What Makes a Writer, and Am I One?
Are you a real writer?
It’s a loaded question to ask a room full of writers. Some will be offended that you even asked. “I write, therefore I’m a writer,” they’ll quip. Others will have answers, but they’ll likely land all over the map.
A writer writes, it’s true. But after nearly 20 years of making a living freelance writing while writing fiction on the side, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. When Linda invited me to be on her blog with the questions, “What, Why, and How?” it got me thinking about it.
Can You Claim to be a “Real” Writer?
I’ve spent much of my life believing I wasn’t a real writer, and I think a lot of other writers have done the same.
The other day, for example, I was talking to a reporter for a local paper. She was graciously interviewing me about my first novel and its recognition in the North American Book Awards.
“I’m not a writer,” she told me. “What I do isn’t really writing.”
I tried to argue with her. Writing is writing, isn’t it? Certainly a journalist is a writer, and I’m sure most would claim to be so. For some reason, the nice lady I was talking to didn’t.
Surely there are all types of writers. I feel like I have two of them inside me. The freelance writer feels like a business person, someone producing products for clients. The fiction writer feels like a writer.
Why the distinction in my own head? Surely what I do in my freelance work is writing. I do a lot of it. Fifteen to twenty articles a week. If that’s not really “writing,” what is?
What’s “Real” Writing?
In some ways, my freelance writing has enabled me to claim the title “writer,” at least in public, long before I might have otherwise. Writers know that those who aren’t writers like to see proof. If you’re a writer, what are you producing?
When I tell people I’m a writer and follow up with the fact that I ghostwrite books, blogs, research papers, website copy, magazine articles, etc. for clients, running my own business out of my home, they nod their heads, satisfied. Yes, apparently I am a real working writer.
But meanwhile, in my own head, my real writing is the stuff I do first thing in the morning and last thing at night—my fiction writing. But that’s the writing that I don’t talk about much.
Why this categorization?
I can’t answer for other writers. I think we all have various ideas in our heads about what makes a writer a writer. For some it’s the simple act of writing on a regular basis. Others believe only bestselling status really qualifies someone to claim the title. Still others think the “real” writers are those who achieve a certain level of artistry with their works, those whose names go down in history as the giants of literature.
Is there any authority on the matter? Anyone to tell us what really makes a writer a writer?
It’s Curiosity…No, Passion…No, an Obsession with Words
I did a little research. Turns out there’s no shortage of opinions out there. The question is debated frequently.
Some believe it’s curiosity that makes a writer. “Certainly for all,” says children’s writer and novelist Patricia Lee Gauch, “it takes basic inquisitiveness, a curiosity about life in the small and large, and a determination to find the way to bring patches of it to life.”
I’ve heard other writers say that curiosity is a must for good writers—Andre Dubus III was one of them. We have to be curious about life and the humans in it.
Of course, a real writer must produce.
“Desire isn’t attainment,” say mother and son writing team Charles and Caroline Todd, “and wanting to write, working on a book, talking about a book, isn’t the same as getting to the end of a book and looking back at all the various threads of plot an character that you’ve managed to bring to a conclusion.”
It’s finishing a book that makes a writer, they say.
But others come right out and say just because someone writes doesn’t mean they’re a writer.
“A writer is not just someone who writes,” says writer Eliot Rose. It must go beyond that, to a near obsession with words and their meanings, to the elegant construction of phrases and sentences to convey just the right tone. “A writer will divine a metaphor from a pattern on a dress, or a gesture, because sunsets have been done before,” she says.
But maybe it’s the desire for expression that makes a writer a writer, or the compulsion to write no matter what. Someone who is really a writer, says writer Kris Oller, is different from someone who is only writing for profit.
“The difference is the passion that is involved with what they do. Someone who is really one of those people who has to write, not because they are looking at it like it’s just another job, but because it’s something that is such a part of who they are that they wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t do it…that is someone who is a writer.”
Still others believe that real writers have certain characteristics. Demian Farnworth, content writer and host of the podcast Rough Draft, says that remarkable writers are visionaries of sorts, with an ability to “connect the dots,” who also can express themselves clearly and have a talent and dedication to rewriting.
I could go on and on. Obviously, most people have different ideas of what makes a writer a writer.
In the end, we’re left to come up with our own definitions.
What I Think Makes a Writer
What makes a writer a writer, in my mind?
I do love to read stories that relay the struggle in life, that sink their long teeth into the depths of a character’s complicated existence. For me, the “real” writers are those who manage, through their stories, to dive deeply into the human condition, and leave me either with an increased sense of understanding of some of life’s greatest mysteries, or that unsettled feeling that I must try to figure it out all over again.
Am I one of these writers? I wouldn’t say so…not yet. But that’s the type of writer I want to be.
What makes a writer a writer? Perhaps it’s the heartfelt desire to be one, backed by a willingness to devote a lifetime to the pursuit of that goal.
Colleen M. Story writes imaginative fiction and is also a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her first book, Rise of the Sidenah, was recently honored in the North American Book Awards. Her next novel, Loreena’s Gift, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in April 2016. She is also the founder of Writing and Wellness, a motivational site for writers. Find more at her website, or follow her on Twitter.