A Writer or an Author?

There are hundreds of websites out there that will tell you that to be a writer, all you need to do is write. I used to read this advice, nod sagely, and then think “This is pablum.”

All a writer needs to do is write sounds like something you say to comfort yourself because you haven’t made it and you’re gotten tired (and maybe a little ashamed) of telling people that you write because all those non-writers want to know is if you’ve been published anywhere. Right?

I have friend who, frustrated by the lack of tangible success, frustrated by all the time he poured into something that wasn’t taking off, started questioning his own existence as writer, because if a writer writes something and no one is around to read it… well, you get the drift.

This friend made me feel deeply sad.  Friend, I said.  Just go on with your bad self. Write because you love to write. Write because it makes you happy.  If pouring all this love and time and care into this project that takes you away from the rest of your life is making you unhappy, stop. Come back to it when you’re ready, if you’re ready.  But you don’t need a reader to tell you that you’re a writer.  You don’t need someone else to tell you that you’re a writer.

I don’t think he heard me, deep in the lonely pit of self-doubt and inner critics. We all have those pits and sometimes, we hang out there. No one comes out of there until they’re ready, and usually (hopefully) it’s because there’s something that they really, truly want to write.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve conflated ‘writer’ with ‘author.’  There’s the art and the craft of writing, and then there’s the business of publishing.  Writers often become authors, but not all authors are writers. (I’m looking at you, Kardashian sisters.) If you love to write, write, create, make art…

Sounds like pablum, right?  At least, it sounds like something you hope is true, because then you can legitimize your writerliness, but at the same time, it’s something you fear isn’t true, because self-doubt.

Your doubts do not define you. You can be a questioning, self-doubting writer. (Heck, that’s most writers.)

I think the other side of this whole “How can I be a writer if I haven’t published?” is the underlying question of “When can I quit my job?”

The cold hard truth is that it is tremendously difficult to make writing financially viable.  (Creative writing, that is.  Technical writing is extremely easy to make financially viable, but is considerably less fun.) A lot of people do it, for sure, but there are thousands more who are trying, hoping, wondering, waiting.

But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t make you any less of a writer.

You have to publish to be an author.  You have to have fans, you have to have readers, you to sell stuff.  To make a living as an author, you have to publish a lot of stuff, or have a lot of fans, and sell a lot of stuff.  Most authors don’t make a living that way, and those that do very often have had to make a lot of hard financial choices along the way.  That’s a lot of life decisions, a lot of compromise, a lot of work, and yes, a lot of luck and timing.

None of that has anything to do with that little voice deep in your soul that says “Please. Create me.”

There are a lot of people, a lot of websites, who give publishing advice and call it writing advice. These are the people trying to become authors. Nothing wrong with that.  I, too, would like to be the author of many more things that people can actually buy and read.

But do not confuse being an author with being a writer. Anyone who can make a buck off a book can be an author. If you are desperate to be an author you can always self-publish your book and sell copies to your mom and all your Facebook friends. (Selling more than that is also very hard, and a totally different topic.) Heck, put it up on your blog for free. That will make you an author.

It’s the writing the book in the first place, the love and care and time and soul you put into it that makes you a writer.

Thoughts?  Comment below.

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5 thoughts on “A Writer or an Author?

  1. So this post got me thinking, because I identified with some aspects of it… and not with others. The “writer” and “author” thing is an interesting distinction. I agree with the arguments put forth, and that one shouldn’t confuse them so easily.
    But I also think it’s easy to confuse “writer” with “writing”. A person can be a writer, yet the writing itself may not always have merit. If you pour a lot of effort into something that doesn’t take off even WITH your mom and Facebook friends – maybe it’s because you’re pouring your efforts into something that’s just not the right genre for you. Or not the right genre for the market right now. Or some other reason. You don’t need a reader to tell you you’re a writer… but you might need a reader to tell you what actually resonates with them.
    Writing makes you a writer. But in some cases, I believe some sort of feedback or validation is needed… to the extent that I wrote about this, for better or worse, on my own blog: http://mathiex.blogspot.ca/2014/06/on-seeking-validation.html

    1. In terms of feedback and validation, the role of the reader in all this is a bit complicated. (I have a couple of future posts churning in the back of my mind on this.) Everyone in the world can give you feedback, but not all feedback is valuable in the same way.

      If you’re asking if something has merit, that’s really two questions: do you like it, and is it good? The first is a question of taste, the second craft.

      Taste is a tricky one. There are many examples of work that’s badly written that is very popular and well-liked. (50 Shades of Gray, I’m looking at you.) There are also many examples of work that is beautifully written that no one reads (probably most poetry). I read work that people I respect have fawned over and hated it, and likewise have loved things that bored other people. There’s no accounting for taste. Trying to chase taste (and it’s related popularity) in writing is a maddening proposition. Taste is a big part of how well you do as an author, but taste is also fickle.

      If you are looking for people’s taste to validate the work, you will question what you are doing and hate yourself.

      The question of craft, yes, most writers need readers for that, BUT, not all readers are really able to speak to craft. Newer writers tend to seek out classes, mentorships, manuscript evaluations, writing groups, workshops, critique groups, etc. Most writers, as they become more proficient in their craft, whittle down to a more select group… over time, you find that some people are really able to help you bring out the best in the work, and you stick with them. (Stephen King’s wife quite famously fished his early start to Carrie out of the trash and told him keep writing it… it became his first bestseller.) Personally, I used to show my work to everyone who said they’d give me feedback… it’s not a good strategy. It can make you feel useless as a writer.

      Better to find the people who will encourage you, not because they are blowing smoke up your ass about how great you are, but because they deeply engage in the work in a way that shows you that they want to help you make it as good as you can make it.

      Finding these people is not easy. I’ve done it through taking classes, writing groups, writing friends, paying for manuscript evaluations, paying for mentors, etc.

      Thanks for commenting…. you’ve likewise given me a lot to think about.

      1. Enjoy your thoughts then! Just as a final sidebar, I agree that finding encouraging people (not yes-men) can be hard, and may not even exist within the sets of people you see on a regular basis. Because taste is fickle and knowledge of craft isn’t necessarily widespread (great distinction, by the way). But somehow it never occurred to me to pay for said encouragement (or for a class) elsewhere seeing as: 1) writing is something I do in my (non-abundant) spare time; 2) it feels like paying someone would simply turn my efforts at “pulling a reader in” into a mere obligation. (In essence, I’d be saying that the only way anyone would read my stuff is if I paid them to do it.) Which is, perhaps, an error in logic that I should confront at some point.

  2. “Write because it makes you happy.” I love that advice. Sometimes gifts are only thought of as talents, but I think the love of an art form and being able to take joy from just participating in that art is the actual gift.

    I actually love the idea of self-publishing and wish it didn’t have such a homely stepchild status. If I write something and think someone somewhere might enjoy reading then why wait for Random House to acknowledge my existence? I’d actually love it if an online community like MySpace or a Kickstarter hybrid would develop for writers, where we could lovingly share work and encourage the craft without letting gatekeepers get in the way.

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