The Answer to the Big Question

Rule of Engagement 3.1

Back in 2002, I decided to take a much more serious approach to my writing and the pursuit of publication than I had to date.  I then began searching for a way to convey this change of status to others in a manner that was both concise and wouldn’t misrepresent the true extent of my skills and achievements.

In short, I wanted to know if it was okay to start calling myself a “writer”.

There is a lot of hairsplitting about this that occurs among those who write.  Prior to 2002, the title I’d settled on was the all-too-familiar “aspiring writer”, so chosen because I felt too new to the craft to leave my engagement in it unqualified.  At one point before that, when I was very new to writing, I even used the snort-worthy title of “semi-aspiring writer”, as if “aspiring” wasn’t noncommittal and deferential enough, and the act of writing was so exclusive, I dared not sully it with my fledgling dreams of participation.

Regardless of that fact that I’d been, ya know, writing the entire time.

As an aside, I’ve often wondered what it is about writers that such a “Big Question” even exists.  No other branch of the arts sees its members diminishing their pursuits like that – rather, if they are actively doing it, then, to misquote René Descartes, they are it.  I’ve never heard of an “aspiring” painter.  Performers who have yet to land an onscreen or theatrical role still call themselves “actors”.  And folks whose sole musical appearances to date have been in their showers have no qualms about referring to themselves as “singers”.

Perhaps it’s because writing is not the sort of art in which its interim stages hold much interest.

A painting or sculpture in progress still looks like something and is able to capture the imagination of how the finished product might look.

A few bars from a song still delights the ear and the soul, especially if the singer has a pleasant voice.

Observing the blocking of a stage performance is like poetry in motion, the actors turning and gesturing just so for maximum dramatic effect and to take advantage of sight lines and lighting, each movement of each actor tumbling out of and into the movements of everyone else on the stage like a finely choreographed dance.

Meanwhile, a dance routine still under development is nonetheless a wonder in seeing the human body move in such a way.

But a random few pages from a novel in progress tends not to be quite so exciting.  Depending upon the pages, they might not even make sense if they have the reader jumping in mid-scene, or during a transition from one scene to the next or one location to another.  And nothing is quite as boring as something that doesn’t make sense, no matter how pretty or gritty the writing in question may be.

Even if the pages aren’t boring, they’ll likely be wildly out of context – that is, enjoyable perhaps, yet offering no insight as to what’s really happening and is going to happen.

Or perhaps writers prevaricate over their artistic identities because they’re not really considered artists at all, at least not unpublished writers.  I don’t know this to be an actual fact, but I do know that I once referred to myself as an artist in regards to my writing, and was pointed informed, “You’re not an artist.  By a friend, I might add.  Perhaps this is a prevailing societal view.

But, I digress: I wanted to know if I could call myself a “writer”.  In having no answer of my own, I thus took to the internet – still a proverbial font of knowledge even then, in its 2002, Web 1.0 incarnation.

What I found was “The Answer to the Big Question” – a list of responses complied by someone named Wendy Chatley Green in response to the question, When can you call yourself a “writer”?  This list seems to no longer exist on the internet, but luckily I printed a hard copy of it all those years ago that I still have today.  It reads as follows:




“You’re a writer when you first put pen/pencil/fingers/other writing implement to paper/keyboard/any flat surface.”

“You’re a writer whenever you decide to be one.”

“You’re a writer when you adopt a professional attitude about it.”

“You’re a writer when you decide to sell your writing.”

“You’re a writer because you write – nothing else is needed.”

“You’re a writer when you send off your first submission.”

“You’re a writer when you get your first rejection.”

“You’re a writer when you get your first acceptance.”

“You’re a writer when you can support yourself by writing.”

“You’re a writer when people recognize you from your jacket photo.”

“If you think you’re a writer, then you’re a writer.  You’re a published writer when you get a piece published.  You’re a successful writer when you are happy with your success.”

There’s pretty much something for everyone in this list; as well, it follows an obvious progression to accommodate ambitious writers pushing for the next milestone in their writing careers.

While by 2002 I’d already made it as far as item #7 in the progression, the writer criterion I eventually devised for myself was as follows:

“You’re a writer when you’re writing every day.”

And for the next four years – all through my Master’s degree, followed by half a year working in rural Newfoundland, up to and including the year-and-a-half I spent broke, jobless, living with my mother, and bereft of any sort of social life – I was.

But times have changed.

Now I work full-time, have my own apartment, and while not Ms. Popularity by any means, am much more social than I was in the end back then.

Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  When I recently started writing again after six long years, it was slow going at first.  My first 126 words felt like a physical contest completed in twice the time of a typical person.  I remarked in my very first post on this blog, “It hurt like hell!  Old creative muscles are out of shape.”

But like with exercise, I continued to push myself, knowing that the task would get easier the more I persisted, and would do so faster the more consistently I made the effort.

Hence, Rule of Engagement 3.1:

Write (i.e. work on my work-in-progress novel) every day.

Full disclosure: this is one rule I’m currently not living up to.  I’m writing almost every day; I average five days a week.  I tend not to write on Fridays and Saturdays, either because I go out, or am tired from a long week of work and want a break.  Meanwhile, writing, though a beloved hobby, is nonetheless another form of work.

I work hard in all that I do and deserve a break; there’s no question about that.  Yet, I need to re-examine how much that break is really worth, for I did just come back from a six year hiatus, after all, and every two days a week I don’t write is two days a week longer it will take my WIP to be finished.

Someday, I want to stop calling myself just a “writer” and start using the term “published writer” or author.  And I want that day to come sooner rather than later.


I will report back on my progress in writing every day once I formulate a plan for how to make it so on Fridays and Saturdays.  In the meantime, though, I am curious: are there any other ideas out there about why some people are reluctant to call themselves “writers”?  Are they right to be reluctant, or should they be more confident of their place among the literary arts?  How do you answer the “Big Question”?  Consider leaving a comment.

6 thoughts on “The Answer to the Big Question

  1. I think there are only a couple of definitions i agree with – the most basic, being a writer when you receive your first acceptance. Whoever said you’re a writer when you put pen to paper is either taking the definition too literally or is a half-wit.


    • Hi LJ, thanks for your comment. Being a writer when you receive your first acceptance is definitely when other people consider someone a writer, but for one’s own self, I think the shift needs to come a bit sooner. It’s a mental game. In my own case, I find that I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer until I … took myself seriously as a writer, if such a circular statement makes any sense. I think that by calling yourself a writer sooner, you come to hold yourself to a higher standard, and your work only gets better as a result.


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