When Will You Be a “Real Writer”?

When are you a real writer?

When Will You Be a “Real Writer”?

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Last week, on a plane home from the Writer Unboxed writers’ conference, I sat next to a woman who spent much of our flight on her computer studying and practicing kanji, a Chinese script used in the Japanese language.

At one point we struck up a conversation, and I asked her why she was learning it, wondering if it was for school or a job.

“No,” she said. “I just want to.”

I told her how impressed I was by her tackling what to me had always seemed an intimidatingly difficult language to learn, even though I love learning languages, and she shared some of her enthusiasm and enjoyment in studying it.

What neither of us did was dismiss it because she wasn’t yet fluent or an expert. We did not denigrate her interest in it or pursuit of it because she was not a professional translator. It didn’t undermine her joy or my awe.

She simply enjoyed and shared with me her self-motivated, genuine interest in learning a complicated language—and I just thought it was incredibly cool and inspiring that she was working with such dedication on a hard thing that was clearly of great interest and meaning to her.

What Does Being a Real Writer Mean?

Wouldn’t it be nice if this were how conversations with others about our writing went?

And yet at the writers’ conference where I’d just been presenting, many authors joked about family and friends and acquaintances asking when they would finally get that book out, or were they making any money from their writing, or saying things like, “Oh, are you still working on that book?”

I hear authors tell stories like this a lot. Or of being asked, when they tell people they meet that they are writers, how many books they have published, or whether their inquisitor would know them or have seen their books anywhere, and the disinterest or dismissiveness—or sometimes even denigration—they’ve received when the answers don’t match someone’s narrow view of what “being a writer” means.

I wish this were an unusual occurrence, but it’s not.

And bad enough that writers may receive this reaction from strangers—but how much worse when it comes from people they know, or those they love and who love them? That’s an especially painful sort of diminution, one it’s easy to internalize.

Worst of all when those dismissive reactions come from ourselves.

Read more: “Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?”

I hear a lot of authors downplay or dismiss their own work because it doesn’t yet meet some standard of legitimacy they’ve accepted: being published, being traditionally published, being a bestseller, making money, or whatever goalpost of validity they’ve assigned it.

I hear them talk about their disappointment in themselves. I hear them lose faith in their abilities.

Sometimes I hear them talk about giving up.

Art Is Not Commerce

I would venture to opine that when most of us were initially drawn to wanting to write, it wasn’t because we were driven by the need to sell our work or see it published and on New York Times bestseller lists.

If we dig back to that initial spark that led us to put our thoughts and words and ideas and emotions and beliefs and perspectives on the page, I’m going to hazard a guess that it had more to do with a fervid love of language or story. Or that we wanted to give life to the vivid tales we wove in our heads. Or that we wanted to share with other people something we felt was important or elemental or fascinating—to connect with them.

Along the line we may have developed professional goals around our creative work, but that passion, that foundational spark, usually doesn’t have much to do with some arbitrary external goalpost. Our writing comes from the truest place inside of us, and when we first start it’s often for its own intrinsic sake, the joy and fulfillment it gives us, the interest we take in doing it. Kind of like my seatmate on the plane learning kanji.

And yet for some reason not only do others seem to dismiss the validity of pursuing this particular passion or interest if it hasn’t crossed whatever Rubicon of professionalism they deem legitimizes it, but if we hear it often enough, I think we start to regard our own creative efforts that same way too.

I meet writers who will not claim the title of author because they’re not yet published—even though they are the author of every word that they’ve ever put on a page and every story they’ve ever imagined.

I meet writers who will immediately downplay their own progress and skill and achievement because they’re new, or “only” write a particular genre, or haven’t published, or haven’t published enough, or with the right people, or for enough money.

Read more: “Dear Author

What Is the Barometer of Writing Success?

The nerve I think comments like this hit on—and the part that may feel valid to an author—is the professional aspect of it. Even if we stay in touch with that original spark that made us want to write in the first place, many of us want to be professional writers—to be paid for it. To make a career of it.

That’s an entirely valid goal. And to me it indicates something foundationally healthy and clear-eyed in our thinking: Our creative work has value, and we deserve to be paid for it.

It also indicates something wonderfully inherent in art: that its impact and power lies not solely in the creating of it, but the sharing of it.

But it’s as if we don’t believe we are “real writers” yet until we grab whatever external brass ring we or someone else has decided means that we are: publishing, a paycheck, hitting some bestseller list. Until then we’re wannabes. Amateurs.

Read more: “When Will You Be a Success?”

Amateur has become a dirty word, implying an unskilled hack rather than a pro. But the root of the word is literally love—amare. An amateur is one who loves, or per Merriam-Webster, “one who is devoted to something.”

Every artist you’ve ever admired started out as an amateur. It’s part of the journey—one that may take varying amounts of time and cover various terrains. Would you stomp out a seedling because it’s not yet in bloom?

I have met very few writers in my thirty-plus years in this business—at every level of their writing careers—who don’t meet that description. We’re all amateurs, friends.

But even if you accept the connotation of that word as someone who isn’t a professional at their pursuit, a hobbyist or aficionado…so what? Every artist you’ve ever admired started out that way. It’s part of the journey—one that may take varying amounts of time and cover various terrains. Would you stomp out a seedling because it’s not yet in bloom? Would you mock or dismiss someone’s efforts to learn and improve at anything because they don’t yet meet some standard of perfection or professionalism?

Accepting that standard bridles the soul—the root of any meaningful pursuit: the sheer love of it. The enjoyment of doing a thing for its own sake, like gardening, or cooking, or playing the piano, or painting, or rock climbing…or learning kanji.

Read more: “What Is Your Wendy?”

Publishing is a subjective business, as is any industry based on creativity. Success is based on countless variables, mostly outside the creator’s control: trends, gatekeeper tastes, consumer tastes, the market, the economy, catastrophic events outside anyone’s control, like political unrest or a global pandemic or a paper shortage or a ship losing all the distribution copies of your new release overboard in rough seas—countless variables beyond anyone’s ability to predict or manage, least of all the artist.

All you can do is control the parts you can: Write—do the work. Create stories that mean something to you. Work at your craft and get more and more adept at it. Define your goals and figure out what concrete steps are required to achieve them—and then do those things to the best of your ability.

Read more: “What If No One Knows Your Greatness?”

Ultimately what does it matter in your artistic life whether you hit some arbitrary goalpost that denotes “success” to the outside world? How does it affect the doing of the thing itself? Your work’s intrinsic value? What it will have meant to you to have done it, at the end of your life when you’re looking back on how you spent it?

Enjoy every step of the journey—and don’t let anyone who crosses your path make you believe you’re not in the right place yet. We are where we are, all of us, and every step is legitimate.

I recently read a quote I loved from Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello from his book The Way to Love:

“You must cultivate activities that you love. You must discover work that you do, not for its utility, but for itself, whether it succeeds or not, whether you are praised for it or not, whether you are loved and rewarded for it or not, whether people know about it and are grateful to you for it or not. How many activities can you count in your life that you engage in simply because they delight you and grip your soul? Find them out, cultivate them, for they are your passport to freedom and to love.”

No one gets to define your freedom and what you love except you. Grab that passport and cultivate your delight, authors. Let your writing grip your soul.

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24 Comments. Leave new

  • Boom. This hit a nerve. I have five books under my belt now for the children’s educational book market. I also actively research and write nonfiction reading passages for an ed-tech literacy company. Yet…I don’t feel like a “real” writer. All of those questions you mentioned? What have you written? Anything I’ve heard of? Is it in bookstores? Do you make any money at this? Are you RETIRED??? Heard them all. I have always wanted to write, but I ran away from it for YEARS because I would not legitimize it for myself, let alone others. But then my brother died unexpectedly. I was in a very high-stress job situation and suddenly that “career” didn’t matter anymore. Time was a’wastin’, as they say. But I still struggle. Thank you, thank you, thank you. At least I know I’m not alone.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, Martha. I can imagine it must have been a shock–and, it sounds like, a wake-up call to our own limited and unpredictable time we have.

      It’s so illustrative–and startling–to me that even accomplished, multipublished authors–as you are–feel this way occasionally. I get it–I sometimes have bouts of impostor syndrome myself, even after more than three decades in this career. But when you see it in someone else it helps you realize the illogic of it.

      No matter where we are in our careers, I think we just have to remind ourselves, over and over when we need to, that arbitrary external goalposts aren’t valid or reasonable metrics to measure our success by–and they are unlikely to lead to fulfillment, by their very nature that we have no control over those factors. Thanks for the comment, Martha.

  • Thank you, Tiffany!

  • “Would you stomp out a seedling?” This resonates. While my passion is writing, I also love to garden. To cultivate and nurture life. Yes, I am a seedling. An amateur. Thank you for reminding me there is no shame in that. I’m called to pursue my passion for the joy it instills in my heart. Not for the applaud, praise, or paycheck. Although, that would be nice too.😉

    • It would! And that doesn’t mean you won’t get those things–or shouldn’t want or work toward them. I just think that if we’re waiting for those external values to define ourselves or our writing as successful or legitimate, we’ll never find the satisfaction and joy in our writing that I think it can and should have. Thanks for the comment, Dawn.

  • How empowering to embrace being an amateur and writing for the pure joy it brings my soul. Thank you!

    • If we can hold on to that, I think it makes the rest (publication, money, acclaim) not only less stressful, but I’d argue more likely too. We’re writing from that genuine, uninhibited place that frees the best of our writing, which is likely what will make your work stand out in a crowded marketplace. Thanks, Lyri.

  • Here’s the question I wished I’d asked at UnCon: When did/do you know you are a writer? I knew I was a writer when … I wonder how many variations of the same answer it would generate. My guess is variations of … when I got external validation of my writing. I confess to being in that group. At Uncon, you put my opening on the screen to be read and when people laughed where I had tried to be funny, I felt the joy of validation. So, I wrote it as a passion project, and I’m a writer because others had an opinion I liked. I needed your blog post to get grounded. Thanks Tiffany!!

    • That’s a great question. I’d be interested in hearing people’s answers too–and I also wonder how many would be externally oriented. That just sets us up to live our lives by other people’s standards. I try hard to define my life from the inside out–with varying success at varying times…but I keep trying. 🙂 Thanks, Deborah. Nice to see you here!

      • Bettina Lehovec
        November 17, 2023 3:16 pm

        I knew I was a writer when I saw my older sister at the dining room table with paper, pencils, and reference books. “I want to do that, too,” I thought. I recognized in my gut the tools of my trade.

        I also remember learning to read: The day the letters I’d painstakingly worked to decipher came together and made sense. I was at my friend Jill Westerhoff’s house and I spent all afternoon sitting on her bed, reading “The Happy Hollisters.” Ignoring her pleas to put the book down and play. I was late getting home and my punishment was forgoing a gift from the gift store.

        I didn’t care! I could read: That was the greatest gift of all.

        Thanks for letting me share!

    • Garry LaFollette
      November 17, 2023 1:36 am

      Good question, thank you. Oddly I’ve not thought about it much of late and the thoughts bubbling to the surface are surprising me. Partly because I’m doing stream of consciousness separation between ‘I write’ and ‘I’m a writer.’ The answers to the first phrase ‘I knew I could write when . . .’ are all external validation generated. Foremost among them the encouragement and feedback of a 9th grade English Comp teacher and the dawning awareness as the class went along I wasn’t turning in papers from a mindset of ‘give this to a teacher to be graded’ but instead ‘write this to entertain an audience, albeit an audience of one’. Yes, teachers loom large for many of us.

      But the delineation persists between writing and being a writer. I realized I was a writer, expanded my self-concept to where that became an ‘I am . . .’ statement some years ago when for the first time I realized I’d lost myself in the joy of doing it. Put other things aside, found time one way or another to return to it. Felt more me when I was than when I was engaged in almost anything else.

      Further down the rabbit hole . . . I think there are limits to what external validation can give us. Concurrent to that English Comp class my art teacher unbeknownst to me submitted a colored pencil drawing of mine in a school system wide competition. Won second place, came with three of us having our pictures in the local newspaper and the works displayed in the window of a downtown store. All very nice and certainly generated more attention than my audience of one comp projects. But it didn’t matter near as much to me, and there is no way on earth I’d even begin to think of myself as a visual artist.

      Validation may be sunlight and water, but the seed is still an internal thing. Born of who we are. I’m willing to argue that the degrees of our response to the opinions of other people, felling ‘WOW!’ vs. ‘That’s nice’ arise from the distinction between something we do and something we are. Even if we haven’t fully come to terms with the latter.

      • Oh, yes, teachers, parents, friends, any audience. It’s hard to be unmindful of that, especially in creative fields where the product is designed to reach an audience. I started out as an actor, the very definition of playing to an audience. It’s something I still have to try to unlearn sometimes. My best work was when I lost track of the audience and just stayed present in the scene and story I was part of, though–felt the best too, the way you describe your best writing times.

        I love the way you put it–“the distinction between something we do and something we are.” It gets easier to stay in touch with that the older I get–but I’m still not batting 1000 with it. 🙂 Thanks, as always, for your interesting comments.

  • Of course I love this post. I love that you put in concrete goals! When you have concrete goals written down, it is a lot easier to see that you have reached them. Something I do (and I am rarely alone in my self-belittling pursuits) is achieve something then immediately move the goal post and/or vandalize the goal post.

    The book I have out now won the Page Turner Book prize a couple of nights ago and I was so happy I cried. Then my brain immediately said, “Well, it’s not a ‘real’ prize (like the Pulitzer or Booker). No one much has heard of it. It doesn’t mean anything.” I carefully redirected my thoughts but even I was a little surprised at how quickly my brain took something wonderful and sabotaged it.

    • Bettina Lehovec
      November 17, 2023 3:25 pm

      Oh, wow! I do that, too. I’ve spent years afraid that a prestigious journalism award I once won was a mistake. Even the story I shared above, about when I knew I was a writer, I’ve worried, “But my sister’s books were reference books. Maybe all I’ll ever be is a journalist. Maybe I can’t write good memoir and fiction.”

      Our brains are so quick to sabotage us! Congratulations on your award! Enjoy every moment of that success.

      • It’s crazy how so many of us are so quick to downplay or dismiss our own accomplishments. Most of us would never do that to someone else–we’d celebrate with them, and be happy for their achievement and the fulfillment of their goals.

        I try to imagine what I would say to a friend or someone I loved–or what I might say to a child, or a younger version of me for that matter–in the same circumstances. It helps me remember to show myself more of the kindness that comes naturally to most of us with others.

    • First off, congratulations on the Page Turner Prize! Any recognition of our work is meaningful, in my view, and worth celebrating. I smiled–ruefully!–at your immediate dismissal of it. I can relate to that even though I know it’s so destructive and antithetical to creating an environment where we can flourish. You are so right about the moving goalpost–I see it in authors so often, and also in myself. Awhile ago I wrote a post about taking time to appreciate our triumphs, even if we set new mountain peaks to scale afterward. I think we have to remind ourselves of that, over and over.

      Being concrete about our goals and our values is essential–in both our stories and our own lives. 🙂 When we fail to be specific and clear about what we want and why, we flounder in moving toward our goals. You can’t hit a target you haven’t identified clearly.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, my friend. And congrats again! Enjoy that sandwich. 😉

  • Thank you, Tiffany! Yet again you wrote a blog that speaks to me. I have published a memoir and have been working on a MG book for 2+ years. I’ve almost given up several times, but somehow keep going. It may never see the light of day, but my writing critique group appreciates it. Now, I won’t worry about the manuscript’s future, I’ll just keep writing…because I enjoy it. Thank you again.

    • That’s good to hear, Carol. You’ve already accomplished more than the vast majority of people who say they want to write–you did it, and finished something, and published it, and started another project. If you’re enjoying all of that, how can anyone decree that it isn’t good enough? Only we get to decide what’s important and significant for us. Thanks for weighing in.

  • My debut novel, The Levitation Game, launched last month. People know it’s real now. They can read the reviews and see the levitating legitimacy! Gone are the days when friends and family would comment that it’s nice that I’m staying busy with my new hobby. (Even though I travel blogged for years) Still, the other day, my sister-in-law asked if I actually wrote my novel. Or perhaps, did I hire someone? I was speechless. I was aghast. I plotted revenge that will unfold in my next book. It’s always helpful to realize others are having the same problem. Thanks, Tiffany!

    • Congratulations, Sharon! That’s wonderful. Although for what it’s worth, I would suggest that you were a legitimate writer long before your publication date, or even singing the contract, whatever your friends and family think/say.

      But as you said, until we can convince our loved ones to show more support across the board…there’s always having our revenge on them in our stories. 😉 Good luck with your book–I hope it’s a smash!

    • OMGosh! I can’t believe someone actually asked you if you wrote your own book. How unbelievably rude. I, too, love to create characters in my books as “revenge”. It it quite satisfying.


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