What is a writer?

by Pari

Is the mere act of “calling” oneself a writer enough? Does someone who journals occasionally merit the appellation? Is publication a requirement?  Is a person who composes haiku as worthy of the name as a novelist who can’t manage to tell a story in less than 900 printed pages?

I’ve wondered about this for a long time. It bothers me most during dry periods when the computer screen and a blank piece of paper seem as terrifying as abject poverty.

During the assured and comfortable years when I was writing, editing and concepting my Sasha Solomon mysteries, the issue didn’t unsettle me. I was writing. I was getting publishing. I was valid.

Even when I had days or weeks with no more productivity than penning a grocery list, I still called myself a writer because I was living the life, living the dream . . . and I had street cred because of my three novels and two award nominations.

Then came the decision to discontinue my NM mystery series (at least for now), the life-changing Master Class, the need to start making a predictable income by going back to my PR consulting roots . . .

And, suddenly, I didn’t feel like a writer anymore. I hadn’t published much fiction in a few years. Writing had lost its joy for me. I felt like I had to force every word. Was I a sham? Could I legitimately call myself a writer when I wasn’t telling stories from my heart anymore?

My self identity plummeted. I felt like an imposter whenever I thought about writing and what I was doing with my life. Let me tell you, the world turned gray there for awhile.

In July, I decided to try something different. I promised myself to write fiction every single day. No exceptions. The quality didn’t matter – crap or brilliance – it was all the same. The amount didn’t matter – a sentence or 20 pages – the act was the important thing. In order to feel like a writer, I had to nourish my creativity daily. Period. I had to commit. I had to be consistent.

The first few weeks of the month were difficult. Who knew I could come up with so many excuses to avoid my computer?  “Well, then you’ll just have to use pen and paper,” I’d tell myself.

“I only wrote 100 words and they’re all shit,” I complained.
“Cool. Think of them as literary compost for whatever you’ll write next,” I responded.

Slowly I started feeling better, more honest.

This month, I decided to push myself further. I’m noting my daily fiction word count on my FB “fan” page. Without trying, I find myself writing more, getting lost in the story with greater ease and pleasure. I’m having fun.

I feel like a writer again . . .

So what do you think?
What is a writer? Is just calling yourself one enough?
Does consistency matter, writing daily/weekly/monthy?
Is publication a requirement? Once published are you forever a writer — whether you’re writing anymore or not?
Does length matter?

69 thoughts on “What is a writer?

  1. Gerald So

    To me, a writer is someone fulfilled by the act of writing. Personally, I don't feel fulfilled if I haven't finished and submitted anything for some time (the exact time varies). Publication isn't required, but most writing is done with an audience in mind, so why not try to publish?

    Non-writers might consider someone who wrote one great piece to be a writer; I think writers expect more of themselves, hence the idea that one is not a writer unless one is writing.

    Length doesn't matter (says the poet).

  2. JD Rhoades

    If you keep doing it in the face of rejection, if you get itchy for it after a few days or even a few hours away, if you find yourself overhearing a snippet of conversation or seeing something on the news immediately looking around for a pen and paper to write it down so you can use it later, if you look at a picture of a space and go "what a great place to have my protagonists meet/blow up/hide a body"–you might be a writer.

  3. pari noskin taichert

    I'm very glad you chimed in.

    You know, there are marvelous writers like Harper Lee (screw the New Yorker on that issue!) who only *needed* to write one great work.

    Like you, I think it's the consistency of output that affects my self image.

    Your comment about the sense of fulfillment with the act of writing is interesting. I'm going to have to think about whether that's enough IMHO.

    I don't know . . . that's why I brought the subject up for discussion.

  4. pari noskin taichert

    You might be on to something here, the constant return to the writer's relationship with the world around him/her and how that translates into creation. Very cool description. But then I know YOU'RE a writer. <g>

    I'm amused, but do you really think so? I'm not sure. I meet so many people who get caught up in that part of the puzzle — romanticize it — that I'm not sure I buy the emotional turmoil angle anymore.

    I wrote about it because I think now that the cure to the self doubt comes with consistent action — again, with no excuses. Otherwise you remain in a self-pity fest.

  5. Sandra Parshall

    Pari, rejection is what makes me feel like a sham. If one editor after another says my work isn't worth publishing, I have to wonder whether I'm wasting my time. I know some writers claim the joy of the process is all that matters to them, but for most of us, writing is communication, and communication doesn't take place in a vacuum. We want someone to read what we've written and appreciate it. I believe anyone who feels driven to write, to communicate in that way, is a writer.

  6. Robert Gregory Browne

    You're a writer if you can't help yourself, and money doesn't matter. If you feel the need to express yourself on the page (or screen) whether or not anyone else cares.

    I've been a writer a LOT longer than I've been a published writer.

  7. Sandra Parshall

    I've also been a writer a lot longer than I've been published, but publication — being read — was always my goal. If making money was ever my goal, well, I've failed spectacularly!

  8. Robert Gregory Browne

    Sandra, we're not wasting time no matter what anyone else says.

    If we keep at it, hone our craft, sooner or later we'll get the responses from editors that you want.

    We all have to remember that the most famous, awe-inspiring writers in the world—our heroes—were all rejected multiple times before they finally broke through.

    Every writer has paid his or her dues in one way or another.

  9. pari noskin taichert

    I'm not sure that publication is a good guideline, but I asked because I suspect some people live or judge by that particular ruler.

    From what I've read of your two comments, it sounds like the urge to publication — because it's a means to communication — is the important thing? Do I have that right?

    Re: rejection
    Yeah, it's a bi*ch, isn't it? It can do such a number on our self perception. That's why I decided NOT to use that as one of my baselines. Rejection is out of my control. Writing isn't.

  10. pari noskin taichert

    You're right on the rejection front.

    Am I understanding that the urge to write is the defining aspect for you? That the need is the true validation?

    If so, must a writer write?

  11. Sandra Parshall

    After having published three books, I don't think I could go on writing if it became clear that I would never get anything else published. Every aspiring writer I know is driven by the desire to publish, not to make money but to share what he or she writes with other people. Over and over, I hear them use the word "validation" when talking about publication. For me, the two go hand in hand: the need to write, and the need to share what I write. Those needs make me a writer. Money doesn't have much to do with it.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is an interesting discussion – great to see Sandy and Gerald and Stephen here as well as more regulars!

    I have been thinking about this since I first read it this morning and I think for me the focus is not about who or what >I< am, but about the WORK – as in – "Am I making this work REAL?"

    That is, my entire drive is to realize a book, or a script – but realizing a script became not enough because it was very seldom ever FINISHED (as a movie). But a book, I can finish to a standard that I can be satisfied I helped those characters and that world to exist, in a real form (and so far, real enough for publication and for other people to experience them as real.)

    It's always that end PRODUCT, the realization of the story, that drives me – not my identity one way or another.

  13. Dana King

    Writers write. People who don't write anymore are ex-writers, or former writers. There's no shame in that. All I ever really wanted to do was to be a trumpet player; now I'm an ex-trumpet player and life is good.

    How much must a writer write? More like "how frequently?" to which the answer is "consistently." I've come to like the idea of taking the summer off, except for small projects that stroke my fancy. Writers work on the craft of writing, with an eye toward improvement. Writers who are published are authors.

    Those aren't rules for anyone, just how I have come to think of these things over twelve years of working to improve my writing. They work pretty well for me.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    Are you considering e-publishing, self-publishing? I know more and more veteran writers who have decided to take that path — at least with some of their works — to create a mix.

    I've just converted one of my books and will do the other two. But those aren't new. So I'm going to experiment with some short stories . . . just to see. I'll continue to work toward traditional publication as well with other projects.

    To me, a mix might be the answer to your communication requirement.

  15. Gerald So

    Pari, I take your point about great single works with the purest motivation. Then again, I wrote two poems that seemed to say all I needed in four years of college. Some time later, my perspective changed. I realized poetry didn't have to be about me; it could be an exercise in empathy or imagination. I haven't stopped writing since.

  16. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks for this perspective.
    For me, it would be incredibly demoralizing to write without finishing projects and having that satisfaction. So, I guess, I need the consistency AND the end product.

    I'm not sure I'd use the same rulers for someone else though. That's why I brought up the questions today. I figured people might just have an opinion . . .

  17. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks so much for taking the time to address a few of the questions here. I also appreciate that you took a stand that others might not agree with. That's what conversation is all about.

    The fact that you have these internal definitions probably grounds you in a way that is tremendously helpful. I bet it reduces angst, too.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    Interesting, Gerald. So . . . my question would be, Is someone like Harper Lee still a writer? Or is she a former writer? No reflection on quality, just a definition issue. I don't know. I think of her as a writer. Always will.

    But I don't hold myself in the same light. One, two, three books aren't enough. I have to write to call myself a writer.

    AND, DANA — I grew up with the same definition re: writer vs. author. But most people I know don't make those distinctions anymore. At least not in my circles.

  19. PK the Bookeemonster

    This is an interesting discussion. I used to want to be a writer but I realized that I wanted to "have written" rather than the process of it. I realized I enjoyed reading more.
    But the other thought provoking side to this discussion is why do writers have this self identity thing tied up into their job? Or is it not a job but a self labling issue? When I have a job as a manager, for example, I say that I'm a manager but it isn't really tied into the self identity thing — it's a job that I'm paid to do and that's the title of the occupation.
    But writers say they're writers even when they're not being paid. I say I'm a reader but I"m not paid to do it, it's just something I do. So I think there are different connotations when people say "I'm a writer." Sometimes it means it's a title for a paid job and other times it's something they do in their leisure time like reading or knitting. And I don't say that to denigrate anyone, I think it's just that people have different contexts for the same word or action.

  20. Gerald So

    Pari, I consider Lee a great writer, too. I only use the writer/not-a-writer distinction to motivate myself. For example, I've thought about writing a lot, but until I actually write it, I haven't written a lot.

  21. Tammy Cravit

    Pari, your question has been very thought-provoking for me, because my fiction writing has been in fits and starts this last year or so (and I don't have a published novel or two to hang my hat on), and since I began down my present professional path and became a certificated paralegal, my professional writing has been mostly in the context of legal briefs with the odd freelance magazine article here and there.

    A former writing group of mine seemed dominated by people who would complain about, and yet seem to revel in, weeks and months of producing nothing. "I have writer's block" they'd say, almost gaily, as though the fact that they couldn't write was, somehow, a badge of honor that proved they were "real writers".

    For me, on the other hand, it doesn't matter if I'm writing a short story that nobody will probably read to play with a new character, hacking out a few paragraphs on my (STILL unfinished) novel in between work assignments, or pouring my heart and soul and all my legal knowledge into writing an appeal for a child who's suffered far too much in his short life. I am a writer because I write, because I use my skill with words to tell the truths of my world and my life. And when I do, I always hear in my mind the words of Russ, my old newspaper editor and friend(who I've mentioned here before), standing over my shoulder with a cigar hanging out of his mouth and growling, "writer's block is a luxury you can't afford!"

    On the other hand, I also think that we tend to get too hung up in looking for a label to validate us. "I'm a PUBLISHED" writer, we say, "Oh, no, your 70,000 word manuscript doesn't count because it's published by iUniverse!" we say. "Only TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED writers matter," we say. And because the creative spirit is always elusive, we cling to these definitions when they bolster our sense of self-worth, and rail against the unfairness of the system when they don't. And instead, we should just be writing. We are all good enough, and we place ourselves in a precarious position indeed when we tie so much of our self-worth to the approval of others.

    And, you know what? That forty-page appellate brief I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? The Court of Appeal opinion which concurred with my argument and granted our young client a chance at a healthy, safe life was more meaningful, by far, than all the times I've seen my name on a byline.

  22. Dudley Forster

    Pari thank you for bring up this topic because it drives me crazy. I am going to try and take a more analytical approach to the subject at least as far as I can, if for no other reason than to avoid the inevitable “I know it when I see it.” First, I think we can all agree that if you qualify ‘writer’ in some respect it is easy to say one is or is not a writer. If I say I write novels and have never completed one it is pretty hard to say you are a novelist, same goes for short stories and poetry.

    Okay, that is pretty simplistic but it does eliminate one issue, but it does nothing to define what a writer is. Which, brings me to the term “aspiring writer” I hate this term. If you look at the dictionary definitions of aspiring and writer, aspire means to “to long, aim, or seek ambitiously; be eagerly desirous”. And writer means a number of things but the most relevant are 1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., esp. as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist. 2. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing.” So a person who is deemed a writer is one who is acting. He is engaged in or commits to paper. So what is an aspiring writer: one who desires to do these things but has not yet done them. So if I have actually written then I cannot just to aspire to write.

    Thus in dictionary terms it is just silly to call someone who has written something an aspiring writer, unless one qualifies it like “aspiring novelist”. I think is when this term is used it is code for unpublished. This means what you are aspiring to is being published and a writer means one who is published. But this too is rather silly, isn’t it. If writer means one who is published, the term published writer is redundant and unpublished writer is an oxymoron.

    This also brings up the sticky point of what it means to be published. If you use a vanity press are you published? What about a small press that is POD and ebook only? How about self publishing via something like Smashwords or even that great blog you read every week?

    The next question is “do you have to be currently writing, even if you have published in the past?” I’m not sure, but I do know that if you said Herman Wouk is not a writer, you may be tarred and feathered. So can we only say Herman Wouk “was” a writer? Seems to me to be a bit odd and somehow disrespectful.

    So far I have argued you do not have to published to be a writer and a person who has not written lately and is published ( publication is more for historical objective validation than an actual requirement to be deemed a writer ) should still be referred to as a writer. Unless you want to parse some measure of historical achievement in the mix, which I am not about to do.

    What about length? Well do you want tell someone who writes beautiful haikus he is not a writer? What about poetry? I dare you to walk up to Maya Angelou and say “You write beautiful poetry but you really aren’t a writer in the true sense.” I dare you tell me that Edward Hoch was not a writer. He was a brilliant short story writer and if you don’t like Nick Velvet I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I don’t see length having anything to do with defining a writer,

    I think I have made so good arguments to eliminate the requirement of publication, the need to be currently writing, at least if you are published, and length. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that everyone here would concur that you are not a writer by mere self acclamation. That leaves one of Pari’s questions unanswered. “Does consistency matter, writing daily/weekly/monthly?” I’ll add to that, does consistency include some minimum word count?

    I really only ask this last part because I want an excuse to include a favorite story. I don’t know if it’s true but it is still a great story

    A friend reportedly once asked James Joyce how his work was going. “I got seven words today,” Joyce replied.

    “But James, that’s good … at least for you,” said the friend.

    “Perhaps … but I don’t know what order they go in!” he cried in despair.

    As for Pari’s question I really don’t know if someone who fails to meet any of the other criteria, whose WIP is 350 words and writes twice a month most of the time is a writer? I am at a lost how to give hard numbers to this issue so as to make it objective.

    So now we come to it. The dreaded, “I know it when it see it.” A number of the previous posters are trying to quantify what I think is really unquantifiable. Some of it boils down to “what it means to me” There has also been some discussion of emotional investment. That applies if you are writing fiction, but nonfiction? In the end I will just make this statement: I am not published YET, My WIP is now a little over 20,000 words and I write at least 5 days a week. I think I am a writer. Agree? Disagree?

    Sorry this is so long, but I stand behind the defense that I have degrees in Philosophy and Law and in neither of those fields do they teach terseness (at least when I went to school) This may also explain why I have written a number of short stories and I think they all suck.

    I just read Tammy’s post and I think we’re on the same page. I would have to confess that I have written hundred of pleadings and a number of appellate briefs (back to the terseness thing, only a lawyer would call a 75 page document a brief) . The Washington Court even agreed with most of them as did the 9th circuit BAP. But the only emotional investments, if they can even be called that, I had were win because I like to win, get paid, don’t get sued for malpractice. The rest is just a game and most lawyers I have met play it that way.

  23. Sandra Parshall

    Pari, re: e-publishing and self-publishing: I have a traditional publisher and an editor who wants my work, so I'm sticking with that route to publication. My publisher is taking care of getting my books out in e-book form, and I hope that will continue to bring me new readers — that extra way of reaching readers will turn out to be a boon to small press writers, I think. But I know lots of traditionally published writers who are putting their unsold manuscripts out in e-book form and having some success with them. I think it's critical that the work published that way live up to the author's traditionally published work. No writer should publish inferior work, in any form, just because s/he can. That's a whole 'nother topic, though!

  24. Dudley Forster

    Dammit Alafair I'm reporting you to the bar, such terseness is not allowed. Besides you make other lawyers who posted here look wordy. 🙂

  25. Tammy Cravit

    Dudley, thanks for your post (and your agreement with me *grin*) I agree with you that many attorneys treat the legal process as something of a game, and definitely enjoy winning. The case I mentioned was a bit different however, as my client (I'm a freelance paralegal) was an attorney who is court-appointed to represent children in the foster care system, and her client was fighting not to be returned to parents who horribly abused him. I'm a reader and writer of mystery and crime fiction, so I'm far from squeamish, but the E.R. photos in that case still haunt my dreams. In that instance, a lot more than just "winning the game" was at stake.

    And, I agree with most of the rest of what you said.

  26. Debbie

    Am I a mother if my children grow up and I no longer parent them? What if a child passes away
    ? I too find writer vs author troubling and I think publication is the reason. After all, if I spend a year writing and am unpublished, people might say, 'She thinks she's a writer.' Ouch, and I'm left feeling guilty about time not spent in some other aspect of life.
    To be honest, I wrote because the damn characters wouldn't leave me alone and I thought, just maybe, if I told their story they'd shut up )they didn't). It's always worked for chores and lists-it doesn't work for writing-their still in there, adding new stories and I wonder…will they go away if I publish? Does it count if after numerous rejections from print pubs I e-publish? Quality is the only factor that doesn't define writer-good /bad I'm still a writer but…author?

  27. toni mcgee causey

    Writers write.

    It's the act and the commitment that defines the label, not the dream of having done it, nor the accolades, nor the ultimate end result–whether it ends up in a drawer or on a book shelf somewhere. After all, when I started out, I was a writer, even though I was learning and practicing and becoming. I happened to have become a published author, but that didn't make me any more of a writer than the day before I was a published author.

  28. Allison Davis

    I love "literary compost" — that will go on the wall.

    I have written compulsively my entire life, since I learned to write. Sometimes I get published, poetry chapbooks, produced some plays, have bylines on articles…AND tons of self doubt, but I write because I love it, because (great description) I see or overheard something that I note for later that is a precious nugget to use somewhere, and because I don't see myself any other way. But you have to be careful in how you judge yourself — are you a writer because others are projecting what a writer is (best seller/self published? Novels or poetry?) The validation thing is something we all need as people — but that doesn't necesarily make us "writers" or not writers, (although I get tired of "when's your book going to be published?").

    But on the other hand, like achieving anything great, you have to exercise the muscle…so there is the diligence and training if you want to compete (and the luck). No pain, no gain, hence the self torture and doubt. It's a lot of work to write a novel, so there is questioning always.

    Terse or verbose, a topic we all think about.

  29. Judy Wirzberger

    First, I think it's how you see yourself that counts the most. You can add adjectives later. I am a writer. I am a good writer. I am a published writer. I am a shitty writer. I am an insecure writer. I am a famous writer. I am a part-time writer. I am a closet writer. I am a fiction writer. I am a technical writer.

    How other see you helps. Murderati readers see you as a writer.

    What you really are needs to be thrown into the mix. – You may see yourself as a writer, but you never write.

    I believe it is when these three views meet that true persona forms. then you see yourself as a writer, others see you as a writer, and you actually write (shit or not shit).

    The bottom line is Stephen King: A writer writes. Whether she writes good or bad is up to the reader, herself or someone else. Cornelia writes shit (she thinks) I read, WOW.

    At Book Passage Mystery Writer Conference, Robert Crais said, if you're not having fun during some portion of the process, why are you doing it? Life is short; money is scarce.
    You love writing like you love a bad man. You just can't help it.

  30. pari noskin taichert

    Wow. I just got back from the gym — my arms ache! — and am so happy this question has started such an interesting discussion.

    Of course you're right that there are a multitude of possible contexts for this self-labeling. Perhaps it's because writing means so much to those of us who call ourselves writers, that, well, it's more loaded? Or we think about it more? I doubt your identity is tied up with being a manager. But mine, as a creative person, is very much tied to the fact that I nurture that creativity and affirm it daily.


  31. Eika

    Just calling yourself isn't enough to be a writer, because lots of people say they're writers and don't write anything. Not journals, not poetry, not stories. They could just write really well, if they wanted to. Consistency is somewhat an issue, but not a huge one. If I write every day for too long, then I get burned out, want nothing but not to write for a little bit. (I think it's like recharging my batteries. I have to go walk around, read some good things, look at art, etc.)

    Publication isn't required. Publication is required to be an author (or at least, that's the distinction I make) but writers, as long as they write fairly regularly and/or often (you don't need a schedule, but you should be committing word to page at least weekly, pretty much year-round) then they're writers. Publication just makes you recognized as one to outsiders.

    And I don't think length matters. More work can go into a couplet than a chapter, sometimes; and there have been days when getting more than a sentence has been impossible. As long as you're putting your best into it, and trying to improve, it counts.

  32. JT Ellison

    Salinger published one book, and he's one of the most celebrated "writers' of our time.

    I really do think that to call yourself a writer, you need to complete what you're working on. Whether it's a poem or a short or a novel or non-fiction, finishing is key. I never wrote for publication. I wrote because after 15 years of speechwriting, technical writing, marketing plans, I had a story inside me that needed to get out. My biggest triumph (still is, and always will be) was that moment on Christmas Day in 2004 when I typed The End on what I thought was my first full length novel. I was mistaken, it was only 50,000 words, but I'd finished it. THAT'S when I felt like a "real" writer. But this is a subjective question, one that I don't think has a right or wrong answer. You're a writer if you feel like you're a writer, and no one else's definition will make you one.

    Great topic, and great discussion!

  33. pari noskin taichert

    How eloquently you expressed both what a writer is and how we shoot ourselves — and others — in the feet. I found myself struggling with the definition even though I write/wrote daily. I love the nonfiction side but, for an odd reason because it's so easy for me, it's like it doesn't count.

    Man. What on earth do we do to ourselves?

    Yes. I've been looking at the writer/author issue for a while now. And the whole "I'm valid because I'm traditionally published." I honestly don't know where I stand on any of these things anymore. So much of publishing is quixotic, and seems arbitrary. I have many friends who've had their series cut — not because they weren't good, but because a new director or CEO or CFO doesn't like that particular line.

    And we all know that publication isn't necessarily an indication of quality. It only takes a few truly crappy unauthorized bios to prove that point.

  34. pari noskin taichert

    Ow, Cornelia. Owwwww!

    Tell me what you really think <g>.
    I know I've come to a similar conclusion — for myself. The biggest change in my attitude toward "writers" though is that I'm much more hesitant to judge.
    Have you noticed a similar change in yourself?

    Like you, I've written all my life. I only started calling myself a "writer" after I got published. That was *my* watershed moment.

    I have to say that I'm delighted that people are really thinking about this today. When I wrote the blog, I wondered if it would be too basic a question — though I believe the answer is hugely complex and very individual — and am glad that this discussion is so interesting.

  35. pari noskin taichert

    Thanks, Alafair. I'm not having any identity crisis now. But I did think it was interesting to examine it and to find that the consistent DOING was the antidote.

    Man, oh, man . . . where do I start?
    Maybe I should've just opened the damn dictionary <g>!
    Logic? Bah, humbug.
    A couple of points struck me as particularly important:
    1. The publication as validation of the right to be called a writer. I wonder when that became the modus operandus (my Latin may be rusty, but you get the idea)? Because I do think you're right that in some circles the only measure of validity is a byline or name on a book's spine.
    2. Are you saying that once the doing is done, it's not necessary any more? Obviously, I don't concur — at least for myself. Though I DID take issue with Gerald when he came at it from a different angle.
    3. How about "I'm aspiring to make money with my writing?" It might be a good phrase for many of us. But it sure doesn't roll off the tongue. Imagine what a conversation stopper it'd be at cocktail parties.

  36. pari noskin taichert

    I love that last line.
    And few of us have written here today about fun. Really. Why do it if it's all agony? I guess, in part, it's because we know we'll enjoy it again at some point.

    I was talking with one of my children about adolescence last night. My child said, "Puberty sucks."
    But I answered, "The trick is to remember the phrase 'this too shall pass,' to hold onto it when times are the bleakest."
    Writing is kind of like that. I've forced myself through some pretty emotionally harrowing times. And right now, I'm very very glad I did.

  37. Karen in Ohio

    Okay, here's another log on the fire: Just because JD Salinger and Harper Lee (and Margaret Mitchell, for that matter) only had one book each published, who's to say they didn't continue to write? Isn't it possible they wrote volumes, but that none of it ever got published?

    I'm in the "writers write" camp here.

    A Writer

  38. pari noskin taichert

    I like that you've worked out the edges, the framework, of what a writer is — and isn't. It feels like a very large and comfortable rectangle. Now . . . where would you place yourself?

    It absolutely IS subjective. That's, again, why I asked. My perspective is colored by my experiences. Here at the 'Rati, we have such a wonderfully diverse group — such a marvelous group — I just wanted to know where other people stood.
    Wanted to know what they thought.

    And, boy am I glad I asked!

  39. Sandra Parshall

    According to friends and employees, Salinger actually continued to write regularly after withdrawing from public life, but he didn't want anything else published until after his death.

    Of course not everything that's published seems "good" in everyone's opinion. But the very definition of "good" is entirely subjective. James Patterson himself says he's not much of a stylist, but his millions of fans around the world would bristle at the suggestion that Patterson's books aren't any good. It's all a matter of opinion.

    I find it odd that anyone would scoff at a writer's desire to be published and read. Humans didn't invent language so each person could talk only to himself. We invented language so we could communicate with one another. Writing is a way to communicate with many other people, most of whom we'll never meet. What's wrong with wanting that?

  40. pari noskin taichert

    Nothing is wrong with it. At least *I* don't think so.
    But I do think we cut many people down because they haven't achieved that particular goal or because they opt to do it in a nontraditional way.

  41. Robin McCormack

    Lots of interesting comments to wrap my brain around. I don't think I'll be calling myself an aspiring writer anymore. Maybe a perspiring one! A lot comes down to perception and the need for the positive affirmation "I am a writer." Telling myself I'm a writer is like giving me a swift kick in the butt. It spurs me on to write. But you really can't call yourself a writer if you don't write. I struggle every day to find the time to write and I'm not always successful. I think part of the problem is the honeymoon period is over. It's not all all consuming passion anymore.

    Consistency should matter. The more I write the better I get. However I'm horribly inconsistent. I write in bits and spurts, the story evolving one step at a time. The stories are there and I think part of the problem right now is I'm not in love with my characters in my current wip. I was passionate about my characters in my first wip and my brain keeps wondering back to them. However, I want to finish this current one come hell or high water.

    Some day's I think I'm writer and other days I just feel like I'm pretending and asking myself why am I doing this. Then I have those days when everything flows and I'm surprised by the turn of events in the story. Those aha moments make the doubts seem inconsequential.

  42. Sandra Parshall

    Pari wrote: But I do think we cut many people down because they haven't achieved that particular goal or because they opt to do it in a nontraditional way.

    I agree completely. I think we need to get beyond old-fashioned ideas of what a book is or isn't. A book doesn't consist of paper and a cardboard cover. A book consists of the words the writer wrote. Print, digital form, whatever — that's just the platform, the way the book itself is delivered to the reader. Some writers find great satisfaction in self-publishing, and if that fulfills them, I'm all for it. Each of us has different goals, and those goals should be respected.

  43. pari noskin taichert

    Aren't those moments just wonderful (the flowing ones, NOT the self-questioning ones)? I love 'em. I think might like my approach to the whole consistency thing — even if it's just a sentence or two on a piece of scratch paper every day.

    Well said.

  44. toni mcgee causey

    Pari said:

    "Tell me what you really think <g>."

    I'm a bashful, delicate flower. I–wait, nobody's gonna buy that. Never mind.

    and then:

    "I know I've come to a similar conclusion — for myself. The biggest change in my attitude toward "writers" though is that I'm much more hesitant to judge.
    Have you noticed a similar change in yourself?"

    My opinion (judgment) about anyone else's life is, and should be, irrelevant. I've always felt this way, but feel it more now because I have seen too many people overcome incredible odds to go on to succeed, and I would not have guessed that they had the talent or the tenacity, had I been asked at the time. What if I had derailed that person? That would have been a horrible abuse.

    Now, this is an entirely different prospect than someone asking me for a critique of their craft. I can give a thorough critique on craft with an eye to helping them reach for their vision. I can tell if someone has a long long way to go or if they're almost "there" — that mythical place where the work is amazing and just needs to find the right agent/editor. But I am not judging as to whether or not they're a writer. I'm judging what they've written.

  45. Perry Wilson

    This question seems to pop up every few weeks somewhere. It's always struck me as one of those insidious exclusionary questions. Why do we need to qualify for inclusion into the big club of writers? I think you are a writer if you have stories to tell whether you are writing them now or not.

  46. Dudley Forster

    Pari – (yes I’m back, I just can’t shut up) first if you email me your snail mail address I send you my old Black’s Law Dictionary, it’ll be shits and giggles.* Secondly, the whole currently writing issue bothers me. I am having a hard time. I have love so many writers who are no longer writing that I just can’t make myself say they aren’t writers. If John Creasy stopped writing before he died, and I don’t know if he did, but if so how could you say he is not a writer? I’ve decided am going to fudge and never refer to people who are published but no longer write as writers. I’ll just call them authors. And don’t knock logic; I got an A in that class.

    Toni, I love the idea that one day you are not published so you’re not a writer then by magic or Ce Ce’s Voodoo the day you’re published you are one.

    As for why write if it’s not fun, I think about it terms of The Agony and the Ecstasy. Writing can be agony and self torture (deep down I think most writers are masochists) but then there is that moment when dialogue just flows, a character does something unexpected and it’s brilliant, you write a scene that is directly from your heart to the page and it feels so good you want to dance on your desk and drink champagne. That is ecstasy. I don’t think writers write for fun. I think they spend time in agony because they want the ecstasy.

    * This statement contains no warranty, express or implied including, but not limited to the warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.

  47. Judy Wirzberger

    I think the fact that your writing generated so many thoughtful responses says a lot about the fact that you are, indeed a writer, but the kind of writer that causes the reader to ruminate. Thanks.

  48. Gar Haywood


    I understand how someone who is constantly writing but is still seeking their first legitimate sale can feel justified in calling themselves a "writer," but I think there's at least one danger in that kind of thinking: It can give you a false sense of security in the quality of your work.

    Before I was published, I looked upon making my first sale as a clear cut, undeniable sign that I was in fact a "writer," i.e. somebody whose work other people might actually pay for the privilege of reading. So I never referred to myself as a "writer" until I got my first check, and I kept busting my ass to get better in the meantime.

    The good news is, IMO, once you get that first check, you're a writer for life. It's not a revocable membership. So sorry, whether you feel like one or not, you're a writer and you always will be.

    And a damn fine one, I might add.


  49. Dudley Forster

    Gar – I buy the danger on quality sort of but I do not believe you have to be published to be a writer. A lot of posts today are saying that the question is subjective. So am going to respond by taking the statement “you have to have gotten a check to be a writer” personally. My oldest daughter “writes” YA fantasy. She has 5 completed novels. For one she has a contract for with a small press, but that press was sued over its name and is having to reissue its entire back list so her book may not be out until next year so she has “no check”. She sent out queries on her next book and got a request for a full. The agent called her THREE times. He loved the book but was on the fence. He was frustrated because he felt there was something off about the world building. In the end he passed, but told her if someone else was interested call him first and to send him her next book. She has now sent out quires on her current book. I think it is the best thing she has ever written. The first person she queried was that agent and now it’s just the waiting. She has a wonderful blog, has joined the YA writers group and every published writer who has read her work says it is only a matter of time. Anyone who wants to tell me to my face that she is not a writer had better be ready to deal with one pissed off father.

  50. Sandra Parshall

    Dudley, your daughter is certainly a writer. I have many friends who have dedicated themselves to writing but aren't published yet. They are all writers, just as much as I am. They're all working toward publication, the way your daughter is, because they want their work recognized and read by others.

  51. Jake Nantz

    I've always been told–and still stand by–the phrase, "writers write." If you're writing everyday, you're a writer. If not, sit down and start.

  52. Allison Davis

    I hate to raise this but what is "published?" My first poem was published in my small town newspaper when I was 12. I wrote art criticism in the 1970's for a local art magazine. I regularly write chapters for law treatises (that's what we call books in the law business). None of those are novels though (yet). What if you self publish? If you sell 100 copies of self published work? 10,000 copies? I have no answer except to say that I write and I think of myself as a writer but whether others do is in the eye of the beholder I guess.

  53. pari noskin taichert

    I can not wait to meet you! Can anyone believe we've never even set eyes on each other?

    And good distinction re: the writer vs what they've written. I'm not proud of how judgmental I was back in the day. Just happy not to be that person now.

    Thanks for chiming in.
    Perhaps the question is exclusionary, but I certainly didn't mean it that way. I wanted to see what people thought of the ideas behind it, to have a good exchange. And, from the breadth of this discussion, I think that's exactly what has happened.

    You're right about the agony and the ecstasy . . . to some extent. I agree with Crais though; if it's only agony, why do it?

  54. Gar Haywood


    No offense meant to your daughter or any other "pre-published" writers out there whose feathers I may have ruffled. There are certainly many people in the world without that first check who deserve to be called a "writer." Publication is not the sole arbiter of that classification.

    But are you a car salesman if you've never sold a single car? Should your business card identify you as a "mechanic" if you've worked in a garage for 6 years but never actually FIXED anything? What makes one worthy of any professional title — the ability to perform a certain type of work, or the ability to perform that work successfully?

    Myself, personally, I never wanted to call myself a writer until a perfect stranger was willing to pay me to write. Because when people at parties ask the question, "What do you do?", what they really want to know is, "What paid work do you do that best defines you?", not, "What dream career are you presently working toward having someday?"

    Again, this is all just one man's take on the subject. Others are well within their rights to approach it quite differently.


  55. pari noskin taichert

    Thank YOU, Judy. (I wish this blogging system had bf and ital)

    You're very kind.
    You know, when I first started the word count project, I thought I'd do the old "one million" words thing. (For anyone who doesn't know, there are several versions of a quote that basically implies that it takes about 1,000,000 words before you're really a writer.) But just because a person writes that many words doesn't mean more than he or she wrote those words.

    Like I said in one of the comments, I didn't consider myself really a writer until I sold a novel — even though I HAD published in nonfiction. I don't know what that was, but it worked for me.

    What was that about "you know it when you see it?" Your kid's a writer. Hell, yes. She's a writer. She's DOING it!

  56. pari noskin taichert

    I'd better do some of that today. Just processed more than 100 fresh peaches. Have to pick up the kids in 30 minutes. Still have 120 crunches to go to meet my new goal of 500 a day. So many excuses!


    I don't think you hated to bring that up at all <g>. But I'm not going to answer it because my own attitudes have changed so much in this regard. I guess I'm getting to the point where I think that word "Published" is losing its meaning. Really on the fence about it, myself.

    Nowadays when someone asks me what I do, I often retort, "Do you mean, 'to make money?'"
    Because I also do a tremendous amount — like making peach jam and taking care of my kids — that doesn't come with a paycheck.

  57. Gerald So

    The gist of Allison's comment is the reason my definition of writer hinges on personal fulfillment. Each writer has a different idea of success. For me, success is finishing and submitting my work to an editor/publisher other than myself. My idea of success doesn't include my work being accepted because I never know which of my pieces will be accepted. I only know the chances of acceptance are greater if I keep writing and submitting than if I don't. For someone else, success may be writing and publishing books all on one's own. I have nothing against others' ideas of success; I just know they're not for me.

  58. Tammy Cravit

    As regards the discussion of the way we define ourselves and let others define us, I'm reminded of a story I read in a Chicken Soup for the Soul or some other such place. The story goes that a young man had a longing to play the violin, and by the age of 18 had achieved some success therein. So, he went to college with the aim of becoming a concert violinist. This young man was fortunate enough to have, as his teacher, one of the great violin virtuosos of his age, and one day he sought out his teacher. "I'd like to play for you, and you can tell me if you think I have what it takes to become a truly great violinist," he said.

    The teacher listened patiently to the student's performance, then shook his head and said "I'm sorry to say, I don't think you have the fire to succeed as a concert violinist." The young man was crushed, but he picked himself up and resolved to move forward with his life. He became a business student and went on to form a large profitable company. He married a woman whom he truly loved and created a beautiful family.

    Many years later, the student encountered his old teacher. "I want to thank you," he told the old virtuoso, after telling him of his successes, "because your advice, disappointing though it was, enabled me to move forward with my life and achieve the success I've enjoyed. But, tell me, how could you tell, just from that short performance, that I didn't have the fire?"

    The teacher replied, "Actually, I tell that to everyone who plays for me."

    The student was incensed. "But, had it not been for your pronouncement, I might have gone on to greatness as a violinist! You took that chance from me!"

    The old man shook his head sadly. "No," he said. "You see, if you REALLY had the fire, you would have paid no attention to what I thought."

    And so, I think it is, with everyone who looks for outside approval instead of following the inner fires of their souls.

  59. pari noskin taichert

    "I only know the chances of acceptance are greater if I keep writing and submitting than if I don't. For someone else, success may be writing and publishing books all on one's own. I have nothing against others' ideas of success; I just know they're not for me."

    Beautifully stated, Gerald. Truly, I think not taking this approach has really messed up a lot of good relationships during the last few years. Knowing oneself is key. As much as people judge each other, there's also the problem of looking for that validation from others.

    It sure played havoc with my self-perception for a while. Not so much now.

    That's a wonderful story. It made me smile even as I guessed the "punchline." Thank you.

  60. Robert Gregory Browne

    Hey, to be completely honest, here, if I were to make the kind of money Tiger Woods will be handing over to his wife in their divorce settlement, I'd probably never write another thing.


    Who am I kidding?

  61. Debbie

    I define success as contentment. Trad. pub. is dependent on several factors including, book length, subject matter, books marketability, and whether a novel is interesting or thought provoking is a secondary consideration. Thus many worthy writers and titles go unpublished. For further discussions, read a few posts from: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/
    There are some very compelling arguements no matter what side of the coin best identifies you and the comments can be thought provoking.

  62. pari noskin taichert

    I know that even when I was making good money in PR, I still had to write . . . couldn't NOT do it.

    I know Joe and have followed his blog on occasion. He's one of many really examining this Brave New World. I find it all fascinating.

  63. Eika


    Yeah, I guess I have worked out the edges. Except, if it is a rectangle, that rectangle is… the edges of a swimming pool.

    Where you are in the pool (shallow end with the three year olds all the way up to the deep end) depends on what you're aiming for: pleasure, or entertaining friends, or improvement, or publication. Publication is, of course, the deep end: eight feet deep or more. Harper Lee, JD Salinger, etc.; they get those nice floating lawn chairs. The murderati crew probably vary between inner tubes, those floating noodle-things, and water wings; you're all published, with varying levels of success (though I don't think any of you have a floating chair yet). I'm somewhere over my head, treading water. Not sure if I'm ready to take the publication high-dive yet, partly because the lifeguards, my beta-readers, want me to improve my stroke… er… edit things a WHOLE lot. But I'm working on it.

    Though there are days when I'll just wander over to the shallow end and play Marco-Polo for a breather.

    And this analogy has officially gotten WAY out of control. Sorry. *slinks out*

Comments are closed.