What’s a Writer, Anyway?

Image by Zsuzsanna Kilian via freeimages.com
Image by Zsuzsanna Kilian via freeimages.com

Recently my many-times-published author husband and I were having a conversation that only would happen between two married people who are also both writers. It was a conversation about words and definitions, about the wide range of definitions out there for words like “writer” and “author,” and who gets to call themselves what.

I started out the conversation with a rather liberal view: if you write, you are a writer. Admittedly, that’s a little thin, since every human who knows how to read has occasion to write, whether it’s hourly texts to their BFFs, or daily emails to the boss, or the requisite book report on Pride and Prejudice for English Lit Fic class. But we wouldn’t put a label “writer” on someone for that level of scripting effort.

It’s like running. I run when I have to – which means I hardly ever run, because I am rarely being chased by hungry lions. But someone who is known for running – that guy who wears the gear, gets up early to fit in a daily five miles, trains for marathons, and actually runs marathons – well, he gets to be called a runner.

Writers, no matter what kind of writing they do, are known for turning symbols into meaning.  That’s the essence of writing – taking letters, punctuation, space, even numerals on occasion – and transforming them into words, sentences, paragraphs, poems, concepts, characters that connect.

Image by David Hugh Kemper via freeimages.com
Image by David Hugh Kemper via freeimages.com

Writers do crazy magic. And others know about it. Hence, these word-magicians get to be called writers.

This being “known for it” business takes us out of the fuzzy world of anonymity, and makes the idea of being a Writer (capital W) a bit scarier. You can post all kinds of anonymous poems and creative non-fiction and, heck, whole novels, out there on the interwebs these days. But until you own up by slapping your name on the by-line, are you really a writer? I would say no. No you are not.

Until you open yourself and your work up to the potential for both criticism and validation, I would gently suggest that you are not ready to be called a writer. It’s risky, because your family might not get it, your friends might not like what you write, and publishers will reject your work much more often than they accept it (this is a given, and you should know it as a fact before you get started). Even more risky is the possibility someone might love what you’ve written, they could take you seriously, they may even weep for joy. Your words might change a life. Are you ready for that responsibility?

Image by George Bosela via freeimages.com
Image by George Bosela via freeimages.com

Basically it comes down to this: Until you are ready to make a genuine mind connection with a reader who knows your name, you are not a writer.

It’s the tree making a noise in the woods thing all over again. Except this time it matters.

It matters because if writing is part of what defines you, and people who know you don’t know that, then they really don’t know you.

As far as the conversation with my husband, we never did settle upon a final set of definitions. But we did agree in the  end that there is a substantial difference between thinking of yourself as a writer and others calling you one.

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3 thoughts on “What’s a Writer, Anyway?

  1. augustmacgregor says:

    To me, there are some words that remind me of the phrase: “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” Maybe writer fits in that phrase. I think you are a writer when you continue writing planned projects. Those projects don’t have to be published or best-selling or liked by 100 people on a blog or Twitter or Facebook. To build off of your runner analogy… would I be a runner if I ran a single time? I think it’s the showing up repeatedly that makes the label stick.

  2. owaiz says:

    I’ve thought about the very same thing a zillion times. I think a writer is someone who has a writing ‘need.’ There are times almost everyday when I need to write. I don’t always do, just like I don’t always eat when I’m hungry. But when I write, I go in some sort of zone, and the words appear in front of me like on an invisible screen and it’s only a matter of picking them from there and copying them on screen or paper.

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