When are you a writer?

I was asked this question at the SCBWI Houston Editor’s Day, and it’s something I’ve asked myself a lot. In our lunchtime discussion at the conference, one of the attendees said she hadn’t written for a while, and when someone asked her if she was a writer or illustrator, she said she felt funny saying writer, even though that was why she had taken a Saturday to be at the conference.

Some people believe that you can’t call yourself a writer unless you’re writing, and I fully agree with that, but I also think there’s a time and place and a difference in definition.

Restaurants in Hollywood are filled with “actors” taking food orders, but, and let’s be honest here, can they really say they’re actors? Well, yes, if they’re acting, even if it’s acting in a play that they’re not getting paid for. They’re acting. They’re not making a living at it, so to say at a cocktail party “I’m an actor” might be stretching the truth, because most people would think that implies making a living at it.

Same goes for writers. (Hollywood’s restaurants are also filled with plenty of waiters who say they’re writers.) If you’re writing, sure you can say you’re a writer. You write. And I’m not talking about a journal you’ve been keeping since you were 16. I mean writing something towards a profession. Especially when you pay money and take time out of your weekend to go to a conference. You’re a writer. That’s what you’ve come to the conference for.

Is it lieing if writing isn’t your primary source of income? No, but there’s also nothing to be ashamed about in saying, “I’m writing a novel, but right now I get paid with plumbing jobs.” Writing, following your desire to write, through all the day-to-day stuff we have to do, including our day-jobs, isn’t easy. But it’s a journey, and we should be proud that we’re taking that road, no matter how many bumps might be in it.

Now, with books, we have a different word for people who have achieved a certain level in their writing career — i.e. published: author. Literary agent Kate Schafer made this point in an answer on her blog today (click here then scroll to the third Q&A) when she said, “An idea is a lovely thing to have, don’t get me wrong. But until you can put something behind it, you’re not a writer. You’re just another person with a story inside them. It’s the getting it out that makes you a writer. And after THAT — well, there’s loads more to do before you can consider yourself an author.”

So, if you want to know if you can consider yourself a writer, ask yourself: Are you writing? Are you really writing? Are you writing the story that’s floating in your head, finishing it, polishing it? Are you committed to it? Are you making time for it?

If yes, then proudly say that you’re a writer. If the person who’s asking wants more, you can tell them about the day-job too. It’s ok. It just shows your dedication. The important thing is that you’re writing.

And one day, if you keep it up, you’ll be able to say, “I’m an author.”

So, are you writing?

Write On!

What do you think?