I was at a writer’s conference not long ago, and one of the speakers said something disturbing. Like most such conferences, there were writers of varying genres present as well as several editors and agents and such. The disturbing speaker was the editor of a Poetry magazine and, while she was encouraging local poets to submit their work during panel time, she quipped, “You should submit your work. Because you are not a real writer until you’ve sent your work out there to be read.”
Now I know the editor meant well, and I appreciate that she was encouraging writers to submit their work for possible publication. I think that’s great, but…
WHOA! HOLD ON A SEC!
You’re not a writer until you are submitting for publication?! Not until other people read my writing, am I a writer?!
Several others in the room were nodding their heads, and a flurry of “wannabes” were thinking, “Man, I gotta get my stuff out there, since I’m not a writer yet! What am I even doing at a writer’s conference?”
Meanwhile I shook my head and cringed quite a bit as the panel moved on. There was a New York Times bestselling writer there as well. One who had traveled a fairly long and rocky road to publication. And she was cringing visibly too.
She didn’t speak up, but I wish she would have, because she was on the panel too. And because that editor’s notion of what constitutes a writer was complete rubbish. She knew it, and so did I.
A writer is someone who writes.
If you have written, then you are a writer!
You are not defined by your publication status.
Nor are you defined by your readership.
Emily Dickinson was published largely post-humously. Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was published after his death, before he had a single one of the millions of readers he has today (outside of his journalism of course).
This sort of notion that submission and publication deems one a writer is disturbing and harmful to writers everywhere, and I think it is a common mentality among folks in the “biz” as well as the so-called “wannabe” writers. To say nothing of the assumption that “house” publication is the only path to readership, and therefore to being considered a “true” writer.
I may not have a readership for years. And there is nothing wrong with that. I have spent countless hours writing, and that makes me a writer. And it makes you one too.
You are a writer during the first draft, and the first novel you decided you hated and trashed, and the one you submitted but which was rejected by a hundred agents and editors, and the one you self-published to small fan-fare, as well as the piece of writing which got you readership and broke out, or whatever.
Publication is not the point, and neither are the readers.
They are handy when they come. Sure. But failure and rejection and crappy first novels (or seconds or thirds) are all a part of the process of growing as a writer. Not the path from wannabe to actual writer. Stephen King threw out the original draft of Carrie because he thought it garbage. Had his wife not discovered it in the trash and read it and told him he had something going there and to keep writing it, we might not be reading it in droves still forty years later. Along with all his other stories for that matter. Who knows? But he was a writer then as much as now.
You don’t become a writer once people appreciate it. People have simply discovered you are a writer once they are able to read what you wrote. And incidentally, it doesn’t take a magazine or house to get there. It can, but it is not a requirement.
If you’ve written, you are a writer. So enough with all that crap. Keep writing, because you are a writer and you have to write. Not so you can become a writer. But because you are a writer, and that is what you do.
No matter who has discovered your writing yet.