Saturday, 16 May 2015

When Are You Good Enough To Call Yourself A Writer?

I did a scary thing the other day. Scary because it felt foolhardy, in a burning-your-bridges, no-coming-back-from-this-one-chutney kind of way.

I told someone I was a writer. In the real, non-internet world so he was, like, a living breathing person right in front of me as opposed to a name and a photo on a web page. Just came right out and said it, like it was normal conversation.

And I didn't even say it in that wishy-washy, half-assed sense of "Oh y'know, in my spare time when I'm not watching Deadliest Catch or playing Gems of War, I do a bit of writing." Just proper put it out there and made it sound like... well y'know, my actual job - "Oh, I'm a writer."

Of course my brain immediately went into Panic Mode and inwardly-screamed "Shud-UP, fool! Why'd you go and say that? Now they're going to be looking at you and thinking you hang out with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, you dummy - when the only Stephen King you've ever known was a boy in your class at school who just happened to have the same name and barely noticed your existence!" (True story. Especially the second part, sadly. Oh, the curse of the teenage crush...) I hope it didn't show on my face at the time, but I suspect there was a least a hint of the rabbit-caught-in-headlights in my eyes...

Because saying you're a writer - even if that's what you genuinely do - isn't like saying you're a doctor or a lawyer, for example. A doctor or a lawyer has no qualms about calling themselves what they are, because they've been to the appropriate school and earned the magic piece of paper that proclaims "Congratulations! You have now earned the right to call yourself what you've just spent the past bunch of years studying to be!" And then some hospital or law firm hires them and off they go to do their job - heck, they even get to dress the part. And when you watch them at work, they are genuinely doing the kind of doctor-y or lawyer-y things that only a person with the appropriate magic piece of paper is legally allowed to do.

But a writer? They don't get the magic piece of paper saying it's officially okay to call themselves that. Oh sure, there are things like MFAs and Creative Writing degrees and all that stuff... but let's face it, in terms of career legitimacy they're just icing, slathered on top of an already-existing cake, to make it look and taste better. The pieces of paper you get from one of those courses don't have the same legally-binding power as a medical or law degree - "Here is your certificate, bestowed only upon those we have deemed worthy of the title of Writer. You are hereby permitted to go forth and write." You don't need an MFA or a Creative Writing Degree to be a writer, and you're certainly not going to be arrested or slapped with a malpractice suit if you write without one. In short, any old Joe Public and his dog can sit in front of a computer, typewriter or notepad and pen and become a writer, right now and on the spur of the moment if the fancy takes them.

And therein lies the problem. There are no entry restrictions, no industry codes of practice and no quality control procedures, so it's basically an open-house free-for-all. This is even more true since self-publishing got a bomb up its arse with the advent of Smashwords, Amazon KDP and their ilk; suddenly people who were producing ten-page 'novels' consisting of fifty shades of badly-spelled, dinosaur porn could feasibly be classed as 'authors' because they'd managed to dupe ten relatives into buying their work for 99 pence a pop. Along with 'authors' of badly-spelled and grammatically incoherent ten-page manuals about how to make a fortune writing novels.

Of course there are also a lot of highly talented authors out there who produce incredible work that we might never have got to read without the freedom these new self-publishing options offer - but unfortunately they're floating around in a bloody big ocean, and as yet there's no way of filtering them out from the aforementioned garbage bobbing up and down with them. So how in the world is a struggling writer supposed to know if they're 'good enough' to wear their colours with conviction? Because surely, only if you are 'good enough' have you truly earned the right to call yourself a Writer with a capital W. But 'good enough' compared to who? To Stephen King and J.K. Rowling? To the purveyors of ten-page spelling-and-grammar-abominations? To whoever falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes?

Well, I reckon if you're asking yourself "am I good enough?" that's already a good sign. The people who don't regularly ask themselves this question are the ones who don't feel a need, because they've already decided what the answer is - and that's fatal, because a question considered definitively answered is a question that never gets re-examined. If you're good enough already, why bother improving? Why go the extra mile of trying to become better?

A large part of the reason Stephen King still sells his stories in the gazillions is because even he still asks himself if he's 'good enough' every time he sits down to write (as opposed to just thinking "Hmm, think I'll just kick back and crank out some brain-candy while I contemplate my navel, 'cause let's face it, everything I write is gonna sell...") Which leads me to think that, if you wait until you're 'good enough' before you summon up the courage to wear the writer badge... well, you might end up waiting forever.

So when are you 'good enough' to call yourself a writer? There's no way of measuring, so don't wait for the moment to arrive. Haven't had anything published yet? You're still a writer. Haven't earned any money from anything you have published? Still a writer. The only qualification that matters for being a writer is that you write - simples. Don't worry about being 'good enough' or 'worthy' of owning the title, because, like the stuff you write, you're a constant work-in-progress in that sense. Writing is one of those jobs where you learn the most valuable lessons by just doing it; having a go and either succeeding or (more often) messing it up and trying an alternative strategy.

So go on, take a deep breath and say it - "I'm a Writer." Say it the next time someone asks you "So what do you do then?" It might be scary. You might feel a little bit like the kid in the playground who tells ridiculous lies to big themselves up amongst their mates. But once you've said it, you'll be that little bit more determined to live up to it. And, if writing really is your passion, that can only be a good thing.


  1. Oh, I remember the first time I called myself a writer IRL. I had an anxiety attack on the spot. I felt like an impostor. And then came the most dreaded of all dreaded questions: "Wow, really? And how many books do you have out there?"
    Uhm... well, you know, I'm not really published yet, it's a tough industry, I'm still learning...
    It burned a hole in my soul. I felt like some random student calling herself A DOCTOR without having ever touched a patient.

    But you're right, even the fact that we feel insecure and want to learn more, write more, BE MORE, is a sign that we're writers. Writers write and strive to write better. Faux authors only brag, never once feeling inadequate or insufficient.

    And saying it out loud also creates a sort of accountability. We can no longer quit in silence and pretend we never tried, never failed, if everyone -- or even someone -- knows we're a writer.

    The best thing, though, is that it gets better. And at one point you'll only care about your writing, not what others might consider adequate criteria for your calling yourself that. :)

    1. So true about the accountability. That's a large part of the fear, I think - that sudden sinking realisation of "Oh crud, now I'm actually going to have to DELIVER on this big claim I just made!" But it's also one heck of a motivator too. :)

      The only other, non-writer-related time I felt this way was when I went for a job interview and they asked me if was "proficient with Microsoft Office." At that time I was... well, borderline competent would be bigging myself up a bit, but I decided to bluff it out and responded with "Oh yeah, I've had a lot of experience with it.... Word documents... spreadsheets.... formulas... mailmerge..." Yep, I actually said it just like that; I couldn't have sounded LESS like I knew what I was talking about if I'd tried. Naturally I didn't get the job.