One of the things I hear aspiring (and, remarkably often, seasoned) writers assert over and over is how difficult it is to say the words, “I am a writer.” I know from personal experience this is true. I have one book published and a contract for three more. I have an agent and contribute regularly to three different blogs. I’ve been a finalist for three national writing awards and have written a monthly column in a newspaper. And, while I do occasionally allow myself to say those words out loud, they still fit me like a pair of shoes that is a size or two off.
So how do you know if you are a writer? Two camps have formed in response to this question. On the one side are those who, upon hearing the lament from someone that they aren’t sure if they’re a writer or not, sling an arm around the person’s shoulders and say, “Do you write anything? A blog, a diary, grocery lists? Then yes, you are a writer.”
In the other camp, and way over at the opposite end of the spectrum, are those who maintain that one cannot possibly be considered a writer unless they have at least a couple (and preferably more) royalty published books and have sold a certain number of copies – in the thousands at least, if not the millions.
In my opinion, the answer to the question lies somewhere in the middle. As popular as it is to say, I can’t buy into the argument that scribbling thoughts or ideas down on paper automatically makes you a writer any more than whipping off a hand-drawn map to your house for a friend makes you a cartographer.
But neither can I wholeheartedly subscribe to the view that you must have written a few books before you earn the right to describe yourself that way. There are countless other valid, viable writing platforms that should not be dismissed with such a cavalier attitude.
I think the problem with defining the term either of those ways is that being a writer is less about what you write and far more about why you write.
If you only write to remember a story someone told you, or a dream you had, or because your agent insisted that since you are a speaker or a guru of some kind you should have a book to push at every appearance, I would venture to suggest that you are not a writer. Everyone is called to perform various tasks on a daily basis that, on a larger scale, could become a career. Take a mother who has just cleaned out her child’s scraped knee, or a man who parked the barbeque too close to the wooden deck and had to toss water onto a small flame, or the brother who helps his younger sibling with his math homework. These people are not now automatically a doctor, a fireman and a teacher. More is obviously required.
The simplest answer is that a writer is someone who can’t not write. (And who, while he may agree wholeheartedly with that statement, will still wince at the double negative.)
As Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, once contended, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)
That, right there, is the definition of a writer. One who knows what it will cost to pursue that calling—heartache, loneliness, rejection, guilt over the lack of attention given to family and friends, and the thrill of being patted on the head while people say things like, “Yes, yes, but what’s your real job?”—and who doggedly, often desperately, pursues it anyway. Not despising any of these things, but embracing them, knowing they are all part of the incredible journey. And knowing too that the sheer misery you may feel at times is more than compensated for by the intense, indescribable joy of releasing the words God has given you—the fire shut up in your bones, if you will—onto paper for others to read and be impacted by.
If that description resonates deep inside you so strongly it brings tears to your eyes, then I sling a virtual arm across your shoulder and affirm that yes, heaven help you, you are a writer.