Making it as a writer: when to say you’re a writer
By Alicia de los Reyes
Calling yourself a writer sometimes seems very complicated: who is allowed to have that title? Can anyone with a journal consider herself a writer, or do you have to wait to be published (but that could take years!)? Do you have to be published in print, or does online count? Does blogging count? What if you write and even publish on the side, but pay the bills doing something else? ♥
Calling yourself a writer is a big deal because the word signifies so much to other people. If you do call yourself a writer — or you’ve tried it out at a party — chances are you’ve had this experience:
Acquaintance: What do you do?
You: I’m a writer.
Acquaintance: (eyebrows up) Oh wow! How cool! I’ve always wanted to be a writer. What do you write?
You: Oh you know … articles … stories … mumble … I’m working on a novel.
Acquaintance: Oh, I’ve had an idea for a novel for years. It’s about…
People love meeting writers. A lot of people want to write a book — a survey found that 81% of Americans have it as a goal. You, as a writer, show them that it is possible. And that can feel like lot of pressure.
Because if you have been writing for any length of time, you know that it’s not as cut and dried as “writing a novel.” There is the writing, which can happen in fits and starts across weeks, months, or years. Then there is revision, which sometimes never happens. And then there is the querying, the pitching, the reducing your masterpiece to a three-sentence pitch that you can fire at will at any agent or editor who crosses your path. There are a lot of no’s in this game, and a lot of waiting. There are long periods where even though you have written, you don’t feel very much like a writer.
So when do you get to say “I’m a writer”?
When you write.
Writing means doing all sorts of tasks (Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art taught me this). It means thinking of ideas, writing them down, and making them sound better. It means sending out your drafts to friends and asking them to tell you what is wrong with it. It means taking their comments to heart when they are helpful. It means striving to make your work the best it can possibly be.
There are a lot of no’s in this game, and a lot of waiting. There are long periods where even though you have written, you don’t feel very much like a writer.
It also means researching the agents or publications that might be interested in your manuscript. It means writing out a pitch about your work and sending it, several times. It means researching contests and entering them. It means going back and looking at your work again, and asking how you can make it better.
It means trying out new genres and new forms for your old ideas. It means coming up with brand-new projects and writing them down, instead of letting them simmer forever. It means sharing your work with the world through a blog or Twitter or Tumblr.
Being a writer means putting your stories or nonfiction or novel up for sale online. It means filling out a lot of fiddly online forms and sending the link to friends and family. It means making a list of people who want to read your work.
It means writing for free or close to free for publications large and small. It means talking with editors and reading their horrifically cruel redline comments — because let’s face it, every red mark is a penknife in your heart. It means writing a three-line bio and finding a photograph of yourself that you are willing to share with the world.
It means figuring out how to fit writing into your morning, afternoon, or evening. It means taking time away from something else to spend it on your ideas.
Being a writer happens when you put your pen to the paper, when you type the last period, when you print out all the pages and mark it up with pencil. It happens as you hold your breath while your boyfriend reads your stories for the first time. It happens when you blush deep red because he doesn’t like them.
It happens when your hands shake the first time you stand behind a microphone to read your work to a small crowd of strangers. It happens when they shake the second time, and the third, and the fourth. It happens when your friends finally ask to read your work and you hold your hand poised over the mouse button, afraid to hit send.
It happens when you hit send. It happens when you cry from another rejection, when you throw it out the window, when you tape it to your wall, when you pretend it hasn’t happened. It happens when an email arrives that begins “Congratulations…” and you are so happy you can’t do anything else for the rest of the day. So you bake cookies.
It happens when someone tells you that your work was important to them. When someone tells you that your work helped them. When your husband reads your story and smiles. When your mom asks you to sign her copy.
When are you a writer? When you do it. When you write.
If you have done even one — even one — of these things, or one of the several hundred or so other things that you have to do to write, then you are a writer. And if you met me at a party, here’s what would happen:
Me: So, what do you do?
You: I’m a writer.
Because dude, I have so been there.
Alicia de los Reyes is the Seattle-based author of DIY Chick Lit: A Writing Guide and DIY Writing Retreat: A Guide to Getting Away. She is working on a non-fiction book about a year in an evangelical church. Find more of her writing at aliciadelosreyes.com.