Why do you have such a problem identifying as a writer?
If you’re reading this newsletter I’m guessing you have this problem. Or that you at least relate to it on some level: the cringing, the slight recoil, the feeling of separation and the just-out-of-reachness that surfaces before you utter those words: I am a writer. Even now, when someone asks me what I do I explain eloquently and confidently the studio (my consultancy work with writers), setting up literary agencies (offering writer’s representation), and yet I still stumble over my vernacular to explain that I myself write.
I’ve had a novel published that’s sold really well, I’m developing said novel into a TV show and I’ve been contracted by my publisher to write more novels, some might say that deems me worthy to dangle those words at the end of my tongue. But I’m kinda gonna call bullshit on that; you shouldn’t need to have had your work published to identify as someone who feels more comfortable having words come from your hands than from your mouth. Then again, is that the defining trait of a writer?
I had a conversation with a friend over dinner recently, who stalled over the word, lingering awkwardly, almost simultaneously retracting the statement at the very same time as making it, that she was a writer. It really stopped me in my sardines because I so recognised that motion in thought, that assertion and then the pull of a thread – one that perhaps bears more of a burden in women – as we question how what we just said might sound. But it was the truth, not because she’d published a book or written extensively across media outlets, but because she is a writer. Someone who wants to talk about writing, someone who wants to take herself into uncomfortable spaces to explore her writing, someone looking for a writing community, someone who feeds on books to make sense of existential truths - for me, these are the traits of a writer.
If you’ve written a novel but you didn’t find an agent though, are you a writer? If you’ve found an agent to represent you but couldn’t secure a publisher, are you a writer? If your book publishes but like so many books it only sells a small number of copies, are you a writer? It’s obvious what follows here… yes. A writer is someone who makes sense of and navigates the world through language, sometimes using what’s not written down - withholding - to create space for a feeling, an experience, or a story.
It’s a recognised benchmark that one is allowed to access such a title as ‘writer’ once they are making money from it. Once it’s ‘paying the mortgage’ or facilitating your lifestyle. No surprises that in the capitalistic western word, money is the stalwart supporter of the cause. Or sometimes the writer hierarchy model is founded in readership; you must obtain ‘x’ number of readers, followers, subscribers before you can legitamately call yourself a writer.
But does a piece of writing garner value from having been read by thousands of readers vs hundreds? If Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of solitude’ was only read by a few thousand of us instead of 50 million, would it still be a rich and complex, multidimensional novel? Or what if Shakespeare hadn’t been lorded as one of the greatest writers in the English language, would ‘Hamlet’ still ricochet universal truths through time? There’s perhaps a saccharine line of thought being tapped into here: ‘if my writing helps one person in this world or if my book impacts one person’s life then it will have been worth doing’, but do we really mean that? Or will your inner voice harangue you until you obtain a Sally-Rooney level of impact.
I asked the internet what qualifies one as a writer, which in its usually schizophrenic fashion offered everything from ‘a college degree in English, communications, or journalism is generally required’ to ‘some writers get a bit gatekeeper-y and upset that everyone seems to call themselves a writer these days’ and then there was a ‘everyone is - the more the merrier’ philosophy.
When it comes to identifying as a writer I keep circling back to the same place: I think the answer is borne out of ‘why’ you write. And of course, that ‘why’ – your purpose or compulsion – is different for each of us. I think it also shifts and changes within us. But I’ll go first: I write to explore trauma, I write to process things that my body and mind can’t make sense of and I write because if I don’t, I am overcome with this feeling, like suffocation or being drowned on the inside. As if I’m filling up with thoughts that could stuff my throat full if I don’t access the relief of writing them down. That is why I am a writer and that is why it forms part of how I identify. So tell me, I’m curious: why do you write?
Please leave you ‘why’ in the comment section below, and share your personal experience of identifying as a writer. I think we can excavate our own self-restrictions when we open up and share with a like-minded community.