When to call yourself a writer – Fiona Sussman

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By Fiona Sussman

Have you been writing for a number of years, yet don’t yet feel entitled to call yourself a writer? Or perhaps you do, but only dare use the term ‘aspiring writer’. You are not alone. I too believed that nothing short of a publication would legitimise my efforts. Until the ink had dried on my first publishing contract, I would be condemned to endure professional limbo.♥

In 1992 I graduated from medical school as a doctor. For the preceding six years I’d been a doctor-in-training, acquiring the necessary skills for my chosen career within a structured university programme. I had a defined role, an objective, and a supportive framework in which to achieve it.

The writing world is far more nebulous. I discovered this when, after very satisfying years in medical practice, I chose to hang up my stethoscope and pursue a long-held dream to write. What I found was that there was no predetermined route to publication. ‘Aspiring authors’ are charged with finding their own way. And there are many ways indeed. They do however, all share one common factor – a period of apprenticeship – which is crucial to a writer’s success. Yet for so many new writers, the longer this period of learning, the greater their sense of failure. After all, don’t the best writers achieve success overnight!

It would take a mentor’s wise words to change my mindset. The convenor of my Masters course put it to me one day that, just as I had trained for six years to become a doctor, so should I expect to devote a similar amount of time to writing, before expecting publication. I suddenly got it. There would be no final exam or magical moment when I would officially be deemed a writer. I already was one. Publication was a goal, but not what would define me. That I loved words and wanted to capture life with them; that I’d wake in the middle of the night with an idea for a story; that I had so many stories inside my head just bursting to get out . . . These things made me a writer.

Once I realised this, I felt less tortured, no longer pressured by the passage of time or what others expected of me. Publication was not the all-consuming goal; I was already doing what I loved. And as my priorities changed, so my writing started to gain traction and gather momentum.

Daring to call yourself a writer will reinforce both for yourself and others that you are serious about what you are doing. It tells the world that this is your chosen vocation, not a mere whim or hobby. You are not professing to be more than you are; you are giving your occupation the weight and import it deserves. Calling yourself a writer gives you permission to set aside time each day to pursue your goal, and set up the supportive scaffolding to help you achieve it.

9am- 2pm were my ‘office hours’. The groceries, housework, bill payments, coffee with friends etc. had to be fitted in around these, not vice versa. I entered lots of short-story competitions. The deadlines structured my writing calendar, and any successes I enjoyed were my validation. Creating a website was yet another declaration of my commitment to the craft, as was sharing my work with other writers … And so I embraced my new profession.

On the 22nd May 2014 my first novel Shifting Colours was published. It was such a special and exciting day, but not because it defined me as a writer. I had already been one of those for ten years at least!

Fiona Sussman was born in South Africa and moved to New Zealand in 1989. She worked as a family doctor for a number of years, before pursuing a long-held dream to write. Her first novel, Shifting Colours, is set against the violent backdrop of apartheid South Africa and the calm of late-twentieth-century Britain. One of twelve books named an Amazon UK Rising Star for 2014, it was also listed on Sainsbury’s Best Debut Novel Collection. It has recently been released in the USA under the title, Another Woman’s Daughter.


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