Years ago, I blogged about a common big question that often arises in writing.
Namely, the question of when you can properly call yourself a writer.
At the time, I’d just found “The Answer to the Big Question” in my house. This was a list explaining the various circumstances that make one a writer that I’d printed from the internet years earlier when I too was uncertain on this matter.
As the original list no longer seemed to exist online, I quoted the entire thing in my post. The answers it offered showed a clear progression of milestones one might use to identify him/-herself as a writer: everything from,
You’re a writer when you first put pen/pencil/fingers/other writing implement to paper/keyboard/any flat surface
You’re a writer when you get your first acceptance
You’re a writer when you can support yourself by writing
A commenter claimed that “when you first put pen to paper” was facetious – that whoever said so “is either taking the definition too literally or is a half-wit”, and that the most basic answer to the big question was when you receive your first acceptance.
As a then (and now still) unpublished writer, I was hardly going to go along with that. Not when years of prior soul-searching had led me to deem myself a writer for the fact that I was at work on a novel and writing almost every day.
“I think the shift needs to come a bit sooner,” I wrote in my reply. “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.”
This has remained my position for years – the belief that, as I went on in my reply, “by calling yourself a writer sooner, you come to hold yourself to a higher standard, and your work only gets better as a result.”
Recently, however, my opinion on the matter has changed a bit.
This change, not unlike the different entries on the list itself, corresponded to my entering a different stage along my writing journey.
As regular readers of this blog are aware, I’m currently revising my first novel.
I’ve been at it for about four months now, a process I commenced by first reading through the entire manuscript and assigning each chapter a colour based on the extent of its revision needs (either red, yellow, or green, the significance of which should be fairly self-evident).
Right off the bat, beginning with chapter 1 (which has since became chapters 1 and 2), I found myself in the red.
I’d known this was coming, even before that full-story read-through. Four years ago, I’d read aloud a portion of my first chapter to a group of writers I’d begun socializing with, and had been told all but unanimously (and in no uncertain terms, it bears mentioning), that it needed work.
Humbled by this ringing realization that my prose was not, in fact, deathless, I approached draft 2 of my WIP’s first chapter like I had something to prove.
In a way, I suppose I did, if at this point to no one but my own self.
And so I went all in, working on it for hours and days at a time. Upon finishing, I knew I’d definitely made it better than it was, but was it good in its own right?
I thought so, but I may have been a wee bit biased about that. I’d initially liked the original version as well until its weakness were pointed out to me.
I needed an outside opinion, and lucky for me, I had just the folks – a group of writers I’ve been socializing with for years – to turn to. Two of them had even been present the first time I beta’ed this chapter, the time I read aloud.
This time, the format was different – easier even, one might say. I just emailed the two chapters to three of my writer friends and waited to receive their feedback.
It was honestly one of the most nerve-wrecking things I’ve ever done.
Even more so than the times I’ve submitted short stories to magazines in an attempt to get published.
Showing my face
No word of exaggeration, my hands were literally sweating as I composed the email to each friend and attached the document. My breakfast, which I’d been consuming at the time, later became my lunch, for in the moment, I lost my stomach for it.
Writing is such a solitary endeavour, with many months or even years spent living our stories alone inside our heads.
Regardless of how a writer feels about his/her actual writing ability, we all believe our stories are inherently interesting and worth being told. (Or else why would we even bother devoting the time and effort required to do so?)
Whether they’re willing to admit it or not, a lot of writers happen to think they’re hot shit at the act of writing on top of that. I used to believe this; I still do, at least on some level, for again, why would I willingly choose to do something at which I had no skill?
However, there does come a time to put your proverbial money where your mouth is.
There’s something unique about sharing your writing with people who themselves are writers, particularly if they know you personally.
Having my short stories rejected, while disheartening, was considerably less harmful to your sense of pride by comparison. In those cases, I was just an unknown name on an email.
Even if they Googled my picture, it’s unlikely they’d ever know me to see you on the street. My relative insignificance to them was the ultimate face-saver.
Meanwhile, most of my non-writer friends and family are just be impressed by the fact they know someone who has the patience to write something book length.
The next level
Other writers, however, are doing or have already done the same thing. Plus they know enough of what lies behind the curtain wall to not be impressed by the odd fine turn of phrase.
They will read what you’ve written as the reflection of your writing skill and discernment that it actually is. And they will pass judgement on it.
Which is, in a word, terrifying.
Yet also incredibly edifying, to the point that feel I’ve grown as a writer because of all this. Not just the initial revising of the chapter, but the entire process of soliciting – and receiving – feedback on it as well.
I feel like some dramatic mental shift has occurred – that I’ve hit a true writing milestone that will never again be as difficult as for the very first time.
I felt like a writer before; now I really feel like one.
And so, a new entry I offer up a possible Answer to the Big Question is as follows:
You’re a writer the first time you share your work with other writers for critique.
That, at least, is the definition I’ve since adopted for myself. At least for now – until I reach the next milestone.
In writing, as in most things in life, there truly is no one correct answer.
How do you answer the big question of when you call yourself a writer? Has your answer ever changed? Do other disciplines with the arts have a similar big question that people grapple with? Let me know in the comments.