When can I call myself a writer?

21 February 2011

This is something that pops up a lot when talking to other writers. You’d think that it would be as simple as You Write Therefore You Are A WRITER but no, apparently not. You see, writers are the optimistic pessimists of the creative world – always hopeful that their current Work In Progress is THE ONE but at the same time prone to beating themselves up, focusing on the hideous imperfections and imagining the slew of one star reviews that will appear on Amazon if it is ever published, which it won’t be because it’s RUBBISH and why do I even bother? Oh woe.

Ahem. Once upon a time I was a member of a forum, which was mostly made up of nice people but also had some really quite bewilderingly awful people too. It wasn’t a forum for writers but a couple of people, including myself, were kind of into the whole writing thing. The fashion on there seemed to be to call oneself an ‘aspiring writer’, but I personally think that’s a bit weird as ‘aspiring’ to me suggests one of those annoying people who wander around Islington dinner parties looking for a published writer that they can latch on to so they can tell them all about ‘the book I have inside me. I know it could be a bestseller, I just have to find the time to sit down and write it.’ While all the while the person they are talking at is having fantasies about taking a VERY BIG BOOK and repeatedly bringing it down HARD on their head.

No, that’s not for me. The problem is though that if you boldly introduce yourself as a ‘writer’ then one of two things will inevitably happen – either a hideous, glazed bored look will descend on the other person’s face OR they will ask you if you’ve had anything published. At which point you blush, look embarrassed and shuffle your feet a bit, murmuring ‘Um, no, not really…’ while they look at you with a depressing mixture of contempt and disgust. How DARE you call yourself something you aren’t. HOW DARE YOU. IMPOSTER!

There’s a lot of people out there, some of whom would also like to be writers but have had a knock back and are clearly keen to keep us all in our proper place, who think that someone has NO RIGHT to call themselves a ‘writer’ until they have an agent and a published book. Until that point, well, you will just have to forget about such vainglorious delusions of grandeur.

I think they are wrong. More than wrong, I think they are mean spirited. And also ghastly.

So at what point do you finally sit back and say ‘I AM A WRITER?’ And at what point do you brazenly call yourself one without shame over the spoons full of canapes (or have we moved on now from this particular culinary conceit?) at dinner parties?

Is it when:

1. You first put pen to paper or, more likely, finger pad to keyboard? Because, you know, that’s WRITING isn’t it?

2. Is it when you have FINISHED something? A novel perhaps? Or a poem? I mean, at this point, you have left the ‘aspiring’ writers behind haven’t you? You’ve done the time and taken one for the team.

3. Or perhaps it is when you’ve had your first rejection. It sucks to be rejected but there’s always plenty of people on hand to tell you that a. all writers are rejected and also b. blah blah blah JK Rowling blah blah blah. I was once summarily rejected by an agent who told me that I am ‘barely literate’ and ‘inarticulate’. Now, I don’t like to trumpet about my writing skills but I think that ‘barely literate’ is going a bit far really. I considered sending them a copy of Bernard’s Letter from Black Books but decided at the very last minute that this was just playing into their hands.

Dear Mr Trussington Howell-Foxforthy,

Thank you for returning my manuscript and your enclosed nasty niminy-piminy little note. I am afraid your letter is most unsuitable for me at the present time as I’ve just spent the entire weekend writing the novel that you have summarily rejected. I can only assume that it is company policy to reject all manuscripts not submitted in 10-ft high Braille. And yes, I am aware, that it is traditionally bad form to respond to any kind of criticism or rejection. But in this, as with all else, I am an innovator. Therefore I may freely address you as pissmidget.

Still, there is time for you to change your views, and I think you will when we meet. And meet we most assuredly will. When I suck out your eyes and use them as stoppers for my ears to muffle the screams you’ll make as I headbutt you into a fine paste. I do hope you will not be disheartened by your sudden, violent death.

Yours Faithfully, Bernard Black

Everyone… Everyone agreed he was right to kill the publisher. And to do it with a flugelhorn was a stroke of genius. “Bernard!” they said. No, Brendan, Brendan, “Brendan” they said. “Congratulations! Here, have this basket of stuff and come and stay for the weekend!

Moving on, you get the idea I am sure. Is it when you get an agent? Or have your first weepy melt down when an editor sends back your precious oeuvre with a lot of red lines and ‘CHANGE THIS NOW, IT SUCKS’ scrawled all over it? Or when you first see your name on a front cover? Or when you first walk into Waterstones and THERE IT IS, your book on a shelf! Or maybe it’s when you get that first one star review on Amazon and want to march around to the reviewer’s house and set fire to their letter box, but instead you go for the more dignified path of commenting on their review and telling them that they WRONG and also PITIFULLY STUPID so shouldn’t be allowed to read books anyway and especially not ones as good as yours.

Hm. Personally I’ve wrestled with this one for a while – I tried out ‘I am a writer’ at a few dinner parties and so forth but felt like a fraud when I was instantly asked what I’d had published so I stopped doing that in the end. Recently though (since going on an Arvon course in fact) I have started using it again because, damn it, I WRITE.

Luckily, I can now answer the ‘So have you had something published?’ question with a demuring smile and ‘Actually, my first book is due out later this year’ but it wasn’t always so and I think that actually the prospect of being published hasn’t made me feel any more of a writer than I did already. I feel more like an ‘author’ perhaps, which I think is distinct from ‘writer’ but no, I am just as much a writer now as I was when I first started writing novels at the age of ten.

So what about you? Do you think there is a magic point when you transcend from ‘aspiring writer’ to ‘writer’? Or is this all nonsense?

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