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.

Write anyway

I’m fond of telling people that I come from a long line of accountants. It’s true–I run out of fingers trying to count all the accountants I’m related to.

So it’s quite strange to talk to anyone in my family about writing. We don’t have a tradition of arts or artists in our family.  I used to think this was a huge disadvantage owing to the lack of support and understanding, but then I met a writer who comes from a long line of well-known writers; the pressure to write and write well is huge. What we can learn from this is that some things about family are just family.

The truth is, no matter what kind of family you come from, writing is lonely. That’s not solely because you shut yourself away to write, but it’s that most people can’t quite relate to what we do or why. Encouragement is often well-meaning but misguided. (“You must be so happy spending all this time on a hobby!”) Discouragement runs high. (“Don’t you have better things to do?”) Every writer, I think, has a secret log in their head of things people have told us that made us feel we shouldn’t write, or that we were aliens for wanting to. Our inner critic uses this frequently to beat ourselves up.

But the amazing thing is that we write anyway.

When you are a new or emerging writer, no one really tells you to keep going or that what you are doing is worthwhile. No one really tells you that you are good. Inwardly, you believe you aren’t that good, but no one tells you if you’ll ever get better. You screw up enough courage to send writing out for publication and you start collecting form letter rejections. You let someone read your work and they tell you “It’s nice” (or “I don’t really get it”). You get something published and no one reads it. You spend money on classes and courses and maybe even retreats, you come away feeling energized, but that feeling fades as you find yourself back in that place, wondering if there’s a point to all this time and energy and love and care and emotion and frustration you pour into this.

And you write anyway.  You beat yourself up for not writing enough, or not being more conventionally successful, but you write anyway.

Think about this for a second.  In the face of being misunderstood, discouraged, rejected and unsuccessful, you write anyway. It sounds crazy, right?

But the act of doing it again, of trying again, takes a great deal of personal strength and courage. And that is pretty amazing.

Pat yourself on the back, writer.

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. ~ Junot Diaz