“I’m not really a writer.”
I can’t tell you how many people who’ve come to my classes and workshops over the years have said this to me. There have been so many. One woman—a writer who had published a successful non-fiction book that went into three successive printings—said this to me one night while discussing her ideas for a YA novel. “I don’t know how to do this,” she said. “I’m not really a writer.”
“Amy,” I said. “You’ve written and published a book.”
“I know,” she said. “But that was non-fiction. It doesn’t count.”
One woman, who attended a food writing retreat I led, said she wasn’t “really a writer,” although she had published eight cookbooks. Eight. “I had great editors,” she said, which seemed fortunate, but irrelevant. She wrote the headers and the copy in every recipe, an introduction, a section on “tools of the trade.” Her editors didn’t write those books, they edited them.
When do we finally claim ourselves as writers? When we have a five-book contract and have been on the New York Times Bestseller List? When our play opens on Broadway to rave reviews?
“Everyone is a writer,” Pat Schneider says, but I respectfully disagree. Everyone isn’t a writer. Everyone can learn to write, and can improve his or her writing, but some people are natural storytellers, and some are not. Some people don’t use the written word as their mode of expression: they are photographers, painters, actors or dancers. Some aren’t identified as artists at all: they live in the world of numbers or chemicals. And that’s okay; not everyone has to be an artist. That’s not to say the accountant or the scientist or the lawyer can’t be a writer (actually, in my experience, lawyers are often very poetic writers), but they don’t have to be, nor do I think everyone has to be creative in some well-recognized art form. They may be creative in other ways, such as creating wonderful meals, or being amazing lovers: there are many, many ways to be creative.
But everyone is not a writer, simply because not everyone wants to write. Trust me. I have taught Freshman Composition for years—a required class that students have to pass in order to graduate from the university. Some of these students discover they like to write, or that they can write well, but only a small percentage of them want to write, feel the need to place words on paper, in a journal, in an essay, in a poem. The majority of them can’t wait for class to be over.
Not everyone is a writer, because the definition of a writer is someone who writes, not someone who is required to write. In fact, a writer is someone who is driven to write. Writers write because they have no choice. If they don’t write something for awhile, they feel like they will burst. They are driven to write, nearly every day, something.
Once, back in the days when they were made of paper, not plastic, I wrote an idea I had for a story on a series of barf bags on an airplane. I was without paper or a journal, but I had a pen, and what I had to write about couldn’t wait (nor could it be sung, or drawn, or discussed: it had to be written).
I spend half of my working life sitting in a circle with other writers, listening to their words. I am transported to cliffs in Greece, where someone cries over a dead loved one, or restaurants in Sicily, where octopus is beaten to tenderness on the front sidewalk, or harrowing nights in a quiet suburb, praying that a drunken man won’t strike his wife, or stumble into his daughter’s room. I have been through thirteen-hour surgeries, given birth to a ten-pound baby boy, fallen in love with a beautiful young woman in Vietnam, even been the second wife in ancient China, all because these talented, imaginative, articulate writers have been driven to write and have read their work out loud in my living room.
Some of these writers move me to tears, and others have to pause for bursts of laughter. These story-tellers transform my reality in the same way my favorite novelists or columnists or playwrights do, and STILL I have to remind them that they are writers! Some of them are published, many of them are not, all could be, but that is irrelevant. A writer is not someone who is published; a writer is someone who feels compelled to write, is driven toward words; a writer is someone who writes because he or she has to.
Even when it’s out of obligation—finishing a piece on deadline, or a draft for submission to an editor (or a manuscript group)—it’s still a conscious choice. No one has to write: it’s a choice. It’s a choice. And I’m telling you here, if you make that choice, own it.
You are a writer.
Do I have to keep reminding everybody? I will. I will. But please, when I do, take it in. Listen to me.
You, reading this now, you are a writer.