Am I a writer?

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This is a story for and a message to my Girl Group, which is winding down after four years. All six of us need a break from our weekly and, for most of the past year, every-other-weekly meetings. I need more time for finishing my novel, writing this blog, giving proper attention to my private clients, and dealing with my elderly parents.

The GGs need something quite different: independence from the group, to find out if they will keep writing on their own. Each of them has to answer the question, Am I a writer? 

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I’m sitting in the aisle seat of a 737 flying east from Salt Lake City to New York. Two very nice Oregon ladies occupy the middle and window seats. The three of us start to chat: they’d love to stay in New York for a few days, but they’re on their way to Egypt and the Holy Land.

Uh-oh, religion. Don’t go there. What to talk about? Books. Mrs. Window Seat turns out to be a retired librarian, Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband is writing his memoirs. What, they ask me, do you do?

I’m a writer.

Their eyes widen, they smile, they’re…avid. What do you write? they ask.

Now I’m in the same soup I always land in when that question comes up. I write fiction, but aside from a few short stories, it’s unpublished. I write a blog, but not everyone takes blogs all that seriously even when the content is serious. So what do I tell these very conventional, very sweet airplane ladies who are excited about meeting a Real Writer?

I tell them the truth: I’ve written more than thirty books—cookbooks, craft books, list books, books about food—and dozens of short articles for my brother’s imprint (though I don’t name Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader; I don’t know how shockable these women are). But now, I continue to explain, I write only fiction and my blog.

The airplane ladies are on the receiving end of a technique I use: establishing my nonfiction credentials so that my choice to abandon the world of pop books makes a credible story that leads into the present. That is, I left the world of nonfiction books in order to write novels and more short stories, to teach writers, to invent a thoughtful and wide-ranging blog for writers and readers. Voila! I’ve presented the facts with the spin I insist on.

I am a writer, whether my current work is being published or not. I am a writer, because I write. A lot. Most days. Sometimes it’s my novel or a short story; often it’s a blog post. Or a talk I’m giving, notes for new work, the occasional poem—it’s all writing.

So the question is, are you a writer? It’s an important question to answer for yourself because if you define yourself as a writer, you must write. You can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write, unless you’re Alice Munro or Philip Roth and you’ve already written a huge body of brilliant work and you’re taking a well-deserved breather.

Excluding periods of so-called “writer’s block,” periods of incapacitation, and periods of rest (to let the well fill up again), writers write. If you write steadily—even if you’re Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband attempting his memoir—you are a writer.

But you’re not a writer if you…

  • can’t find or make time to write
  • let too many other people’s needs override your own needs, too often
  • find ten thousand reasons not to write
  • can’t be alone, or alone in your own head even with people around you (as in a writers’ room or a café)
  • let your partner/mother/father/friend bully you into believing you aren’t allowed to be the writer you want to be, which is another way of saying “if you let someone else define you”
  • aren’t having any fun with (or at least satisfaction from) your writing
  • have nothing to say
  • would mostly prefer to be doing something else

You could spend a lot of time explaining to yourself why you’re not writing…when you could be writing. Or you could stop hitting your head against the wall, stop writing, and go do something you like better.

But here’s what I’ve been soft-shoeing around: you know whether or not you want to be a writer. If you do, then write. If you don’t, then don’t write.

I once had a private client who finally completed the mystery novel she’d been trying to conquer for years. It wasn’t very good, and I had to tell her so; that was my job. I do these critiques as kindly as I can, because every writer is vulnerable. But the facts were the facts: this novel wasn’t going to fly. The writer responded:

You are absolutely right. I wish I’d met you years ago. It’s not pleasant to realize that I wasted so much energy on a poorly conceived project. But I’m giving up the literary life and buying a racing boat.

I sincerely hope she did, and had a wonderful time with it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, NY

Destinations Booksellers, New Albany, IN

Copperfield’s Books, Sebastopol, CA

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