How do you define a writer?

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

As I work with aspiring writers in my Writing Workshops and Timed Writing Sprint Groups, many are hesitant to define themselves as writers. For some, this can be what is known as “imposter syndrome” – they have a hard time believing that they are writers. I am revisiting a blog post “What does it mean to be a writer,” which builds on an early blog post, “How do I become a writer.”  This post addressed issues, such as staring down the inner critic and the blank page. I also shared time-tested or researched strategies for developing skills, including “gluing oneself to a chair” (Ribe Tuchus) and practicing freewriting and writing daily for 5-10-15 minutes or more. These and more activities are ones I incorporate into my Writing Workshops (offered through the Bethlehem CSD Adult Education Program), as well as in my Timed Writing Sprint Groups and Advanced Writing Essentials Workshops. (For more information on these, email me at ellen@writingessentialsbyellen.com.)

But what does it mean to be a writer?

People have been answering this question in many ways over many, many years

Quite a few have answered this question by asking another, “So You Want to Be a Writer?” Some in succinct, brief forms like a poem or essay, others in a whole book. This post will look at some of the different responses.

Let’s begin with the poem “so you want to be a writer?” by the 20th century poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994).  Linked by some commentators to the writings of postmodern writers like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thomas, Bukowski’s work is characterized by direct language, violence, and sexual imagery.

This poem (published posthumously) is filled with more than a dozen “don’ts” – “don’t do it” and “don’t be like [that].” Readers react to the poem and Bukowski in varying ways, but no matter what you feel, the poem perpetuates the image of the writer as a loner, a tortured artist which developed in the 19th century as individualism emerged as the dominant cultural ideal. (The true artist is also crazed, addicted to alcohol or drugs.)

In this model, writing needs to be inspired, to come bursting and roaring out of you, “unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut.” If you have to wait for it, or if it’s hard work, or if you’re writing to make money or to be famous, “don’t do it.” This is a high and, indeed, an intimidating standard to meet.

But is it useful for instruction or motivation for aspiring writers?

Two books and an article, all beginning with the phrase “So You Want to Be a Writer” in the titles, provide very different approaches.

The first book, with the subtitle “How to Write, Get Published, and Maybe Even Make It Big!” (2001/2012), is written by writers and educators Vicki Hambleton and Cathleen Greenwood. And it is geared toward young people. Designed to “help aspiring young writers achieve their dreams” to become professional writers,” the book takes a step-by-step approach from understanding what it means to be a writer in general and in genres specifically. It is filled with resources and exercises and excerpts from well-known writers (Michael Crichton) and from young writers already working now, “to give a real-time perspective to the dream profession.” This would be a very good book for teachers in secondary and even introductory college level courses.

The second book, with the subtitle “How to Get Started (While You Still Have a Day Job)” (2019), is also about “making your writing dreams come true.” However, it has a very different focus. It is written by Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo, creators of the popular podcast with the same title.

Rather than focus on specifics for the craft of writing (which they say can be learned in classes and workshops), Tait and Khoo emphasize the skills needed to succeed in the business of writing. They overlap with the Hambleton/Greenwood book in identifying the kinds of writing and ways to discover interests and ideas; for example, through journaling, such as Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” But the bulk of the book is a blueprint for finding mentors and community, using technology, and getting “started and thriv[ing] in the world of words.”

The third resource is an essay published in the Boston Globe in 2008. Novelist and short story writer Allegra Goodman answers the question “So, You Want to Be a Writer?” with “Here’s How.” She gives advice on the process of becoming a writer, echoing much of what the others have said about making time and a special space for your writing (which is Woolf’s cry in “A Room of One’s Own”). She also emphasizes not writing about yourself, finding peace (disconnecting from technology), and doing a lot of reading.

Goodman does make a good point as she details her counsel for “those of you who have always wanted to write, those with best-selling ideas, and those who really have a story”: When the physicist declares, “I’ve got a great idea for a mystery-thriller-philosophical-love story,” Goodman nods, “resisting the temptation to reply: ‘And I have a great idea for a unified field theory—if I just had a moment to work it out on paper.’” She is pointing out that writing is a craft and an art and takes time and skills to develop.

So, you want to be a writer?

What kind of writer do you want to be?

What kind of writing do you want to do, have you always wanted to do?

The resources discussed here have information to help you answer these and other questions.

As the participants in my Writing Workshops show, writing can be different things to different people—from the recording of family memories or writing articles, to composing a memoir or nonfiction book or novel for publication and perhaps for fame and fortune.

And though it takes work to write (as any task does), and it takes time and effort to develop skills and to polish writing, you do not have to write full-time or be aspiring to write the greatest American novel or the latest best-selling work­—fiction or non-fiction.

It takes giving yourself permission to think of yourself as a writer, as well as activities and tools to help you discover your interests or inspiration, such as journaling and writing exercises. One way to do this is through classes like my Writing Workshop. You want to look for a supportive environment that offers information and practice on basic skills, as well as opportunities to nurture your imagination and explore your memories and perspectives of life and the world.

(Sources: Bukowski poem; Hambleton/Greenwood book; Tait/Khoo book; Goodman article, available from Boston Globe (fee) and from Process essay chapter; Writing Workshop with Ellen Higgins, BCSD Continuing Ed.)

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