courage, and I don't always tell people (I usually feel out the situation/person/atmosphere first). It was completely worth it though. Telling people held me accountable. It also gave me the ability to devote more time to writing as I didn't have to keep coming up with excuses for why I suddenly started writing things on a napkin or spent hours in my room. I'm a college student so people especially wondered what I was doing, why wasn't I at a party etc... That doesn't mean I've dropped my friends, my life for writing. No, writing is a part of my life and the moment I realized that was the moment I started carving out time for it. I still get to hang out with friends, watch TV marathons, and such, but I also set aside time for writing. I think people become real writers when they say they are AND devote time to writing. Not necessarily everyday but most times.

    Like you, 2013 was my year of actually being a writer. I'd written MSs previously but this was the year I devoted myself to honing my craft. Here's to hoping 2014 is the year I get closer to my dream of being a published author!

  8. I don't know if I'll ever call myself a Real Writer. An author, sure. But a Real Writer, I don't know.

    Writers are fancier than I am, more craft-loving, more Focused.

    I think that to call myself a writer, I'd have to define myself as a writer FIRST, and really, I have about 10 different hats that I might put on before I picked up that one. Communicator, empathizer, teacher, story-teller, bad poet, songwriter, lyricist.

    To be a Writer makes me think that it would define you. (Probably a projection. But still.)

    I'm not sure that's what I want my definition to be.

    1. Yes, yes, yes. The writers I know do let it define them, and maybe that's why I never feel like a writer myself. I do consider myself craft-loving and focused (and fancy!), but I don't let writing define me as a person. Thanks for the comment! Y'all are better than therapy. :)

  9. To me I sort of tune out lip service abour "real writers", as I've heard it used to fuss at people who outline their work. :/

  10. Great post! As someone who left their career to finally pursue the dream of writing, I can sure relate. I work as hard as I did before, only it is infinitely more satisfying, but I am shy to talk about it and feel like a bit of a fraud because I don't feel tortured in any way, although it is hard and humbling work! I wish you the best of luck following your dream in 2014 - I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading your first published book!

  11. I found that writing sort of crept up on me and now if I don't do it most days I miss it - I don't know if that makes me a Real Writer or not. I wouldn't do it if I didn't like playing around with words - to me its an enjoyable process. Maybe it's something you fall in love with if you do it often enough.

  12. Hi Sarah,

    I loved this post, I think it's something a lot of writers struggle with. Would you be interested in letting me republish it on my lit blog? (It's sorta an anti-lit blog, for people who don't feel like part of 'the scene'). Check it out and let me know!

    My email is


  13. I didn't call myself a writer until I felt like I was given permission to do so. Which didn't come until after I was published. Most days I still feel like a writer, but others...I don't know. Writing is the only arena where I'm truly hard on myself. Some days I guess I just don't think I deserve to call myself a writer. But the desire to do the work doesn't change. Whether I feel it or not, I always feel the need to get the words on the page.

  14. It took me a lot of years before I would willingly call myself a writer. I always wrote, but I was a lot of other things before I was a writer. Even after finishing my first 3 novels, I wouldn't have called myself a Real Writer. I'm not sure when it changed for me, but now I always think of myself as a writer first, and everything else second.

    I think it came down to the moment when I started to be serious about writing. Those first 3 books took me about 10 years to write. Then I got serious and have written 2 books a year every year since. And now I can call myself a writer.

  15. I've just finished my first novel ever. Before that, writing scared me. I was afraid of the abyss of sheer feeling it always pulled me into, and I ignored it for 20 years to build a meaningful life with my husband and children.

    However, ever since I was very young, age 11 or younger, I identified with authors and thought that's who I was, too. When I was in 7th grade my oldest sibling started college and I visited with my family. I went into the campus bookstore and found books for creative writing students. I chose one, paid for it, and went outside to wait. Looking up into the sky, I felt a communion with God. Really, truly. And it's been with me ever since, getting me through raising a family. I knew then I would write for Real someday. That I would seek to become an author. That's still my single biggest desire. I lost myself a bit along the way, but never that dream. And in 2010, I came up from some personal ashes and said, I'm never waiting again. I will keep working at it until I die. And writing that first novel has been 80% bliss, 10% soul-sucking despair, and 10% just-gotta-do-the-next-scene grunge. I love it and want to do it every day. I think of myself as a Real Writer. And I think it's absolutely okay if someone thought they might be but realizes they are not. If that's the case, you're probably better than me in many, many other areas, and I've probably envied people like you when I was losing sight of my dream. People who could organize birthday parties and wake up early the next morning to jog and go to a big-time-job. Now I'm free from envy. I have a very select idea of what I need to do with my time. The rest is just noise to smile at and ignore. 'To thine own self be true.' It's great to reach your 40s and find your groove, finally. :)

  16. Are you a Real Writer?

    To be honest, I think the fact that you wrote this post at all answers that question. You wouldn't be stressing so much about it if you didn't feel like you had a story to tell. I work in a completely different field from my writing and find myself asking that same question each year it seems. I'll decide that I'm not cut out for it and stop for a while. I'll focus on other things, or rather try to distract myself, but it never works.

    I've opened the floodgates now. I've taught my brain that there is a potential creative outlet called 'writing' and now that I've started coming up with these ideas and characters and plots, there's just no getting rid of them. One way or another they're going to find a way out, so I might as well come to terms with the fact that I am a Real Writer. Figuring that out was an odd revelation though, kind of like how an alcoholic must feel when they accept the label. Only... less depressing!

    Scheduling it is an entirely different beast though. Most new writers have to carve the time to write out from a slew of other daily demands, which you think are equally important but really aren't. I've heard of some people hiring nannies for a few hours each week just to find time to work on their writing. You have to make arrangements with yourself, whether that be with bribery or punishments, but if you don't find the time the piece will never get done. The thought that the world I've imagined, the characters I love, and the turmoil they go through might never see the light of day gives me the determination to make it work. Though writing that out makes it sound so silly!

  17. I can only imagine how helpful it is as an agent to have an MFA and to also write on your own; I know not every agent writes, though the business of writing is your profession, so you are sitting in a unique spot in that learning and practicing writing is professional development for you. Writing for yourself, your own stories, I think taking time out to do that and working toward finishing a novel definitely makes you a writer as well as an agent.

    The Real Writer thing is definitely a hang-up I see with a lot of us. Non-writer friends and family don't get it (I have an in-law who keeps posting on my Facebook: when's your book going on Kindle? He is the same relative that asked if my husband ghost wrote my book :strangle:) which I think can all lead us to doubt. It hit me the other day when a well-meaning friend tried to cheer me up after I vented a little about writerly frustrations, she said, "Well, it's just a hobby." Well, no it isn't. Agents don't tend to contract with hobbyists. I told her I treat this like a job and I need to deliver on a professional level. I don't think people get that unless they see a book with your name on it in your hands.

    I think overall we need a little more confidence in ourselves. Call yourself a writer if you want to! If people question you on it, ask to see their published book :)

  18. I knew I was a real writer the moment I chose staying at home to write over making friends during high school. So far, it's been the best part of growing up.

  19. I am a writer. I have finally accepted that label full-time because of how I answered these questions:

    1. Do I want to write?
    2. How bad do I want it?

    Selling/publishing (or actively working towards) isn't the definition of "Writer". It only allows them to add the term "Professional" to the word "Writer". (And I like that I can claim that. Non-writers consider it a form of validation. Dunno why, other than they use money movement for scorekeeping. If only they knew about the wordcounts we writers use for scorekeeping.)

    I'm also a filmmaker (with a BA in such) and a musician (again, with a BA). Yet the only times I describe myself as such is when I'm actually making movies or playing music. These are my "sometimes" titles. Yes, this is who I am, but I don't have to be this all the time.

    Frex, for a few hours every day, I'm an "IT Support Officer". But that's not how I'd describe myself.

    Claim the title of writer if you want. It won't negate all the other titles you hold.

  20. Having published four books -- and since I write incessantly -- *I* call myself a writer. But I still feel strange telling others I'm an author. I think I may change the way I feel once I sign on with a major publisher. Or, it might not be until I can write full time.

  21. Is there an answer to this question? I tell people that I like to write, whenever they will listen. I never say that I'm a writer. I wrote one book (sci-fi). Then I wrote another (mystery). I'm almost done my third (second mystery). I'm going to finish the third. Then I'm going to write the fourth. I have an idea for a new character I'm just itching to write about when I'm done with those (she's banging on the inside of my brain to get out). I suspect I am most likely wasting my time, and will never be a Real Writer. But I keep reading about great authors who wrote 3, 4, maybe 5 books before they got published. I keep reading that it's good to keep your first (or your first two, or first three) books under the bed, never to see the light of day. I just keep writing. Maybe that means I'm insane. I think that means I'm a real writer. But I would never tell anyone else that.

  22. Believe me, I'm telling you as a reader, you're a writer.

    But my telling you that didn't really help you, did it? 'Cause the real point here is what you think of yourself, not what I or anybody else does.

    You talked about being self-deprecating. I used to be the queen of self-deprecation. Now, I'm down to page or maybe princess level. Every time I'm self-deprecating, I'm sending a message to my subconscious... and it's not a good one. So, I had to consider what I wanted to be and state it in that way, in the present tense. I am a writer. (I could get self-deprecating, at this point, but I'm practicing not doing that.)

    On the physical level, I revamped my workspace for writing and created one for illustrating. They're far from perfect, but they're inviting. And they're "real".

    You mentioned all the things that intervened in your pursuit of writing. Boy, do I understand that one, but the feeling of "real", as in "real writer", is coming more into focus for me, now, because I'm doing a couple of things from Austin Kleon's "Steal Like An Artist". I'm keeping a log of what I do every day (just a list, not a detailed, emotionally developed essay), and I've got a calendar on my wall, where all the days of the year are displayed in one sheet (not month by month), and I check off each day that I write and that I illustrate. I may only spend a short time on each, but so far, I've managed to check off each day, save Thanksgiving, since I hung the calendar. Through the log, I've discovered I do an insane amount of stuff- effective, helpful stuff- every day, and I gained a new respect for myself. Through the visual reinforcement of the calendar, I started subconsciously carving a little niche in every day for my writing and illustrating to fit in. I didn't even really try, it just naturally happened. My own estimation of myself as a writer (and illustrator) has improved immeasurably. And with that said, I believe in myself.

    I'd love for you to believe in yourself, too.

  23. This is a post that really makes me think. Sometimes I like the idea of being a writer more than the writing part. I know I really love the research and the first draft when I'm discovering what my novel is about. I tend to get insecure when I get to revisions and ask myself a million questions as to what to keep in, what to take out, what to add. I also like talking and writing about writing and connecting with other writers. I love reading books on writing. But then I tend to doubt myself and think Do I have it in me? Writing takes a lot of discipline, effort, patience and belief in oneself. Talent, of course. So, the question is Am I a real writer? I guess the answer is yes but not in the conventional term of having bestsellers attached to my name. The spectrum of writers goes from those who make millions a year to those who only dream of one day being a writer. I find myself somewhere in between, not quite in the middle but tipping more on the dreaming side, which doesn't exclude my desire to one day be published.

  24. Don't worry about anyones standards, just write. ~ someone who spends most of their time designing video games. Whatever, never said I wasnt a hypocrite. See, my joking tone is a lot more obvious than on twitter.:p

  25. Being unpublished yet makes me feel like I'm not a Real Writer sometimes, but then I can't stop the flow of words clogging up my brain. I have to eventually write them down or block them out. If I choose the latter, I find I block a part of who I am too. So, maybe it's not up to the conscious me whether I'm a Real Writer or not. My subconscious is telling me otherwise.

  26. Wonderful post, Sarah. A writing teacher once told me to call myself a writer because I write, whether or not I was published. I felt like a fraud doing that, thought my friends and family looked at me askance. And then slowly others began referring to me as a writer. At first that was a little frightening though it did make me fluff my feathers a bit. They had read some of my stories and called me a writer! . And then I had a short story published and the stars lined up perfectly. I, too, am not a "damaged soul who needed a creative outlet." I'm a woman who enjoys putting words together and crafting a story, who enjoys creating characters and describing places the reader can taste and smell and who still wants time to enjoy my family and friends and all my other activities. And I will enjoy meeting you at the WNBA Query Roulette next week.

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