Writing has kept me very busy this week. I’ve written an article that was published online, and another that will be published next week in a print magazine. I’ve been plugging away – slowly – at my book-in-progress. I’ve been blogging regularly (mostly) for more than two years. At some point, I think I can actually call myself . . . a writer.
Imagine this: You meet someone at a party, and that person asks you, “What do you do for a living?” If you say, “I’m a writer,” then the logical next question is, “What have you written?” If you’ve actually written a book (which many “writers” haven’t), they’ll ask, “Who was your publisher?” They’re sizing up your pedigree. Unless you’ve written for the New Yorker, and your book was published by one of the Big Four houses, the person drilling you with all these questions is likely to roll their eyes and, well, write you off.
When can you say you’re a writer? When you earn your master’s in creative writing? When you’ve actually published something? When you quit your day job in order to write full-time? When you win an award? When you’ve written one million words? (If you Google, “When can you call yourself a writer,” each one of these guidelines pops up.)
I don’t have a master’s in creative writing. I didn’t even take English Composition in college, having scored high enough on the English AP exam to place out of it. (No formal training in writing, huh?)
I’ve written a book – and published it under my own imprint. (She self-published it!!! That certainly doesn’t count.)
I blog. (Hmmph. That has about as much credibility as self-publishing.)
I’ve written a few magazine and newspaper articles, mostly for small publications. (Like, how small?)
I’ve done quite a bit of academic writing, such as journal articles, academic book reviews, and ancillary materials for textbooks. (Oh, how exciting.)
I have a children’s book coming out this spring – with a REAL publisher. (That gets people’s attention, especially the “real publisher” part. Although really, a CHILDREN’S BOOK? How hard is that?)
I’ve won some awards for my writing, mostly for my, ahem, self-published book.
I’ve written more than one million words – if you combine my blog, book, articles, dissertation, and ongoing morning pages.
I haven’t quit my day job.
So, how does my pedigree stack up? Some might say I’m a bona fide writer. Others would say I’m a wannabe, like those poor souls on the American Idol auditions who think they’re good, but no one’s had the heart to tell them that they suck.
Frankly, the “pedigree” isn’t a great measure of a person’s writerly-ness – instead, it’s an index of economic and career success, measured by the standards of other people. I think, in order to be “a writer,” there are only two things you have to do:
1. You have to call yourself a writer.
2. You have to sit your butt down and get words on the page. A LOT.
The first one – calling yourself a writer – is harder than it sounds. It’s almost like coming out, because once you “out” yourself as a writer, you’re potentially a target for other people’s judgments. And staying confident in your “writer” identity in the face of criticism can be very challenging. It takes practice, but like coming out, it gets easier the more you do it.
The second one – getting down to business and writing, writing, writing – is also harder than it sounds. I don’t write every day, but I write several times a week. A lot of it, for those of you who are familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, are of the “morning pages” variety (although in my case, I don’t necessarily write them first thing in the morning). Once a week I spend a couple of hours pounding out my next blog post. And a couple of times a week, I work on my book-in-progress.
With both guidelines, the bottom line is this: If you love writing, then do it – and call yourself a writer. Writing this frequently takes commitment with a capital C. And getting good at writing – really good -takes practice. If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, you’re undoubtedly familiar with what he calls the “10,000 hour rule” – the idea that the key to success in any area is practicing that task for at least 10,000 hours. While not a scientifically validated concept, the 10,000 hour rule is a good way to look at the relationships between hard work, commitment, and success. If I’m going to put that many hours into something, I have to love it.
It’s not just about enjoyment, though. I write because I find profound healing power in it. I can think about things, and I can talk about things, but there’s something about putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper that connects the dots for me in a different way. And it’s not just me – unlike the 10,000 hour rule, there’s considerable research backing the psychological benefits of expressive writing. Start by reading James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, and you’ll just be scratching the surface of the vast literature on this topic.
So why am I spending so much time talking about writing, when this is a blog about LGBTQ issues? Here’s why:
I have a friend who is a very creative and talented children’s writer. She’s written several wildly creative stories, but so far no one’s been interested in publishing them. Last time I talked to her, she’d stopped writing new stories altogether, and she’s nearly ready to throw in the towel.
I have another friend who is transgender, and who has lived a very difficult life. She has toyed with the idea of writing a memoir, but hasn’t really moved forward with it. “Who would want to read it, anyway?” she asks.
I’ve had scores of students (and faculty, actually) approach me – especially since I published my own book – wanting to talk about their book idea. Their ideas are wildly creative – a gender-bending science fiction story, a queer comic strip, a screenplay about a polyamorous family, a YA novel about a closeted gay kid in a gang. They light up when they describe their ideas. But so often, they’ve already talked themselves out of it.
“I’m not a good writer.”
“It’s too big of a task.”
“No one will be interested.”
“You don’t think it’s dumb, do you?”
It breaks my heart to hear this internalized writer-abuse going on. Because that’s exactly what it is.
So, to all of you, remember my Guidelines #1 and #2. If you love writing, then call yourself a writer, and sit your ass down and write. A lot. And quit worrying about what other people think.