When did you become a “real” writer?

220px-Stipula_fountain_pen The question above isn’t new. Literary magazines and writing guides have been debating it forever, it seems, and the general consensus among writers groups, workshop participants, and seminar-givers is this: people gets to call themselves writers when each individual decides it’s time. What a horribly unspecific and wishy-washy answer. That being said, all I can provide is my own experience in an attempt to help elucidate some sort of solution to this continuing conundrum.

For some people, becoming a full-time writer gives them the license to wear the title. For others, attaining a degree in writing allows them to introduce themselves with the phrase “I’m a writer.” Many novices don’t consider bringing up their writing unless they’ve published extensively. So, let’s be clear — going full-time, earning educational laurels and publishing are all nice components to a writer’s personal history. Yet none of those (by itself or in concert with the other factors) will magically bestow the name of “writer” upon anyone. What, then, does it?

An oversimplified answer would be to say, “Well, writers write.” That unfortunate phrase has become a cliche (if not a trope) that writing magazines and workshop providers have been uttering like a forged instrument for too many years. We know writers write; hence the name. But if writing is our only criteria for calling someone a “writer,” we’re losing something along the way.

Allow me to provide an example: Last night, my six-year-old son received a new art table from the store. He drew pictures of rockets and dragons and all sorts of things, and then put some words under them. Some of the words were correctly spelled, others were more phonetic. Does he then qualify for what we would call a “writer?” I’d like to say yes, but by societal and cultural standards, I’m afraid that the answer is a resounding negative.

Stephen King is a writer. Billy Collins is a writer. Even Danielle Steele (yeesh) is a writer. Why? Because they have been advertised, marketed, promoted and published as writers, and therefore the public has dubbed them “authors.” Does that mean that our names must be up in lights or on the front of Barnes and Noble before we can lay claim to such a noteworthy nomination? Not exactly.

Here’s what did it for me: Yes, I earned an MFA. Yes, I’ve published three books now. And yes, I’ve seen my name in a pretty good number of literary magazines over the years (gratefully). But honestly, it wasn’t until I finished this most recent book that other people began calling me a writer, and I suppose the reality sank in at last. You see, my first book was self-published (fodder for another post entirely), and my second was a shorter volume (chapbook). This third book was published by a respected and professional publisher, and it has been better received than either of my previous two. It has been advertised in newspapers, online, and in magazines, and friends of mine from various lit journals have promoted it fiercely. I have not one but two different launch events planned. Many of these efforts were self-initiated, and mostly because I have greater respect for this book than I’ve had for my others. That’s not to say the others were bad; it’s just that this volume kicks their cumulative butts.

So I suppose you could say that this most recent book, Middle Class American Proverb, was the magic ingredient that finally allowed me to admit to myself that I’m more than a schoolteacher. Because I’ve given it the respect, the time, and the investment that it truly deserves, it has allowed me to finally say to others, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

The lesson here: When we give our endeavors serious treatment, we will then be treated seriously by others, and more importantly, by our selves.

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