After church one Sunday, a guy came up to me and asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said. Perhaps I was a little too glib in my response because he said, “Oh,” and gave me a confused look I’ve learned to recognize as “I’ve never heard of you.” (Others have been more blatant, and simply said the words.)
“You mean freelance,” he qualified. His expression cleared then. Mystery solved. Instead of someone who wants to be a writer, but isn’t, I have a legitimate reason for calling myself a writer. But I said, “I’m writing a young adult fantasy series,” which probably didn’t seem like a lucrative freelance gig, especially since he’d already given me the “I’ve never heard of you” look.
I didn’t provide a resume of projects I’ve worked on over the years or explain that I’ve been writing in some capacity (stories, plays, poems, laundry lists, notes I passed at school) since I was eight years old. Am I making money at writing? That was at the heart of the question, “What do you do?”
I’ve often thought of myself in terms of what paid the bills: “I’m an editor.” “I’m a proofreader.” “I work in retail.” Or, what gave me status: “I work for the American Bar Association.” “I was promoted to editor.” “I am a graduate student.” But after surviving a rigorous MFA program, I gave myself permission to call myself a writer. Yet one encounter left me fumbling for my identity again. My fantasy novel isn’t published yet, so I don’t have the “right” to call myself a writer. That was the takeaway from that conversation and others I’ve had over the years and questions I’ve been asked like
• “Have I read something you’ve written?” (A conundrum. Only the person asking the question can answer that.)
• “Do you make as much money as J. K. Rowling?” (This asked by a group of eighth graders during a school visit.)
• “Are you successful?”
The last question is worth its own post, especially since I’ve been thinking about it for several years now. But to get back to the question that started me thinking about this post—“When do I earn the right to be called a writer?”—I at first wondered if the answer is akin to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I earn the right when someone else tells me, “Oh, I’ve heard of you” or provides some other recognition of my status (like a contract or a check).
Yet I see the problems inherent in that way of thinking. Judging by some of the reviews some well-known authors have received on Amazon, and accusations of “hack” or “my little sister could write better when she was in kindergarten” and other judgmental statements, the public is often widely subjective in their views. To some, you might be a writer, and to others you are fodder for a firing squad.
As I type this post, the song, “If You Believe,” written by Charlie Small from the 1978 movie The Wiz is running through my mind. The lyrics are appropriate: “If you believe / Within your heart you’ll know.” Belief is the key. This isn’t a Pollyanna notion fueled by denial, however. I can believe I’m a Volkswagen all I want, but I would be sadly deluded (and lacking the horsepower). Knowing the path in your heart—knowing who you are, young padawan—is the key. Know it. Own it.
I am a writer. How about you? How do you show what you believe about yourself?