Defining a “writer”

“You’re not a writer,” a friend told me over drinks last week.  “I mean, what have you written other than what’s on this blog?”  I sat stunned, speechless.  My attempt at publicizing my new blog had obviously fallen flat on its face.  This guy was actually challenging my very right to have a blog, and that made me highly defensive.

“Well,” I stammered around for an answer, “I did an English degree.  I’ve done a lot of speech writing.  I edited a small newspaper.  I’ve written for myself for many years; I have boxes of journals and diaries at home.”  I hated feeling like I had to justify my ability to write.

That wasn’t good enough for him.  “Writing is fundamentally an egotistical and selfish act.  No offense!”  I was furious, but tried to remain calm.  “How so?”

“You’re cutting yourself off from everyone else in order to develop your talent.  Putting all that energy into developing something that exists only within yourself is selfish and egotistical, as is believing that everyone wants to read what you write!”

“How is that any different from getting your engineering degree and cutting yourself off from everyone else in order to attain it?  Studying long hours while your mom cooks your meals and does your laundry?”  (He’s European.  So are my husband’s parents.  I know how these families work!)  He said it was different because he was developing a useful skill, not a talent.  (Who’s saying every person who writes is talented?!)

The point is, he felt I needed to prove myself in some way before I was entitled to call myself a writer.  Which got me thinking… what does it take to become a writer?  Can I truly call myself a writer if I’ve never published any books, academic papers, news articles?  Does writing alone in a journal that no one else will ever see make me a writer, or merely a wannabe?  What sort of accountability does blogging have in the online world where the publishing field has been completely leveled?  No editor gives me permission to say the things I do.

When I got home, I flipped through a couple favourite books: “Writing to Change the World” by Mary Pipher and “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg.  Both of these wonderful writing manuals echo my thoughts – that a person who performs the very act of writing is a writer.  To be a writer, one must write, yet that is often the hardest thing to do.  Hence Thomas Mann’s quote, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for others.” So true!

But I think it goes a bit further, because it’s only since I started blogging that I truly feel like a “writer”.  The final step is having an audience – someone to read the words I write, scrutinize them, criticize them, love or hate them.  Words that remain locked within a private journal become nothing more than just that, but releasing them to the world gives them a life of their own, with the power to influence and effect change.

As Mary Pipher writes, “By definition, writers are people who care enough to try to share their ideas with other people.  We are not passive, or utterly cynical, because then we would not even bother.  We have a deep yearning to connect, to write things down and pass them around.”

I like something my mom wrote yesterday on her blog: “If you want to be an artist, you just start being one… The artist within just needs a lot of practice at seeing and doing to be coaxed out.”  So that’s what I’m doing.  I refuse to believe I’m selfish and egotistical for wanting to!  I do believe I need practice, and so I will continue to write, and write, and write.


28 thoughts on “Defining a “writer”

  1. I would have been pissed! You probably handled that better than I would have because my first response when I read this was, “And you call this dude a friend??” I just wrote a whole paragraph defending being a writer, but deleted it. What you said was perfect and my ensuing rant adds nothing. Thank you.

  2. I like your post. It resonates. You wrote, I read. That makes you a writer. Looking forward to your future blogs.

  3. Wow, I would have been livid! Unfortunately, I see that way of thinking from a lot of people, especially the more technical minded. I remember when I was about 10 years old I told my Aunt and Uncle, who are both civil engineers, that I wanted to be either a writer or an artist. They tried to convince little 10-year-old me to find something more important, more useful to do when I grew up. To their credit though, they still bought me art cases and utensils as gifts anyways. It’s eleven years later and I’m proud to say that I’m following my dreams of becoming a writer.

    You just have to keep at it and when you publish your writing, let your words speak for themselves. Let your writing show people why you do it in the first place. 🙂

    1. Glad to hear you stuck to it! And thanks for the encouraging words. Funny how an incident like this one makes me more determined than ever to write!

  4. One critical mistake in this post: In your first sentence, you called the person, “friend.”

    Also, I’m not one to self-promote, but this is very relevant and I hope will make you feel a little better about it. Or at least enough to help you tell that “friend” to suck it.

    1. Lol, I suppose he is more of an acquaintance than a personal friend 🙂

      Great post, by the way. As writers, we must give ourselves permission to write crappy first drafts and then take it from there!

  5. “Writing is fundamentally an egotistical and selfish act. No offense!” I’d have dumped my drink in his lap and said… “None taken.”

    He should tell that to the writers who wrote the textbooks he had to plough through to get his precious degree.

    Writers have egos… we have to. We also have to have thick skins to deal with selfish,egotistical, self-righteous jerks.

    You keep doing what you do, sweetie!

    By the way, I am reblogging this.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts… keep writing! 🙂

  6. Writing is a skill which requires talent… and, most importantly… heart and soul!

    Engineering is actually neither skill or talent… it is applying theories learned by rote. Anyone of sufficient intelligence can be an engineer.

    Writing requires something that can’t be taught in a classroom… not everyone can be a writer. I suspect that is something your engineering acquaintance would have no concept of.

    You are a writer… don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And remember… you don’t exist to be validated by others… only you have the right to do that.

    1. Hey, thanks for the reblog! I like your comment about needing heart and soul to write. More people in this world need jobs that use exactly that!

  7. Reblogged this on Veronica The Pajama Thief and commented:
    Anyone of sufficient intelligence can be an engineer. Writing requires something that can’t be taught in a classroom… not everyone can be a writer.

    You are a writer… don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And remember… you don’t exist to be validated by others… only you have the right to do that.

  8. Hi! I loved your post. That it’s all I’ve been feeling… I decided I’m going to write for all my life and I feel like a writer whether other people see me as that or not. Keep writing!

  9. My response to the first part of this post was a gigantic “WHAT?!?!”
    Not sure what else to say really. This discussion puts me in an awkward position of being an Engineer who also loves to write. I have stacks of journals in my closet dating back 20 years! 🙂

    Your mother sounds like an incredibly wise woman.

    Keep up the good work K!!

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