When Is a Writer a “Writer”?

The WriterI’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. Why seven? Because that was the age when I realized that the wonderful books I’d been reading, and that my parents had read to me, were actually written down. By a real person! Books didn’t just sprout into existence; instead, someone sat down and put those particular words in that particular order, and when they were finished, a book existed. Once that realization washed over me, I wanted to do the same thing myself; I wrote lots of little noodling stories in my youth, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is a mystery/thriller involving ninjas and my mother’s car, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!”

But when did I go from being an aspiring writer to thinking of myself as a Writer? John Scalzi examines this topic, and does so in a tripartite way, of self-identifying first as a writer, then as a professional writer, then as a “good” writer. Sticking just to the first facet of this argument, Scalzi does a good job breaking down and codifying what “writer” means, so I won’t belabor the point, except to agree that a writer writes: “A writer […] chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.”

Yesterday was the first of the monthly creative writing workshops I’m facilitating for BooksActually, and afterward, I was chatting with one of the participants, and she mentioned that she’d long had a desire to write but didn’t really consider herself a writer. And it struck me that many people in similar situations have an insecurity about that particular label, as if it is undeserved. As if only people with blazing talent and self-confidence could dare to call themselves so. But as Scalzi also notes: “There are lots of writers with raw talent who never pan out because they expect that raw talent should be all they have to bring to the game. Surprise! It’s not.”

Talent is undoubtedly important, but perseverance is equally important. Several years ago, after some whining rant where I complained about not selling a story to a particular magazine or anthology (I forget now which one), my friend Tim Pratt wisely remarked that if I was really serious about being a writer, i.e. treating writing as a career, then I would have to keep reminding myself that I would be doing it for the rest of my life. If I wasn’t getting published in the same venues as my writer friends, it didn’t mean that I never would, or that equally cool zines wouldn’t pop up later. But that wasn’t really the point either.

I think it was in that moment, of reading Tim’s comment, that something vitally important switched in my brain. I’d been so driven by the pursuit for publication — first, any publication, then paid publication, then pro paid publication — that I hadn’t stopped to consider the big picture. Publication itself couldn’t be the ultimate result, but rather the continual improvement of my writing abilities. A continuous lifelong learning process of growth.

Despite the fact that at that point I’d already been to Clarion, and gotten published in a number of venues, it wasn’t until that day that I could call myself a Writer. I no longer saw writing as a means to an end, but the goal itself, an art to which to devote myself. It’s likely I would have come to this realization on my own, but Tim’s words were the kick in the brain I needed to get there quicker. Since then, I’ve pushed myself as an artist, I’ve tried new things, I’ve experimented, all in the cause of making myself a better writer, and it’s pretty obvious that I’ve made huge leaps in quality, if my published fiction is anything to go by.

And I think that this, at root, is the key, this moment of realization that you’re in it for the long haul, that you’re going to have to find massive reserves of both stamina and perseverance, because the odds are against you. That anyone can throw words together, that thousands upon thousands of wannabe writers have the same hunger for publication, but what will distinguish you from the masses is your devotion to your art. I finally understand what Zoran Zivkovic means when he says that fiction-writing is a noble calling.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “When Is a Writer a “Writer”?

  1. This is a great post, Jason. The progression for me was from “I want to write” to “I’m trying to write” to “I’m a writer”–with me only claiming that noble title after going to Clarion West in 2005, which was the external validation I needed at the time. Acceptance to the workshop was the first real indication that I did have that raw talent, and when I saw how much my work and habits had improved over those six weeks, I realized that I might just become a good writer one day–if I worked hard at it. That was the turning point in my writing career, when I decided to prioritize writing over television, video games, movies, sleep, and sometimes even friends (temporarily). Though I’d been trying to get published for a long time (and I did begin selling stories right after CW) that was when I committed myself to a professional writing career. I still have those doubts that I’m actually any good, depending on the day, my mood, and reviews, but I know I’m at least “good enough” and working hard toward the elusive “great.”

    • I thought I could consider myself a writer after going to Clarion in 2002, but as I say above, I still didn’t really understand what that meant. It was still all about the publication for me, instead of actually improving my craft.

      I’m also working hard toward “great,” especially in the course of writing the Tower novel. It’s really easy to fall back on lazy writing, especially when the urge to just finish the damn thing kicks in, but I keep telling myself that I have a huge luxury right now, in that I don’t have a deadline, and I can take my time and make it the best possible book I can. Hopefully that will nudge it a little closer toward “great,” although I know I still have a long way to go.

      I’m quite looking forward to seeing Fair Coin in March; man, it must seem like that release date will never get here, huh?

  2. Pingback: Sense and Sensation | Jason Erik Lundberg

  3. Pingback: definition: writer (quoted, with thanks) | // the tension is here

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