What Does “I Want to Be a Writer” Mean to You?

I had an interesting comment from an old friend yesterday via email. We were touching base after a long (a too-long) pause between correspondence, and she mentioned that she had subscribed to the blog (despite not being a romance reader or a writer herself, two of my main foci) as a loose means of keeping tabs on how my life was going. And then she said “I had no idea how dedicated you were to being a writer back then” [then = when we worked together and lived in the same town].

I had no idea how dedicated you were to being a writer back then.

The comment fascinated me, because what it tells me is that the phrase “I want to be a writer” is so varied in its meaning that it is almost meaningless without further context. It can be said by someone who has never written anything but just likes the idea of being a writer. It can be said by someone who has just started writing and has yet to be crushed by all the things they will have to learn and fix about their writing style before it becomes naturally graceful. It can be said by someone who has been working for years at their craft but not been published. It can be said by someone with the ambitions of a hobbyist or a professional.

There are layers of meaning encoded. When someone says “writer” do they mean someone who writes (regardless of quality) or someone who writes quality work? Do they mean someone who is recognized outside of their own self-presentation as writing? Someone who has been published? Someone like the guy in Sideways who spends so much time talking about his writing that everyone knows he is a writer even though he can’t get published? Is it more of a self-defining moment: I mean, does one simply self-declare “I AM A WRITER!” when one feels as though one has attained whatever deep-seated definition of “writer” exists inside one’s own lexicon of English?

I understand my friend’s confusion. I have spent a great many years downplaying my writing. I don’t talk about it first thing when I meet new people, or at least not my fiction. As I’ve mentioned before here, I used to write and sometimes ghost-write web articles, and I maintained an online open diary type blog for about 5 years before professional considerations necessitated its deletion.Web writing – non-fiction opinion/review type stuff – is the only thing I might mention to someone I do not know well. Then my fiction writing becomes this weird confession when I do realize I’m friends with someone whom I didn’t tell this to right away: “Sit down. I am afraid I have not been completely honest about who I am…. Are you ready for my truth bomb? Here it comes: I want to be a writer.” It’s always an anti-climax, because there is no follow-up to the conversation, or at least there never was before.

“Have you published anything?”

“No.”

“Can I read any of it?”

“No, because I have this problem finishing things. So I have 10 novels started, it’s about 200,000 words so far, but, no, you can’t read any of them because the actual stories don’t exist yet.”

This is why I use the phrase “want to be” and not “am.” Or why I always did before. I think now I would feel comfortable with the present-tense. I have finished many things and no longer have that finishing issue. I have made plugging doggedly away at my writing part of my life, in a way that it was not all through college and my early twenties. I used to be terrible about either waiting for inspiration or utterly free time to write, and terrible about not sticking with my stories until they were finished. I can pinpoint the time and place I finally started finishing things (2007, two years after graduating college) and the time and place I finished my first novel as an adult (2008, and it was fanfiction). It’s been a long road since to convince myself those were not flukes but the start of a new pattern. Now I keep coming back and working on stories until they are done, even when it’s hard and not inspiring, even when it takes me over a year and a half to do it.

But I am still just a failed/aspiring writer for my family. My stately grandmother, bless her heart, has denigrated “cheap novels” one too many times in my hearing to get to read my romance. My mother gets to read it, and on her own I would probably tell her what I’m doing, but I feel like I need the validation of sales numbers before I show my dad this project, and I am not going to ask her to keep secrets from him. For the same reason I haven’t told my brother and sister-in-law, who would be disinterestedly curious at most, nor my husband’s mother or sister who would probably be vocal in support of me out of loyalty and, well, if they’re going to trumpet my name to everyone they know I sort of feel like there should be something worth trumpeting. A catalog of professional books instead of just two short pieces that are obviously self-published.

I am not sure why I am so compulsively private about my art with people I know, when I can share it with the world at large and have no issues. I don’t think this is unusual, however. I guess what it comes down to is that I am not good at all the pretenses of being a writer; it’s simply something that I do, and will keep doing because it is part of who I am and the thing I am most dedicated to. All my other hobbies, including sewing, I do for specific and finite ends, and because I enjoy the process and the creation. Writing is not a process I always enjoy, but even less do I enjoy not writing. I keep going because the alternative is anathema to me.

I keep writing because…I am a writer.

And L, this was NOT the post I’m dedicating to you…just inspired by you. 🙂

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6 Comments

Filed under Ramblings, Writing

6 responses to “What Does “I Want to Be a Writer” Mean to You?

  1. LCME

    LWF, thank you! Your explanation is perfect.

  2. ABE

    The problem is the perception of ‘writer’ and ‘author’ in people in general.

    It’s like an on-off switch: either you’re this mysterious thing everyone has heard about and have your stories widely known (published in hardcover and on the NYT list) – or you’re not.

    It took me years to be able to say ‘I write.’ And all I have published is one short story in a tiny anthology that our Sisters in Crime group published.

    Because the next question, implied if not stated, is always ‘What have you written?’ with the expectation that they will have heard about it. At which point you better have a good answer, or the conversation goes downhill into awkwardness.

    It’s so bad I almost think ‘I have a blog and here’s the address,’ while handing them one of my business cards I handmade for the purpose, is a better answer. At least if you blog, you’re a blogger – and there it is, anyone can find it. I highly recommend the business card – it shows you are professional enough to have prepared. You can get a free QR code, and use both sides – a picture of your covers on the back – which does not say ‘self-published’ to any one. You put your blog address and your public email address on it, and voila! Once I get a cover, that’s where it’ll go; meanwhile I have a placeholder image.

    I felt silly every step of the way when producing these cards – and now I’m glad I have them. I think they convinced me as much as anyone else. And they are just as much self-published as my writing – the paper cutter from my homeschooling days + cover stock left over from science fairs is fine (they’re a BIT thin). It’s a statement you can hand someone.

    • I do think there is a strong component of either “have I heard of you” or “do you have something I can tell people about” to most people when you say you’re a writer. there is also such a strong cultural narrative of the “failed writer” or the person who talks about being a writer but never writes, that a lot of the request for that validation is merely to find out where you are in the process and/or how seriously they should take your statement about being a writer. I wonder if that stereotype (archetype?) will persist 20 years from now, now that everyone who finishes a story has the opportunity to publish it versus putting weeks or even years into something only to have it languish because no publisher wants it.

      For me personally, I would hesitate to self-identify as a blogger (even though, obviously, I blog pretty dedicatedly) because the kind of writing I want people to know more for is my fiction, not my blogging. With the caveat that other writers might know me because of my blogging, and that’s awesome, but the average person/reader is someone I want to know me because of my books. That said, if I were to venture into situations where I self-identified as a writer I would absolutely get some business cards for it. Right now I am still in the “I know you in person but don’t trust you with my secrets? YOU CAN’T KNOW THIS ABOUT ME” mode. Since I don’t go to conventions or do anything in the non-virtual world to promote my books or my writing, I have yet to cross that bridge.

      Anyway, good job for both being able to say “I write” without hesitation and for finding a succinct way to explain it to people. Two awesome steps that I have yet to take. 🙂

  3. Lily did say: “I am not sure why I am so compulsively private about my art with people I know, when I can share it with the world at large and have no issues.”

    I’d have to define “know” before I answer that one for myself. I am seriously compulsively private about any of my art (writing, painting, whatever), and I very rarely discuss writing with anyone with whom I share regular face time. (My inner editor just kicked in and hates that sentence, but I’m ignoring her and getting to the early morning point.) And when I do, it’s only because they have usually asked first, and they get only generic answers. If I’m asked how the latest book is going, I’ll shrug and say, “Slow. Been busy.” or something equally bland.

    Now, if YOU, Lily, ask me, I’ll go into great detail on why it’s slow, because I know you’ve read my work and you get me. If yet another writer asks me, they may get some detail, but not everything. There’s various levels of “know” in there where other writers are concerned.

    I think the compulsive privacy thing is because you lay your soul bare in your art. You hold what you’ve done out there for the world, knowing they will judge you. Sure, people judge you for one reason or another every day, but we’re handing them a part of our soul on a silver platter and *asking* to be judged. So, it seems easier to ask people we don’t know to judge us, versus asking people we have to see every day and know, face-to-face, in their eyes, that they have read, and that they have judged. Whereas a stranger, you may never know what they think… until you get a good or bad review. Even so, they are still words on a page and not a “face.”

    I have one “fan” (and yes, I know I used sarcastic air quotes there because, really, me, I have a fan? One. It’s a start.) with whom I share regular-enough face time. When she asks me when she can read the next book, I flush, I blush, I may even stammer for about five seconds. Then I’m fine and can discuss anything, but with the necessary spoilers left out. I’m sure that’s because she’s already read my work and judged it good. And I’m sure that’s how it will be with anyone else like that if/when I ever find I have more than one fan.

    When was I comfortable enough to say that I am a writer, present tense? When my first fan screamed, “NO!” through her house because of something in a book I wrote. That was about two years ago, and I’ve been writing for almost twenty years. I’ll feel a lot more comfortable about it after I’ve been published.

    • Oh, the vague answer of “I’m still working on it”…yes. There was a point where I got tired of my family asking about my writing when they weren’t really interested (this was a whole revelatory process that I went through 5-6 years ago, when I realized my family wanted me to be a published writer so they had something to brag about since my job at the time was a dead-end and a disappointment after all my achievements through school, and not because they really believed in my dream or my ability) and started going into minute and excruciating detail. They quickly learned not to ask. Now they don’t other than in general terms that require only a general answer, except, again, my mom, who is my biggest fan. It’s better this way for all of us. 🙂

      There is definitely an exposure that happens when you show someone something you wrote. You are saying “here is what I believe in; here is my personal aesthetic; here is what my favorite thing is; here is how I see the world.” If it’s someone you know but who you think doesn’t know you through and through, it’s kind of horrifying to give them that insight into you. If it’s a stranger, they don’t have any expectation of you. They can build whatever image of you as the author they want, but there is not the same feeling of proving to someone you know that you basically lied to them.misled them about who you are. Even if that’s NOT what they would think after reading one of your pieces, I think that is what we fear they would think.

      Also, for me, given that I write romance, and romance is a genre most people who don’t read it look down on, makes me hesitate. I don’t want to have to explain to everyone that, no, it really does have good writing even if it’s all about love. I don’t want someone to pick up one of my books–or just assume they know what is in them because they are romance–and then perceive me in a more sexual way than they did before (given that I work with 90% men this is actually a very real issue for me).

      I love your story about when you felt like you could say “I am a writer.” I have been saying it for a long time, but it was embarking on this whole self-publish/build-a-career-from-absolute-scratch thing that made me say it with conviction. I wonder if it is something about crossing the 15 year mark…at some point you have just been doing it so long that you think, “published or not, recognized or not, this IS part of who I am and always will be”?

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