What does it mean to be a writer?

If you have never taken the time to make a list of all the roles you use to describe yourself (parent, friend, executive, professional soccer player, etc.) do it right now. It’ll only take a minute or two to rattle off a list of the primary roles you use to describe yourself. Within that list there are likely levels of importance associated with certain roles. Some are common among the general public, some maybe more unique, and even a few uniquely specific to you. One way you can approach this list is to consider if these roles represent who you are, or just what you do. There may be some overlap, but most will be one or the other, probably. I don’t know. That’s not the topic of this post. I’d like to ponder what it means to be a writer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince January of this year I have decided to respond to the question “what do you do for work?” or some variation of it, with “I’m a writer” instead of “I’m looking for a job.” Both are true; I am looking for traditional employment while I employ myself as a writer and work to establish a career of it. Last Friday I read an article at Ned’s Blog (I’ve mentioned Ned and his blog here before, I highly recommend his work) about the “alternative” lifestyle of writing. Ned points out some of the insecurities that writers sometimes have when declaring themselves to be writers. One of these is the weight of the social perception that writing isn’t a legitimate career choice…

Because we’re conditioned from an early age to view money as a prime indicator of success and achievement, we naturally use that same measuring stick as validation when it comes to pursuits that don’t fall into traditional categories. In short: If you aren’t getting paid for it, then you’re not legitimate.

When I have told people I am a writer, rather than tell them I’m looking for work, I feel insecure because I know that I haven’t made any money from writing yet, and likely won’t for some time. But money isn’t everything, and as Ned goes on to explain, the love of writing is all it takes to legitimize writing as a professional endeavor. This isn’t really the point of my writing today, either. I have felt this way and I continue to struggle with pursuing what I enjoy doing and realizing that two university degree’s worth of student loan debt is looming large and menacing before me, while I try to defend myself with a checkbook attached to a nearly empty account. No, that’s not the point of this post at all.

In addition to the social insecurity of declaring myself a writer, I have also considered the ambiguity of the label itself: writer. I am a writer, but so are the 4 and 5 year old’s who will be entering kindergarten in a few months. Isn’t anyone with the ability to draw language symbols a writer? And what about public speaking? As I’ve been exploring the industry of blogging and freelance writing I’ve found that many of the writers out there also bill themselves as public speakers. This is a role I’ve been contemplating adding to my personal list as well. What is public speaking? When I go to the grocery store and the clerk asks how I’m doing and I say, according to social scripts, “Great! How are you?” isn’t that public speaking? So what classifies either writing or speaking as professions?

Ned suggested in his article that the love and dedicated practice of writing qualifies as professional. I agree with that. Years ago when I was playing in a punk influenced rock and roll band I defined professionalism by whether or not you were paid to perform the task in question. When our band was paid to play a show, we became professional musicians. When we sold CD’s we became professional recording artists. Using the same definition I became a professional writer when my first articles were published and began earning revenue shares for the freelance writing website Helium.com.

Here’s the real point of this post. Being a writer is defined personally. Sure, everyone who can grip a pencil and scratch out a few letters is a writer, just like the child in McDonald’s asking for a Happy Meal is a public speaker, but to take on the social role of writer or speaker, all one has to do is declare it and believe it. I am a writer, not because I get paid to write (because I don’t), and not because I have any special credentials or diplomas saying I am. I’m not licensed to write, nor do I have any board approval. I am a writer because I think I have something worth saying and I can say it in a way that other people will enjoy reading it. Whether or not anyone enjoys it, let alone even reads it, doesn’t matter. I read it, I enjoy it (usually) and that’s all that matters.

Being a writer is about being, not about something that is done. Being a writer is more than just the act, it is, as Ned referred to it, a lifestyle, and though there are similar experiences, it is unique to ever individual who adopts the title.

Are you a writer? How do you define writing or whatever occupational role you use for yourself?

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About paulbrodie

I am a writer and a musician. My education is in psychology with emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology. My work experience has been primarily with electronic document management. Academically and intellectually I am interested in criminology and sociology. I am married to my favorite person in the world and we have one daughter.
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10 Responses to What does it mean to be a writer?

  1. Ed Raby Sr says:

    I am a writer. For me being a writer is slowly becoming a part of who I am. It is more than a profession it seems to be an extension of being a communicator. As a pastor, I speak publically as part of my job but writing is what I have a passion about. I made $50 for a letter I wrote for a magazine but scratch anything else. I am a blogger but being a blogger is an extension of being a theologian and philosopher. Hmmm. I seem to gravitate to professions of passion but have I made any real money at them? No. Doesn’t stop me from saying it anyway. I am a writer and I actually am proud of the fact people don’t always take that seriously. It means they will always underestimate me and I have the advantage. Blessings.

    • paulbrodie says:

      Thank you, Ed! I’m glad you have strong confidence in your self. I like how you describe your tendency to choose professions of passion. In my most recent course of study I read a lot about job satisfaction. Money and benefits are often at the top of the list when people think about what leads to satisfaction at work, and those are important factors, but the passion for the work itself is more important, I think.

      It will probably be a long time before I can earn a sustainable income from writing, but that doesn’t deter me. There are professions where the learning phase does deter me, like becoming a doctor or something. But with writing the satisfaction is part of the process, so the only difficult part is in finding something else to do that earns a sustaining income while taking the time to do the writing that I enjoy. Which is what Ned was saying in his post. No matter what, if writing is the lifestyle you choose, make time for it.

      All the best to you in your communication, both written and spoken!

  2. Ned's Blog says:

    Well done, Paul. You expanded on this with some great examples that are so true, making a terrific point that the only affirmation needed to “become” a writer is making the choice to do so. I will, however, pay more attention to those in line with me at McDonalds.

    • paulbrodie says:

      Just because they aren’t pulling 6 figures speaking at conferences for executive retreats doesn’t mean they don’t have something worthwhile to say. One time at Burger King I was waiting for my order to be filled and a woman next to me said “oh, what a day! nothing like sitting in an animal hospital for ten hours.” I looked at her and nodded, said something like, “wow, yeah.” and then returned to staring straight forward, oblivious to my surroundings. Relevant or not, this story is true.

      Thanks again for the inspiration, Ned.

      • Ned's Blog says:

        Your gift for public speaking must be shared, Paul. Perhaps on a bigger stage, such as TGI Friday’s.

        • paulbrodie says:

          Thank you for the vote of confidence.

          I’m negotiating a deal with the Texas Roadhouse currently. I’m tentatively slated for going on right after the line-dancing waitresses. Sometimes the early gigs aren’t always the right fit, but they bring experience. Gotta get my 10,000 hours like Gladwell talks about. And that leads into a “Coming Soon” blog topic. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers talks about how influential the situation and environment are for people to achieve success, reminiscent of President Obama’s comment that the news media had a field day with, “you didn’t build that.” If nothing else, I’ll betray my personal biases and make one useful point, but hide it in 800 words worth of contradictory thoughts. I give you this reply comment as evidence. Anyway, I like to eat at restaurants, too.

        • Ned's Blog says:

          LOL! Hopefully, when you go on your speaking tour, we’ll have a Roadhouse Grill by then.

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