Have I Earned the Right?

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?

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17 thoughts on “Have I Earned the Right?

  1. Erma Bombeck said, “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box. It takes an uncommon amount of guts to put your dreams on the line, to hold them up, and say, ‘How good or how bad am I?’ That’s where the courage comes in.’

    We writers need to throw open our boxes and let loose our dreams–not only while we’re alone in our rooms, and certainly not only when they are commodified. We need to dance and sing our dreams in front of the world. Thanks for the wonderful, thought-provoking post, Linda!

    • Well said! I love that quote you used. And you’re right. It takes courage. There comes a point in time when you stop writing for the desk drawer (or computer folder in my case, as I contemplate stories that probably won’t see the light of day) and decide to go for it. I’m glad you did.

  2. I read this post before work yesterday and it almost made me cry. Belief in myself has been the number one obstacle preventing me from writing for most of my life. I struggle with it every day (let alone the privilege of calling myself a writer!) Taking the risk — as labyrne says above — to do the MFA was huge and served as a very big step toward giving writing the space in my life that it deserves. As for what others think? Pfft. That’s about them, not us.

  3. I like this blog and I know the journey you have been on even better than many. I am one of the fortunate people to be influenced by you and I would say you are one of the most gifted writers I have met having read lots of your writing (which ranges from screenplays to children’s books to nonfiction books about other people’s books and has been published and now out of print). You are also a mentor and example to many including myself and I am privileged to know you. Did I mention you are a great writer? 🙂

    • Thanks, Colleen. I also know your journey. You’re working on a fabulous fantasy series of your own as well as a picture book series you illustrated yourself. Let’s keep each other accountable and encouraged.

  4. Beautiful post, L. Marie! Yes, own it! You’re a writer! I still feel that way now, not even wanting to sign ARC copies before sending them out because the book still doesn’t feel quite like “mine”. I wonder if JK Rowling struggles with this? ; )

  5. Volkswagen, ha! So much for mind over matter. Just like we can’t will someone to keep from saying something stupid or hurtful. Wish it could be so. Sometimes we have to play the mind games with ourselves. I’d like to say that I’ve put the little “I’m not a real writer” demon to rest, but I can’t. I just have to lead it into a closet and get on with the writing. I’ll deal with him when someone lets him out again. In the 17 years I’ve been writing, I’ve never been able to keep him shut up. It really doesn’t matter much in the big scheme of our careers what others think (besides agents and editors and then only to a point), unless we let it discourage us so much that we abandon hope and faith in ourselves.

    • True, Nancy. By the way, you ARE a real writer. Time to cremate that thing, rather than stick it in the closet. I’m thinking a nice urn for the ashes is appropriate.

  6. Great post! I watched my dad struggle with this my whole life. It took him years to get a novel published and lots of people made snarky comments. It was frustrating but I think it helped prepare me for those kinds of comments being directed towards me. What helps me is thinking about how bad I am at everything else, lol. Writing and singing are really the things I’m best at. So if I can’t be a real writer I’m screwed 😉 Personally, I can’t wait till all the Secret Gardeners are published and we can laugh at the naysayers!

    • Shawna, like your dad, you’re the genuine article. So, go forth and conquer the writing and singing world and whatever world you feel like conquering today! Mwahahahaha!!!!

      • Aw, thank you! I hope you know that you’re the real deal, too! I can’t wait to see your books in my local bookstore 🙂

  7. Thank you for the wonderful post. I struggled with this for a long time and even gave up writing fiction for ten years (1990-2000) because I’d spent the previous ten years trying to get published with no success. When I returned to writing, I saw how much I’d lost by giving up my dream and having to start all over again.

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