How you Know You’ve Arrived as a Writer
Writers are seers. We view the world coded in apt words, crafted phrases, tweaked syntax, and fine-tuned paragraphs. New vocabulary titillates us, while mangled grammar irritates like a crooked painting in a gallery. We are connoisseurs of catchy copy, and we always recognize with admiration any array of words that evidences the subtle touch of a fellow wordsmith.
And yet when we scrutinize our own work, we are far too frugal with credit.
When you care about your craft and work at it, you improve. Ironically, it’s this higher standard that sharpens the red pencil you take to your own work. The better you become, the worse you judge yourself to be.
You’ve seen this “dysmorphia” in the gym. The guy with brawny bulges in all the right places still feels like a skinny reed. He’s oblivious that he’s arrived. So give him another year and he’ll look like a granite mountain shrink-wrapped in skin and spandex. Writers suffer from the same malady.
When do you give yourself permission to call yourself a writer?
The initial goal was to see my name in ink. My first printed piece featured in a magazine. But when I saw it, I didn’t yet consider myself a writer, because there was no remuneration for the article. I certainly didn’t care about the money, just validation that it was worth something—to say I was a “working” writer.
Later I was privileged to contribute a chapter in a book edited by a bestselling non-fiction author. The deal was with Thomas Nelson (heard of them?) and I got paid! But, you guessed it: the pot of gold was still on the move.
You’re an author only when you’ve published your own book, right? So I got an agent, shipped four book proposals, and received exponentially more rejection letters.
Then it happened, the holy grail of writing—I got a book deal! It was with a small but respectable international publisher based in the UK. But…I kid you not…
On that same day, when the Hallelujah Chorus should have been blaring in my home, I also heard back about another manuscript, which had made it all the way to the final round of decision makers at a more renowned publisher. That contract was to be my limousine ride into the big leagues.
Alas, the e-mail I received was a one-line rejection. I was crushed.
That evening, while dejectedly picking at my dinner, I absent-mindedly remarked to my wife,
“I was so close. I was nearly a real writer.”
She chuckled, put down her fork, and slapped me. Well, that’s what it felt like. She recounted my portfolio in detail, and concluded sweetly, “Honey, I don’t know how you define real writer, but you are one,” and went back to her pasta.
I felt like I just got a promotion. Permission, that’s what I had been waiting for. But her question lingered. What is my definition?
Here’s my hypothesis, the four signs all writers see when they arrive…
1. Writers are writing.
This is the big E on the eye chart, I know. But seriously, you don’t get to call yourself a writer by planning to write. You have to start. The difference between the bench and the game is sweat. If you don’t yet create regularly, repent right now. Schedule a weekly appointment with your dream at a local café and start. Take a class. Buy four books on writing.
When inquisitive guests ask you why you have a writing nook in your home, or need a laptop, you reply, “Because I’m a writer.” If they pry more: “What have you written?” You say, “I’m glad you asked. I’ll send you a short piece I’m working on.”
2. Writers are shipping.
It is too safe to merely practice and polish. A real writer has the pluck to hit “send.” The piece will never be perfect. Welcome to the world of art. It needs to be good enough. Submit an offering to a writing competition, start a blog, or create an eBook as a Christmas gift for your family and friends. Just ship the goods!
3. Writers are being rejected.
If your work isn’t being declined, you aren’t shipping. Sometimes the disheartening cycle of—create > ship > cry > repeat—feels blatantly Sisyphean. But rejection letters are the writer’s Purple Heart medals in the war of art.
4. Writers are being read.
This one may incite the when-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods debate. But it takes a unique species of confidence to call yourself a writer when you have no readers. You may point out that nine year old Anne Frank wrote all her diary entries to the fictitious “Dear Kitty,” and now everyone from preteen girls, to WW2 scholars devour every word.
As for me, I need to know someone is reading. If I keep three subscribers to my blog, I’ll post content (any fewer and it’s cheaper to print a copy for my wife and my mom).
How about you? When did you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer?