Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Writers, Writing, and Generosity of Spirit

I just read this post, by the fabulous Alice, whose writing I’ve admired for years. I agree with her wholeheartedly, as have the majority of her commenters so far. But I was dismayed by a couple of commenters who disagreed with her, and I started to say as much in a comment. I quickly realized that my “comment” was about to turn into a full-on, very lengthy essay response, so I brought it over here. This really isn't meant as a direct response to any of the comments, but reading them brought up several hot button issues for me, and they're ones I've contemplated writing about for a while now. And this was the perfect opening for me to do so.

It seems to me that any person who takes on writing in a conscious way is a writer. I'm talking about the idea of practice—in both a technical and a spiritual sense. And I think it's nonsense to say that if someone only writes for themselves, or only blogs, or isn't publishing their work, or isn't getting paid to write, then they somehow don't meet some magical definition of the word "writer."

Whether I write for myself, in secret; or join a writing group; or start a blog; or start submitting my work to literary journals or magazines; or earn a paycheck from my writing is irrelevant to my right to define myself as a writer. I've done almost all of these things, in various stages of my writing life (I’m not literary journal girl…yet), and the timing and meaning of those activities have been much more about the level at which I was ready to join a conversation with other people through my writing than they have been about my level of legitimacy or how serious my practice has been.

I think the biggest problem with people so self-assuredly defining who "gets" to call themselves a writer is that it scares off those who are less confident, but who would absolutely be writers if they had just a little bit of encouragement to begin—or to continue—writing. I think making distinctions between "blogger" and "writer" is dangerous, not because I think everyone who blogs wants to or needs to or should define themselves as a writer, but because I think everyone who blogs (or keeps a journal, or writes poetry secretly) should most certainly have the right and the opportunity to define themselves that way if it's a title and a practice that calls to them.

There's nothing worse than feeling a genuine longing to try something—particularly in the creative world—and thinking, "But I can’t write; I’m not a writer,” or, "I'm not allowed to define myself as a writer, because I'm not published." Well, if you never try writing, then you’re not a writer. But when you follow that longing, and pick up a pen or open your computer and begin to explore the world by placing words together, when you take on writing as a practice in a conscious way, then you get to think of yourself a writer whether or not you publish anything.

Note that I keep saying “in a conscious way.” I don’t necessarily think that everyone who ever has to write something is a writer. We all have to write things here and there, for school, or work, or whatever. It’s a matter of intention, and it’s a matter of need. Writers need to write. When I was a child, my father used to say this to me all the time—that artists have to practice their art. Writers have to write. This was problematic, since as a child I took it quite literally. And because I clearly wouldn’t actually drop dead if I didn’t write, I assumed that I wasn’t a writer. And that assumption made me ache, although I didn’t understand that ache back then.

It took me until I was 25 to be able to keep a journal, much less write anything else. But when I did begin to keep that journal, my entire world shifted. I didn’t know where it would lead me, and I certainly didn’t have any big dreams of publishing anything. All I knew was that it kept me sane. It soothed the ache. Sure, I can not do it for a time, but it isn’t a healthy choice. And it turns out, that was what my father meant—though I suspect my father was a very unhappy, non-practicing writer, so I’m not even sure he fully understood what he meant.

When I first imagined starting a blog, my goal was to create a community to which I would be accountable for writing in some way. I have a wonderful real life writing community, with whom I meet and share work, and that community also keeps me writing. But a blog demands more regular work, more regular content. And in terms of putting pressure on myself to do the work I know that I need to do on a regular basis, that’s a very good thing. While I don’t believe that keeping a journal that no one else reads makes me any less of a writer, what I know about myself is that I stay on track better when someone is expecting the work from me.

Will I drop dead if I forsake my practice? Nope. But I also won’t be as grounded or as well or as happy, and I won’t be as effective in any other area of my life if I’m not doing the work of writing. Because I’m a writer. Of course, other writers' particular sense of need may be different from my own, but I believe a writer has a need of some kind. Frankly the work is often kind of a pain in the ass, difficult, and time consuming, so unless it speaks to someone, it's hard to imagine them wanting to do it.

There’s another element to this that bothers me. When people begin to make rules about who gets to call themselves a writer, or any other sort of artist, I always sense an air of cliquishness and unkindness. People say things like, “Well, that person isn’t a writer. They’ve never published anything. They only blog. They just keep a journal and never show their writing to anyone.” Frankly, statements like that are what keep fledgling writers feeling shy, less-than, self-deprecating, and locked out of the thing that they perhaps most want to do. And that limits what they will ever be able to do.

Just because I write all the time, work as a writer and an editor, participate in a writing group, publish my writing in various ways, and am lucky enough to have people other than me define me as a writer, does that give me the authority to say who is a writer and who isn’t? I don’t believe that it does.

What it does give me is a certain kind of power. Because people now think of me as a writer, beginning writers might be more than willing to believe me if I told them that they can’t call themselves writers. But who the hell am I to determine how people are permitted to define themselves? Who am I to say who is and who isn’t a writer?

If someone risks telling me that they’ve always wanted to write, I consider that a sacred moment. It may or may not be sacred to them, but it has to be to me. Because that’s the defining moment. That’s the moment when I potentially get to open a door for someone and invite them inside, or when I get to use my power to smash a small, fragile part of them. And make no mistake, it doesn’t matter if you literally have a potential writer standing in front of you allowing themselves to be vulnerable or not. When what you put into the world is the belief that certain kinds of writing are better or more legitimate than others, or that you are in any way better and more legitimate than others, you will inevitably be smashing a small, fragile part of someone somewhere.

My job is to do my own work, and to be the kindest, most generous person I can be. It’s my job (and I believe it’s everyone’s job) to encourage the small, fragile, beautiful parts of the people I encounter. My own incredibly kind, generous creative communities have enabled me to do work I don’t think would have been remotely possible without their encouragement. I believe it’s absolutely critical that people receive that kind of creative generosity of spirit in order to do their own best work. Just because they haven’t yet proven that they can do it, just because you can’t see what that work might be, that’s no excuse to be anything less than open-minded about what they might do in the future, or generous about helping them to define themselves in any way that opens that door for them.

It’s not my job to legislate what constitutes “real” writing. The only thing I can know for sure is that those who write—consciously and because they need to do so, for the love of the work, because there’s something in them that wants to come out on the page, or because they love other people’s writing and want to be a part of the community that generates such work—those are people who get to call themselves writers if they want to.

Writers write. For themselves, for others—it doesn’t matter. Well or badly—even that doesn’t matter.* The writing is what matters. The practice is what matters. The actions we take are what matter. And in writing, as in life, the actions we take are the things that define who we are. Writers write, and it’s the act of writing that makes them writers.

*For the record, while I don't believe quality of writing affects how one is allowed to define oneself, or whether one should continue to do the thing one loves, I absolutely agree with Alice that at the point when you begin sharing your work, it's part of the work to try to learn as much as you can and to make your work as readable, accessible, and high quality as possible for an audience by editing and refining it to the best of your ability. But that has nothing to do with how I or anyone else gets to define you.


  1. Kinda comes down to being defined by others or allowing everyone to define themselves, doesn't it? Though right now I feel pretty indefinite, on my own.

  2. Amy, thanks for setting forth on this topic.

    From my own journey I know that "being a writer" has nothing to do with what anybody else thinks or says, what is or is not in print or even the quality, style or form.

    In my case it has taken me a lot longer to allow myself to claim the title "writer" than it has taken for others to consider me as such. In fact, I probably did not claim it until I realised that the writing "owned" me, not the other way around.

    All my life I have written in some form or another, but in my mind I was
    a child playing around with stories, a copywriter, an editor or I would say I am a wordsmith, I write a bit, I produce some creative non-fiction essays...

    It has only been this year that I, in my late 30s, articulate that I am a writer. Not for the short pieces I post on my blog, not for the many more essays and short stories that remain safely on my hard drive but because of the realisation that I cannot not write and that the act of writing is the reward itself.

  3. I'm sitting here nodding my head vigorously. Very well and kindly said.

  4. I love this. I love more that someone is talking about it. For some time, and still at times depending on who is saying and how, I feel offended being referred to as a "blogger." I know that I shouldn't. Blogging is not something someone less important or less successful than anyone else does. It takes courage, knowledge, and vulnerability most days. Vulnerability everyday, at least for me. The journey to find your way of writing can sometimes be a gut wrenching, disheartening and uplifting one all at once. Things I don't think I could live without (not happily, although who knows...evil literary fairies may in fact devour me in their sleep.)

  5. Everyone, thank you for your comments.

    J., I think the journey to finding your way of writing/your voice is probably *always* a little bit gut wrenching/disheartening and (definitely) uplifting all at once. And exactly--the fact that you don't think you could live without that experience tells you everything you need to know. Keep on writing.

    (Also, the blogging thing--my guess is that you bristle at the word "blogger" not because you believe there's anything lesser about blogging, but because so many OTHER people seem to think there's something less about blogging. But as you clearly understand, a blog is just a place to stick your writing.)