A friend of mine (let’s call him, um, Refined Beast) once told me: “You’re not a real writer until you’ve published a book.” In the course of our conversation, RB then proceeded to backtrack and tell me that it was actually his girlfriend who had pronounced the audacity.
An audacity to which I responded, “Screw you.”
Now, I’m not one to insult a friend lightly (I do it with the utmost seriousness), but the comment clearly struck a nerve because I still remember it years later. The important thing to understand, though, is not RB’s callousness, but why his beastly words struck.
Putting aside all the writers who were published post-mortem — Kafka, Dickinson, Toole, etc. — clearly disproving RB’s and RB’s girlfriend’s point, the words struck me because amateur writers are notoriously precious about calling themselves writers. To the question, “What do you do?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from early-career writers the following sentiment (often in these exact words): “Well, I just have a really hard time calling myself a writer, but that’s what I do mostly.” Or, “I only recently started calling myself a writer.” Or, “I finally allowed myself to call myself a writer. So, yes, I’m a writer!” pronounced with real aplomb and pride. Or any other such, well, preciousness.
The reason writers are so loath to describe themselves as such is for the very statement RB and his girlfriend pronounced above: “You’re not a writer until you publish a book.” Which means, for most writers, there’s some crazy hurdle they haven’t yet jumped. But, even forgetting the fact that by this pronouncement Kafka and Dickinson only became writers after their deaths (when their books were published), it’s still a disingenuous statement to make.
Imagine, for example, someone saying: “You’re not a musician until you’ve played at Carnegie.” Or, “You’re not a carpenter until you’ve built a dining room table and chairs.” Or, “You’re not a scientist until you’ve won a Nobel — or worked at Harvard. At least Cornell!” Of course, the bars I’ve set here are baseless. But that’s my exact point: the notion that to proclaim oneself a writer one must have published a book is arbitrary. And where do you draw the line anyway? Does a chapbook count? Does self-publishing count? Do you have to have made money from it? How much? A hundred dollars? A thousand? What arbitrary lines do you draw?
So, I for one am of the opinion that a writer is anyone who writes. Preferably a lot. If Stephen King stopped writing today, he wouldn’t be a writer any more. You’d then say: he was a writer.
But I, for one, am a writer (damnit). And if you write a lot, and if a writer is what you “aspire to be”, well then let me say this: you’re a writer too.