I’m a writer – what does that mean?

I’m a writer – what does that mean? Always turn a question like that back on its ear – What do you think it means? A recent email from a friend challenged me – she said – you say you’re a writer. What about all the other things you are? Isn’t being a writer the culmination of so many other selves? What about saying you’re a person who writes? How would that be?

Then along comes a posting by Grumpytyke  who writes about those who self-identify as writers. A few questions are posed: What is the difference between saying one is a writer or self-identifying as an author? And why is it that some very popular bloggers who write about writing come off sounding way better writing about writing than actually writing? Glad to say, no names were mentioned.

OK – so here I sit at my laptop – thinking and coughing and coughing and thinking. I have the quintessential holiday cold. I’ve been trying to do this DP Challenge thing of posting every day for a week. I’ve dragged myself off the sofa and out here to my laptop in an attempt to get a post together that won’t sound anything like the way I feel.

What does it mean to me when I make a statement like – I’m a writer. I know that at any given moment in time, I’m so many things, a mixture of so many possible and real selves – all clamouring for expression. In the moment of self-identification, I choose from a myriad of possibilities. Who hasn’t been at a workshop, or in a class, or at a party and the moment comes when you must introduce yourself – the question explicit or implied is – what do you do? The implication is clear – the person asking this question does not want your life story – just a quick bit of info that will put you in one kind of box or another. They are likely to make a judgement  – you’re a stay-at-home mom, a middle-aged grad student, a corporate bigwig, a professional, and on it goes. You’re categorized and filed away – maybe in the trash bin or in a place convenient for future reference. It just all depends.

We throw out an identity, of the many we currently have running like background software, which fits the situation or our need at the time. Feeling intimidated, I might say – I’ve always been an educator of one sort or another. At a grandchild’s birthday party, I’m happy to identify as Brit or Emma’s grandmother. A chance meeting with a stranger might find me trying out the line – I’m a writer and seeing how it goes over. The idea that we are many things to many people, including ourselves, is a truism.

On the question of saying – I’m a writer versus I’m an author – it strikes me as a distinction between published or not. But that raises the thorny issue of self-published versus traditionally published. The whole nature of publishing is undergoing such radical change we seem in need of a sort of literary DSM. (Diagnostic Statistical Manual – the bible in certain circles when it comes to getting everyone on the same page to discuss various mental health labels and diagnoses.) With such a guidebook in hand, we could figure out what someone means when they label themselves as a writer, or an author. Does writing a great post that is published up into the blogosphere mean one is an author? And if that makes you an author, then surely self-publishing does, as well. Complicated, shifting distinctions that will keep all of us on our self-identification toes for some time to come.

I’m imagining right now that I am at that party and someone has asked me what I do. Here is my list – a work in progress. I’m a mother, a sister, a daughter of parents who have now both departed this world, a grandmother, a wife, an auntie, a friend, a sister-in-law, an educator, a person with a Master’s degree in counselling psychology, a person who came close to having a PhD in educational psychology, a trauma counsellor, a counselling supervisor, an author of articles printed in peer-reviewed journals, a writer of a novel that will soon be self-published, a blogger, a reader, a cook and washerwoman, a person who loves the garden, a dog owner, a lake dweller . . . enough already. I managed to bore myself. What about this? . . . I live in a circle of people whom I love and care for and they love and care for me. I’ve done a few different things in my life and now I am a person who writes. Will that satisfy?

I’d love to hear a few of your thoughts on self-identification – how do you handle this complex issue? What do you say at the holiday party or workshop?


Did I mention I was also a wee bit of a traveler? This photo was taken of me on the Angel Flight funicular in the Bunker Hill district of downtown Los Angeles – a really great way to manage a couple of daunting hills!


28 comments on “I’m a writer – what does that mean?

  1. grumpytyke says:

    Great post Francis – for me, clearly written by a ‘writer’. I suppose the question I was posing was “Why do some people feel impelled to identify themselves as ‘a writer'”? If someone says to me that they are a plumber, a musician, a painter or a photographer, it immediately implies that this has been recognised by others as something they do rather well or something in which they have a qualification. They would generally make a distinction if this is not the case by saying, eg, “I play the piano and the violin”, “I like to take photographs”, or “I paint”. But it seems that anyone who is attempting to write a novel or short stories, no matter how poorly, might say they are a ‘writer’. As you said, the term ‘author’ has been distorted by self-publishing; I have bought books on Amazon – self-published – which have been very poorly written. But whoever wrote them can say not only that they are a ‘writer’, but that they are an ‘author’. Doesn’t this demean both terms?

    • I like the way you have posed this question – “Why do some people feel impelled to identify themselves as ‘a writer’”? And the way you have made your point – how the self-identification is done implies a knowledge that others have validated this belief, or not. When I have said “I’m a writer”, it’s been about trying to believe it for myself. Ultimately, the reader will always be the last and final judge – whether we choose the self-publishing track or if we break into traditional publishing. Thanks so much for your well thought out comment and for the great post that helped inspire my thoughts.

  2. Gwen says:

    I can’t bring myself to say it yet – that I’m a writer. Maybe because I haven’t published or won any contests yet, so somehow it doesn’t feel “official.” It’s something I do as a passion, a hobby, but I’m still a learner. I love your posts. Congrats on reaching 100 followers!

    • grumpytyke says:

      I don’t think it’s about being published or ‘awarded’ – but the reason for my post, which Francis kindly mentioned, is that although I’m pretty confident in saying what it’s not, I can’t for the life of me say what it is, though I think I know one when I see (or rather read) one. So far, no-one has been able to tell me – I’m waiting in hope.

    • Thanks so much, Gwen – the 100 followers sure felt like a big deal to me. I’ve never had the nerve to say, “I’m an author” – I guess I’ll see, when the book is actually in my hands, how I feel about that. (Leaving aside the whole thorny question of self-publishing versus traditional publishing routes) I don’t think publishing or winning a prize should have anything to do with being allowed to self-identify as a writer. If it’s your passion, it’s a part of you.

  3. We like your blog description – “writer, blogger” and, since you are soon to be self-published, why not add “author”. Good descriptions all. Thanks for liking the latest installment of the book Gayle and I are blogging: “Jake, Little Jimmy and Big Louie.” I hope you will continue to follow this children’s chapter book story. Hope you are having a Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

  4. Christine says:

    It has always fascinated me why most people seem to link who they are with what they do for a living. I am guilty of it as well, and after recently quitting the only job I have ever had for 18 years I can tell you it may not be the best idea. Do we do this because our jobs are what we spend the most hours of each day doing? But what about the fact that so many people dislike their jobs? I wonder if they would also self-identify with their work.

    Whenever anyone tells me they are dating someone new one of the first questions I ask is “What do they do?” I rank their suitability and judge them based on the job they have and what I decide the traits and potential of this person must be. Yikes, how narrow-minded. I am quite sure you and I would both be silently scoffed at and eliminated as potential partners under my paradigm. Clearly I need to rethink my thought process!

    Your questions about self-identification have really touched a nerve. I do not want my identity to be based upon my relationships with others and/or my job or what I do. But now the big question is who am I? What “makes us” who we are? It is very disturbing to realize that I not only have no idea of who I am, but, more importantly, I have no clue as to who I want to be.

    • I think what you are writing about and feeling is something that many women who choose the path of higher education later in life (and goodness knows you didn’t choose it as late as I did!) go through. Everyone around you is often younger and busy with getting to be where they want to be when they’ve grown up and there you are – all grown up already. The identity questions are far more complex for that very reason. Academia makes it hard to hold onto the idea that the journey is as important as the outcome – in the end we will probably all find out that life happened while we were trying to get somewhere else. Love your comments – please keep them coming.

  5. Reblogged this on What I love about Life and commented:
    this is really interesting and so very true.

  6. SJ Main says:

    Does what you feel you are entitled to call yourself come down to a question of quantity (I do it a lot or I’ve been doing it for a long time) or quality (I do it well, or even, I do it well enough for someone to pay me to do it). Can it, or should it, encompass both of these things?
    I think it is ok to call yourself a writer if you have a measure of both of these – quality and quantity. If you manage to make money from writing, then you are a professional writer. I’m just extrapolating a concept used in other activities such as dancing, music, sports and singing.
    As to the use of the term ‘author’, this I find easier. I am an author by definition because I have written a novel – I am its author regardless of whether my novel is good, bad or indifferent.

    • I really like the way you’ve broken down this issue: quality plus quantity = a writer; get paid for it and you are a professional writer; author by definition if you wrote a novel – you authored it – remove concepts of quality from this question. Excellent.

    • grumpytyke says:

      I haven’t yet got around to following up my original post on this topic – but I will. I am surprised by how few people who define themselves as ‘writer’ have responded. So I’m delighted to see this response to Francis’s post. Your definition of ‘author’ is more in line with my thinking, but not so far the majority view. But I think there is more to ‘writer’ than you suggest here; as I said in my post, I would qualify according to your definitions, but I don’t think most people who call themselves ‘writer’ on WordPress blogs would consider me to be such, and comparing myself with what I see hey write, I’d agree with them.

      • Even if our working definition is write a lot and write with some quality? Of course that raises the question about who gets to define what a lot is or what quality is. I’m starting to think that we really do need some kind of arbitrary standard that we can compare ourselves with. But with everything shifting like the proverbial quicksand beneath our feet – I’m not sure where we will get that standard.

      • SJ Main says:

        I’ve been thinking on this whole question overnight. As someone recently involved in writing and full of insecurity about my own writing, it challenges my perception of my right to call myself a writer. Even though I’ve recently completed a children’s novel and it is being published in a couple of months, I haven’t written a whole lot else.
        So, after further thought it seems to me that ‘writer’ is just too broad a term to be useful. It’s like describing yourself as a human, or a dancer; walker; thinker… it says nothing meaningful without further explanation. To really explain the extent of your involvement and achievement requires you to place yourself in a subgroup – e.g. novice writer, published writer, technical writer, fiction writer, professional writer, blog writer etc etc.
        These days, the same concept probably applies to the term ‘author’ – we now see authors describe themselves as ‘published author’, ‘indie author’, ‘aspiring author’, ‘children’s author’, ‘best-selling author’, etc.
        For myself, I am content with describing myself as a ‘newbie author’ which is what I do on my blog and on Twitter. It acknowledges my achievement in finishing a book, but also that I still have a lot to learn!
        I’ve loved this discussion – so thought provoking!

        • Seems wise for us to have something more than writer and professional writer – I like the idea of novice or newbie, published, blog or professional writer. Maybe we need to get up each day and treat it like a multiple choice question – tick A, B, C or D or all of the above. Fiction writer is a misnomer to me – I wonder some days if it isn’t all fiction – no matter what we call it. And I am stoked about being able to call myself an indie author soon – though I’m sure some people will think I write books about India or the indie 500. I’m loving this discussion, too!

          • grumpytyke says:

            I’m really pleased that at least two people find pondering this question as interesting as I do. Due to the weather and other things I’m probably going to overnight in the office today, which may give me an opportunity to write my second post on the subject and I hope that may bring one or two more people into the debate.

  7. Good post. I AM A WRITER means I connect with people. The connection is more rewarding than the publishing part. Glad you came by. Good journey.

  8. drybredquips says:

    Thanks for liking “the chase” and for your support. Hope other quips fit your interest and/or concerns. Perhaps we are whatever we think we are, and because we think it.

  9. bullettbob says:

    When I was in 7th grade I wrote a story about a fox outwitting a hunter…when I was a junior I wrote a love poem that to this day is good. I’ve always known I am a writer but I’ve always suppressed that and done other things thinking that writing wasn’t a “real” passion like football, politics or old cars. During my career I wrote many stories-but I never finished them; and if I did finish them I never polished them- always suppressing that desire to write.
    Finally after a 25 year career, I retired early enough that I can actually write. But still I’m scared or worried or bothered that I should be working rather than working on my writings…
    Hmm, enough of that rambling-I guess you just know you’re a writer whether you publish or not; whether you finish your work or not….

  10. What about A Fully Realized Woman? I have been and done many things in my life and really am at odds when someone might ask: “What is it that you do?” Does my job wholly define me? Does being in a loving relationship? Being a mom, daughter, etc? I am on an Earthly adventure always ready to “do” and to “be” many things. But I totally agree with this part of your post: ” I live in a circle of people whom I love and care for and they love and care for me. I’ve done a few different things in my life and now I am a person who writes.”

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