Some Writers Get Really Mad When You Say This

I caught some flack last week for putting out a video that tells you all it takes to become a writer is to call yourself one.

Mad writers
Photo Credit: ohhector via Compfight cc

So let’s talk about that. Is this good advice? Is that all it really takes? Or am I making something really hard look really easy?

Well, yes, I suppose telling people all you have to do is call yourself a writer could be oversimplifying things. And of course, it opens up the possibility for more wannabe writers out there.

But I never said becoming a writer ended with calling yourself one. That’s just where it begins.

Honestly, I think the reason this advice upsets people is because of a series of limiting beliefs some writers have. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is bad advice. So let’s explore the alternatives to calling yourself a writer.

1. You could “just write.”

I’m a fan of this method. I did it for years. I wrote and wrote and didn’t worry about who read my writing.

The problem with this approach, though, is it doesn’t work if you want to become a professional. Why? It gives you a place to hide. We live into the story we tell ourselves, and when we tell ourselves we are amateurs, we do the work of an amateur.

2. You could try to earn it.

One person recently told me you have to write at least four hours a day to be a writer. If you can’t do that, this person said, then you’re not a real writer.

Whoa. Really? If that’s true, then I’m out. But so is Hemingway, who famously wrote 500-1500 words every day and often felt guilty for sometimes skipping days to spend his time fishing. And so are a lot of writers.

I don’t like this approach because it lets you do the very thing many writers are apt to do — that is, beat up on yourself. But here’s the kicker: you never feel good enough. So you never arrive at your destination.

But quantity isn’t what makes a writer. What makes a writer a writer is the the work, the writing. It’s hard enough to try to get up and do that every day. I don’t need some critic telling me what I’ve done isn’t enough.

3. You could wait to be picked.

One person criticized me for calling myself a best-selling author because I had never published a hardcover and wasn’t published with one of the “big” publishers.

Sigh. This is what’s wrong with publishing right now. Many of us are still living under an old paradigm of getting picked by a gatekeeper. But there are no more gatekeepers. The only person who gets to decide if you are a writer is you.

Steven Pressfield once told me you become a writer “when you say you are.” I like that. It’s simple and to the point and some people don’t like it.

But those are the same people who want to keep you from ever becoming your true self. They’re the ones who want to label you and keep you thinking small. And at a certain point you just to choose to not listen to those people — or spend your life trying to satisfy them.

Here’s what you should do instead…

My advice? Become who you are. Do what you were born to do and write like you mean it.

Maybe like me, you need to first believe in yourself, even if it takes a little Jedi mind trickery, and call yourself a writer. Then start writing. One doesn’t work without the other. You need both.

This may sound like a chicken-and-egg scenario, but I believe the belief must precede the writing. Faith fuels work. Activity follows identity. You become a writer by believing you are one and living into that reality.

Maybe this isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked for me and helped a lot of other people. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen the opposite — the view of writing as a sacred art only reserved for the social elite — do more harm than good.

If you wait for the world to give you an identity, you might be waiting a long, long time. As for me, I’d rather not give other people the keys to my calling. I’ve opted out of the system, and if you’re exhausted from trying to please the gatekeepers and critics, maybe you should, too.

This week, I’m teaching a free class on what it takes to become a professional writer this week and would love for you join me. Watch the first video here.

24 thoughts on “Some Writers Get Really Mad When You Say This

  1. It looks like you had a case of “I only read the title and not the actual article” lol… I saw some of those comments. Entertaining.

    I think most people just judged the title. But I am glad you took the time to listen to the feed back and reply with this thoughtful piece.

  2. I would say identity needs to be in who we are, not what we do – I try to find my identity and security beyond writing…then my writing springs out of that. Writing is part of my identity, but it’s not my whole identity. But I agree that we need to name it – say we are a writer, because we already are – and then usually follows a challenge to be more professional .

    Note here – being professional in your work doesn’t automatically mean you make money from it, you can be highly professional in your attitude and in the quality of your work, and not make money from it. Being professional doesn’t mean it’s your profession, as in, what pays your bills. I try to be professional in all my work, but not made money from it, and I call myself a professional. It’s not my profession as it doesn’t pay my bills (not yet, anyway). But there is a difference.

    Anyhow, good post Jeff.

    1. Good post, James, I try also to do my best in writing, blogging and sharing with people but I’m not sure I will get money, one day, from it. I’d like but it’s not my priority yet. I agree with Jeff what we have to name our calling and cling to it but It’s very important to let the Lord be the master in our decisions, orientations in order to fullfill our destiny and stay concentrated on what matters in life.

    2. I agree, James. Identity IS who you are. And what you do should flow through that. So we’re agreed there. Also on the professional side of things: yep. Same page there, as well. You do not become a pro when you get paid. You get paid because you are already doing the work of a pro.

  3. I agree. Listen and watch what happens when you confidently tell a person that you are (or introduce yourself as) a writer.

    Try it. Observe.

    Two takeaways:

    (1) They believe you.
    (2) You start to believe it, too.

    replace your internal dialogue. A person who doesn’t know you
    immediately identifies you a certain way. You, however, know you. If you
    haven’t already identified yourself as a writer, how can you convince

    Unless you convince yourself.

    Tell yourself you are a writer.

  4. I love this! It’s so true! Manifest it by believing it. “Do what you were born to do and write like you mean it.” If that happens to be stories about bartending at a strip club, then so be it…. 🙂

  5. I watched your video the other day and loved it, especially the part about activity following identity. You clearly did not mean it was the only step to take but by claiming to be a writer, it changes something inside of you.

    I own a business but my sister is a writer & I watched her struggle for years not calling herself a writer. Then one day she decided to claim the title like you mention in the video. After that when we were asked by other people what she did, instead of saying she was a counselor, we’d say she was a writer. It started to click with her. I believe by doing this one
    thing she was able to finally start writing regularly. Fast forward to today – she’s completing the final edits on her first novel (an amazing story!) and I couldn’t be prouder. It’s taken her almost 3 years to write this book – claiming the title was just the beginning but without doing that she may never have started. To me, this is the point.

  6. Hey Jeff, I really like this post. I’ve been writing for a while but haven’t had the courage to share my work very widely. (Well, I write nonfiction on my blog, which I enjoy sharing, but I’m a lot more afraid to share my fiction.) Anyway, I don’t really call myself a writer—but I think that needs to change! 🙂

  7. Hey, Jeff!
    Very true. I think there are two things that make you a writer, and both are what I’ve learnt from your website, actually: the first, to call yourself a writer; the second, to just write. You need to do both if you want to take writing seriously as a career, and neither is sufficient on its own.
    I don’t believe in quantifying writing, either. I could write 10,000 words a day easily. But only about one-fifth of it would be solid material. I’d much rather just make it a habit to write something, anything, every day: a blog post, a diary entry, a chapter, a paragraph, an outline… As long as it’s helping me get my thoughts out of my head, it matters.

  8. I admire what you’re doing. You’re trying to make people grab their self-doubt by the throat, and choke it into oblivion. Not many writers focus on helping others. Thank you for that.

    But, here’s the thing. Yes, the dreaded thing.

    Being who we are, we won’t approve of words being thrown around. So, instead of assuring everyone they’re already something they’re not (and single-handedly insulting mature writers, like yourself, and diminishing the art itself by allowing anyone to be called its “master”), why not say: I will become a writer.

    It conveys the same message: we gain perspective, finally admit our desire to be a writer, and that – damn it – we’re going to do something about it!

    There are many words to be used for motivating people, none of which have anything to do with claiming a title. Honestly, if you go around calling yourself a writer ten times a day, it tends to lose meaning before you even grow into said meaning.

    It’s absolutely okay if you don’t agree with me. I just wanted to express my thoughts.

    1. So when do you become a writer? I’m just curious.

      My point is this: I am not trying to tell people that you already are a writer if you’re not. But if you ARE writing and you’re waiting for some vague affirmation or title to be given you before you’ll believe it, then that probably won’t ever happen… and I think that affects the quality of work that you do.

      I didn’t work really hard to become a writer and then decide I was one. I decided I was a writer and then did the work required of that title. This is why we have terms like “author” and phrases like “full-time” that help focus the term. But for anyone who doubts whether or not they’re a writer, I refer you to the dictionary. It’s a lot less elusive or mystical than it seems.

      And I don’t have any problem with people calling themselves writers. It doesn’t threaten the work that I’ve done or the things that I’ve accomplished. It doesn’t imply any quality or profession to me. Kind of like someone saying, “I’m a runner.”

      Just my thoughts, and I’m happy to dialogue about it. Totally cool with people disagreeing with it. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s worked for me. 🙂

  9. Hey man, anyone who is cutting your argument short is just not paying attention. You’re very clear with your message and for that we are all very grateful. I love your advice that activity follows identity; it helps cut out a lot of the angst that writers can have over whether to write that day or not!

  10. I remember it like just yesterday when you told me in Panera–“Steven Pressfield says you’re a writer whenever you say you are.”

    This is like the seed planted in a writer’s journey. Then over time it grows. You don’t see the results for quite a while, but you keep showing up–one day at a time.

    And then one day you say to yourself, “wow, I was right.” And then you get back to work 🙂

  11. For 31 years I’ve made a living as a writer: newspaper journalism, magazines and now mostly for websites. Oddly, I remember resisting calling myself a writer while in newspapers — even though I wrote for the features section and we did some pretty interesting stuff. Guess I bought into the notion that a “writer” is someone who produces books.

    These days? Even though I have a blog and freelance most of my stuff to blogs, I call myself a writer rather than a blogger. In my online writing course I tackle that shibboleth in this way:

    “Do you think of yourself as a writer? A blogger? A hobbyist? As the saying goes, a
    writer writes. If you write, then go ahead and call yourself a writer.

    “You’re a writer if you’ve sold articles but you’re also a writer if you haven’t made a dime from your work. (Yet.) You’re a writer if you maintain a blog. You’re a writer if you’re pecking away at the Great American Novel, a memoir or a collection of urban sonnets.
    “Also: The hell with the naysayers. A guy I know made a snide comment about what I did for a living, which at that time was writing the Smart Spending blog for MSN Money. The word ‘blogger’ just dripped condescension.

    “I was greatly tempted to say, ‘Well, I’m bringing in almost $68k a year writing three posts a week in my living room. How much are you earning these days?’
    “What I said instead: ‘Have you ever read what I write? Do you know the kinds of topics I cover?’
    “No, and no. But that didn’t stop him from assuming that I peddled fluff for a living. These days I wish I’d hit him with that paycheck figure, just to piss him off. (He has an advanced degree but has been underemployed for years.)”

    So go ahead and put my vote in as a professional writer who believes it’s OK to call yourself a writer if that’s what you do. Doesn’t matter whether someone is currently paying you to do it.

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