What Makes A Writer?

So what makes a writer really? Better yet, what does a successful writer look like? Every second person you talk to has always wanted to write a book or their life story or is in the process of doing just that. Does that make them a writer?

Are you a writer because you have a degree in English? Or because you have a diploma in creative writing or professional writing? Maybe you’re a writer because you work in communications?

I’ve said I was a writer since before I ten years old. Before that I was just a reader until I picked up a pencil to see just what would happen if I put my thoughts down on paper like the guy who wrote Curious George (my hero when I was 7). Notice how it took me two years to do that even then?

What I learned in that moment when my pencil hit the paper and I got past the first word was that there are words and stories in me. Lots of them. And when I write, either with pen or computer, once I get past the first couple words, the words and the stories come out of my fingers, not my brain, as long as I’m doing it right.

What do I mean by doing it right? No, I don’t mean go learn how to write, though if you want to write I do strongly recommend learning how to do it right because there is a vast difference between writing and writing well. But that’s not what I’m referring to here. What I really mean is just two things.

First, I have to get past the self criticism of what I want to write about, how I’m going to write it, and the first line or two and the compulsion to look back every few sentences to self edit. It is impossible to successfully wear both hats, the writing and editing hats, at the same time. It takes time to comfortably settle into one or the other, and so you truly cannot switch back and forth in moments, continuously. Not if you want to succeed in one or both. If you really want to write, you must content yourself with imperfection temporarily. It’s a permission and a freedom. Just let the words come out, whether you know what they’ll be or not, whether they’re spelled right or not, whether they’re in the right place or not.

Second, I have to be writing about the right thing. I can have fifteen million ideas, take five weeks to finally decide on one, and then take another week to work up the nerve to sit down and actually write about it, and as soon as I start to write, something else comes out. But it’s when that something else comes out that the writing comes out right. If I force myself to stick to that one thing I thought I was going to write or that thing I have to write rather than want to write, it ends up being more like pulling teeth. Each word is forced out and changed again and again and it takes hours to write just a couple paragraphs.

But, if I allow myself the freedom to just write that which my fingers or brain, or whatever is in charge when the writing is right, if I just let it go? That’s a feeling and process that’s nearly impossible to describe. It’s as though I’ve let myself go and let something else in, something that takes over the fingers and the brain both so that I hear nothing else, think nothing else, see nothing else. I’m fully immersed in what’s appearing on the paper and yet not involved at all. I’m completely aware that makes absolutely no sense at all, but it’s the way it is. Maybe another storyteller will understand. How can you be both immersed and attached simultaneously? I don’t really know, but I do know that when that happens, it’s right.

So does that make me a writer? No. Not even a little bit. Even though I write a lot. Granted there have been many years when I’ve written nothing, when life has taken over so completely that writing gets pushed so far down the list of personal needs and wants that it’s hanging on to the end of the page with just a pinkie finger, screaming to be remembered and saved. And truly, when I don’t write, the nightmares take over. Every night, nightmare after nightmare after nightmare until that’s all there is all night.

Anyway, writing does not make me a writer. Sharing is what makes a writer. You can write all you want, but it takes the courage to share your words with the world that makes you a writer. Though if you’re like me, you’re quite sure that no one has any interest in anything you have to say. See? There’s that defeating self criticism again. A writer has to share their words regardless of the fear or the certainty that no one wants to or will read them. Your words must be sent out into the world for all to see, regardless of whether they’re criticized or ignored.

Generally, you’ll write and share, I’ll write and share, millions of words before any receive any attention at all. And maybe that will be negative attention. Maybe it will be positive. Either way, people will be reading your words. There are lots of definitions of success, especially with writing. But it usually comes down to persistence and stubbornness. It’s desperately unfortunate that writing takes so much more rejection and persistence, ignoring and stubborn pursuit than most other creative outlets.

But keep writing and sharing. Six thousand posts or four hundred articles or 62 self-published novels. Whatever. Use the criticism as feedback, use the mistakes as opportunities, change course as you learn and grow. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had committed suicide when she wanted to or gave up writing after all her rejections. The world would have missed out on an entire culture and phenomenon. Not that we can all be J.K. Rowling. But we can live the successful writing life we want to live as long as we keep sharing what we write and write about that which we should be writing about, not that which we force out onto the page word by word.