Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What does it take to be a writer?

Often when I tell people I'm a writer, their first question is, for reasons I cannot comprehend, "Oh, have you sold anything?" I've gotten quite good at working my way around that question, because as of right now, the answer is still no. So it becomes, "No, but I have a blog you can follow", or, more often, "No, but I'm really busy with school right now." I figure it's not worth the effort to explain even as much as "No, but I've finished three novels", or "No, but I just sent a bunch of stories off", and especially not "No, but I just got my 20th rejection letter, so I'm treating myself!"

I've always thought it's a rather odd situation. If I told people I work at a restaurant, or an accounting firm, they wouldn't ask if I've been paid yet. It gets to the point where I'd rather tell someone about my day job than my real passion, just to avoid awkward questions. And yet, the day job is only there to support my favorite activity: spending hours sequestered off in my own little worlds, exhausting myself (or at least my brain and fingers) on something that may or may not one day give me some money.  Writing's not exactly something a person commits their time to unless they're passionate about it.Why then does it seem so hard to feel justified in claiming the title of 'writer'?

I sometimes don't realize it, but my answers to "Oh, have you sold anything?" are pretty revealing. Even if being published has little correlation with how much time I actually spend writing or marketing my work, it reminds me that I am giving other things in my life precedence over my writing. Right now, it's starting up an Etsy business. In the fall, it will be going back to college for a major that's only barely related to writing (Illustration). Not that either of those are activities unworthy of focusing on--far from it. However, far too often, my focus is split simply because I'm spending time on the internet or playing Skyrim instead of writing.

I'll freely admit it: I could spend more time writing. But does that mean I'm not a writer? What exactly does it take to qualify for that description? I've heard it said that "to be a writer, you have to write every day". But if so, what's the magic amount of writing per day? Does a page count? A sentence? Is there a minimum amount of time required? Does staring at the screen for an hour count? What about rewriting, or marketing research, or tweeting about your novel? Polishing a query letter? Visiting the post office to send off a manuscript?

Another common definition of 'writer' is that you have to have made money from your writing. But if that's the case, how much? Does one story count? One novel?  Or must you have sold enough that you've quit your day job, and writing is how you make your living? Do only contracts with 'the Big Six' publishers count?  nd what about those stories you've had published in 'for the love' anthologies? Or a story that won a contest without a cash prize?

You can see that the more you try to pin down just what it takes to be a writer, the more questions are raised.  I think this sort of question is like a boggart in the Harry Potter books--the answers are different for every person.  It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves, and I think it's essential that it remain so.  After all, many of us are writers partly because we want to direct our own career paths, and with all the self-publishing options available today, we don't even have to be limited by finding a publisher for the particular genre we write in.  So what good would it do to come up with a set definition for 'writer'?

To conquer my boggart, rather than focusing on whether or not I can truly be classified as a writer, I've decided to spend my time doing the things that work best for me personally to feel like I've earned the title. From much trial and error, I know it's almost impossible for me to write every single day--I'd much rather write 10,000 words once a week than 250 every day. So although I have a weekly goal, I've made my daily goal to spend more time focusing on my writing, even if I don't put any words on the page.

The other day, I spent my 'writing time' sketching one of the main characters in my current novel, which led me to brainstorm a bit about her personality so I could try and write her character better.Today, it was writing this blog post, which inspired me to evaluate how I've been spending my time, and to find some spaces where I could get more writing-related things done. Even though I did no actual fiction writing either day, I'm much better prepared for meeting my weekly wordcount goal than I would have been writing every day, because I filled my creative well rather than just emptying it. And, for my personal definition, that qualifies me to say that I am a writer.

"What makes a writer" is a controversial topic by nature, so let me know in the comments: what do you think makes a writer?  What are your personal goals, or struggles, in falling under that definition?


Danica West is a Jack-of-All-Trades creative with far too many competing passions. She blogs at Random and Rarely Updated, which always lives up to at least half of its title.


  1. This is really well put. I've often thought that the insistence on a certain number of words per day, or per week, or whatever, is unrealistic. Surely what it takes to be a writer is as individual as every person writing, or maybe even as individual as every writing project. There can't be any "one size fits all" to it. I've had days when I churned out a lot of words, and that felt good. But I've also had days when I wrote a ten-word sentence that was exactly right - and that felt better.

  2. Writers write. Everything else is negotiable. :)