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.
Since 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?