Saturday, 11 July 2009

Am I a real writer now?

Imagine you are at a party. (Maybe you actually are at a party, but if so you shouldn't really be reading this - it's not very polite, even if the party is boring.) Now imagine you've asked someone at the party what they do, and they say 'I'm a writer'. What assumptions do you make about them? Personally, I expect them to be a published writer, making money from their writing. I don't think you should say you're a writer just because you write. I wouldn't say I'm a cleaner because I sometimes (OK, very rarely) do some cleaning. And I wouldn't say 'I try to make Small Bint do her homework' even though I spend a lot of time doing it because - sadly - I'm not paid to do it. (I would be very rich if I were.) 'What do you do?' means, in the usual course of things 'what do you do for a living?'

Now, you have a publishing contract - someone asks you at a party what you do for a living and you say 'I'm a writer.' Jolly good. Next question will either be 'have you published anything?' or 'should I know you?' (often followed by 'do you write under your own name?' because they haven't, of course, heard of you unless you are Dan Brown, or someone such as Katie Price or Madonna who is not actually a writer.) The first of these questions gives the lie to my definition of a writer. Why do people ask this? If someone said 'I'm a pilot', we wouldn't say 'have you ever flown a plane?' would we? It's because so many more people want to be writers than are writers, and they've muddied the water by adopting the mantle prematurely. Once, when I said I was a writer, someone responded with 'is that the new term for unemployed?'

With this much confusion about the label it's no wonder writers themselves have difficulty feeling like a 'real' writer. It's odd - there is the handful who feel confident claiming to be a writer when, in my view, they're not, and then there are hosts of writers who spend years feeling they aren't quite bona fida writers yet. Being a real writer is always just around the corner. It's easy to feel as if you are only the shadow of a real writer, and the real writer is just one step ahead. As soon as you get to where you thought the real writer stood, it's moved on.

It goes like this: if you write non-fiction, well, that's not very hard is it? All you're doing is organising some facts and sticking them down in a relatively sensible order. If you have an original argument and have done lots of research, that doesn't make you a writer, it just makes you a bit of a boff.

If you write picture books, well, they're not really very hard are they? It's not as though you had to sustain a complex plot with subplots and develop characters. And the pictures do half the work.

If you write chapter books or short novels, well, that's not too hard - no need for complex style and structure, challenging ideas and intellectual rigour. And if you write a long novel for children, well - it's not like writing for adults, is it? Poems? Well, they're so short, and they don't even have to make sense!

And so we undo ourselves in a self-doubting modesty-fest. Here's a secret: many - maybe even most - writers privately worry that they are not 'proper' writers. It's especially true of children's writers, partly because people so often ask if you've ever thought of writing for adults, implying that would be a better thing to do. I do write for adults as well and, believe me, writing for children is much harder.

Listen carefully: if you write words and are paid for them, and they include any originality, imagination, creativity or skill in the content or the expression, you are a writer. There are subgroups of writers - novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, non-fiction writers, children's writers, adult writers, picture-book writers - but they are all real writers. That contract you have - that tells you that you are a real writer. Don't listen to the bad voice in your head: you don't have to wait until you're buried in Poet's Corner to know you're a real writer.


  1. Well said and engaging - and interesting. As finance director of a farm that turns over a considerable amount of cash and employs 100+ people, that feeling of 'do I count?' seems to be the same in any industry.

    It was there when I was acting as well - you have a contract, you get paid but it wasn't a very big production company .......

    And now I'm the wannabe writer, been paid for the odd bit of trade journalism and that commissioned history book but what about my children's fiction, that's where my heart lies....

    I did come to the conclusion that if my agent is treating me as a writer than I damned well better act like one and write no matter what I feel like - maybe that's the actor in me.....

  2. When I am asked what "I do" I never say and wouldn't dream of saying "I'm a writer." I write but to say that "I'm a writer" I think implies that I am more successful than I really am. If we had to live on what I earned form writing in the last year we'd starve after a fortnight.
    I once sat in on an interview with a girl who when she was asked to "tell us a bot about yourself" immediately said "I'm a writer." Turned out she'd had two short stories published and earned a total of £24.

  3. interesting. i've been calling myself a journalist for many years and have decided to stop because the last report i filed was three years ago and that was on the radio. but since i was a journlaist for 20 years, i suppose i am entitled to say ex journalist. luckily i've got some contracts now so i feel that i deserve it when i say children's writer ...

  4. You have contracts? That's fabulous, Candy. You certainly are a children's writer and a Web Designer extraordinaire

  5. Definitely well said. And we writers should all remember it in the dark, dank days when no words will come and the sanity of what we do is in question. I would also add that I am a writer mostly because I CAN'T NOT BE. It's not what I have published (although that's quite a few). What I AM and what I DO seem to me inseparable. It never really turns off--there's always the wondering and the 'what if', even in the supermarket. Sad, probably!

  6. Yes, Lucy, in the supermarket! I once bought a pen in Waitrose and stole loo paper from the toilets so that I could sit in the cafe and write up the story outline that had come to me as I walked there to do the shopping. The story should be published this week :-)

    Well done on getting your contracts, Candy - that's fantastic!

  7. I am a writer. I have always earned my living in some manner related to the publication of words - magazine features writer, diary hack, features writer for newspapers... but suddenly my first novel One Apple Tasted is coming out this week. I still don't really feel like a writer, but I am. And thank you for this lovely, funny, familiar post.

  8. Congratulations on your novel, Hodmandod! That's great news - adn *of course* you are a real writer.

  9. I write poems for children and get paid for them so I guess I am a writer too...hooray!