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When to Call Yourself a Writer

Many people feel self-conscious calling themselves a “writer.” When people ask, “What do you do?” many of us hem and haw and try to dance around the question.

“Oh, well, I do [list off all other stuff that comes to mind] and I write a little, too [said in a tiny voice that no one except a bat can hear].”

It feels funny to claim writer status. It feels as though we’re claiming a job that we’re not entitled to, or which belongs only to a select group of people who are not us. But if you write, you’re a writer. Simple as that.

I’m right there with you. Even now that I’ve been a freelancer for many years and I have a book about to be published, I still feel funny about calling myself a writer. Which is ridiculous. It’s how I make a living. It’s what I do. Yes, I do other things, but writing is my job. I don’t know why I’m still afraid to claim it.

For years I danced around the “What do you do?” question at parties. Back when I still had a corporate job, I said I worked in marketing, which was true because the writing I did at the time was mostly marketing-related. Or, when I moved into writing technical manuals, I limited myself to “technical writer,” even though I was still doing marketing writing, was beginning to freelance in other areas, and had two novels under construction. I tried to make myself seem as small as possible. Simply saying, “I’m a writer,” was out of the question.

I think part of our reluctance to claim the title comes from the response we get from others. When you say you’re a writer, many people automatically assume you’re a published novelist, your book is in B&N, and they’ve heard of it. When you tell them you freelance, or you’re a technical writer, or you’ve written several novels and self-published them, or your novel was published by a tiny press and is only available as an eBook, people look at you with something close to pity. Like they feel sorry for you that your life is so bad that you had to make up this great job title for yourself, even though you haven’t really “earned” it.

 

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Most people who are not writers simply aren’t aware of the breadth of the field. They don’t understand that there are many kinds of writers. There are magazine writers, proposal writers, novelists, non-fiction book writers, people who self publish, people who publish with traditional presses, freelancers, marketing writers, technical writers, greeting card writers, and on and on. Confusing outsiders even more is the fact that many writers write in several fields or genres all at once. Many people outside the field hear, “writer” and assume traditionally published novelist with books in B&N.

This leads many writers to do what I did: To qualify their job title or reduce their entire body of work to the one thing someone else will grasp (or which pays them the most money and is therefore to be considered a “real job”). “Oh, I write grant proposals,” says the person who does that, but who also writes romance novels, freelances for several blogs, and writes non-fiction books about the mating habits of lemurs. To say simply, “writer” is to open themselves to that pitying look, even though they don’t deserve it. Besides, if you say, “writer,” you’re going to have to reduce yourself anyway, once the questions about your publisher and agent start, so you might as well reduce expectations out of the gate. It’s much easier to start with, “technical writer,” than to start with “writer” and then have to have this conversation:

“Oh, have I heard of your book?” says the questioner.

“Well, I mostly write technical manuals right now. But I have two novels I’m shopping around and I’m working on a non-fiction book.”

“Oh. So you’re just a technical writer.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the only kind of writing I do. It pays the bills while I work on my other projects.”

“Oh. So writing’s your hobby, then.”

“Sure. Let’s go with that.”

What I’ve learned over the years is this: When you write, you’re a writer. Claim the title and own it. Don’t explain or dumb it down unless you want to. If people give you the pity look, you can always ask them what they do. When they say, “Corporate drone,” you can give them the pity look right back and say something like, “Sorry for you, dude. Must suck to have your whole life controlled by that soul-sucking corporation.” When they say, “But I love it,” you can just roll your eyes and say, “Whatever.” Okay, maybe you don’t have to be that mean, but the point is that all job titles sound terrible or made up to someone. You may be super-proud to be the Vice-President of Widget Sales at SuperCorp, but it sounds like a death sentence to me and deserving of pity. Plus, I’m wondering if there really is such a thing, or did you just make that up to make your job as minimum wage widget seller sound better.

Does it matter if you’re getting paid for your writing (or getting paid enough to make a living)? No. Plenty of people call themselves things which are not their primary jobs. I know one guy who calls himself a game designer, even though he has yet to have a game design published. He makes his living as a veterinary technician. While he enjoys his vet tech job, it’s not what moves him the most or what he wants to do for the rest of his life. That’s game design. When asked what he does his answer is usually, “I’m a game designer, but I’m also a vet tech.” He puts his love first, his income maker second. It’s a nice example for us to follow. Claim what you love. Don’t ignore it or reduce it to your tiny voice that no one can hear.

(As an aside, I don’t even know where this idea came from that we can only be one thing and the thing we claim has to be the one that pays us the most money. Plenty of people make money at things that they don’t enjoy or that do not define them. And plenty of people make money at a variety of things that have no relationship to one another. To expect people to be only one, neatly pigeonholed thing is to reduce the wonders of life to nothing. It’s sad, really, and whenever I ask someone what they do, I try to get them to open up about everything that brings them joy, not just their “career.” Most people seem to appreciate that opportunity to talk about the things they really love.)

 

(Photo courtesy of Click)

5 thoughts on “When to Call Yourself a Writer

  1. I recall a writer friend who had a business/name card that said simply–
    her name
    WRITING
    That’s what I do

    I’ve seen some quibbles about when it’s all right to use the term “author” or “award-winning author.” You are correct that if you write you are a writer, and I’ll add that it’s not mystical…

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