For many years, somewhere in the back of my head, I clung to the idea that to be able to call yourself a writer, you need to be published.
That, of course, is nonsense.
To be a writer, there is one overarching criterion.
You need to write.
And keep on writing. That’s it. Just write.
A few years after I finished my BA degree in Art, I had to write down my occupation on my marriage certificate. At the time my ‘occupation’ involved doing temp work, admin stuff, shuffling papers and answering telephones. I stood at the altar and held the pen in my hand and hesitated. I thought, ‘this is for posterity, I’m not putting the word secretary on this document’.
Then my inner critic (disguised as the Voice of Reason) started up. ‘Sure, you’ve got the piece of paper that says you studied art for four years, but do you think you can call yourself an artist? Seriously? You haven’t even had a solo show, your current day job is completely uncreative, you don’t even own any floaty dresses…’ (floaty dresses were obligatory for artists at that time).
I wrote ‘artist’, but I felt like a fraud. Making art wasn’t my day job. Okay, I was painting and drawing and writing, but not nine-to-five. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to write ‘secretary’. That was my job, but not who I was. I look back now at my marriage certificate with the word ‘artist’ on it, and I think, of course I was an artist…why did I hesitate or doubt that?
Here’s why: I had fallen for the lie that to be able to call yourself something, you need to make a living from it. Have it pay your bills, feed you, clothe you. But that’s not true.
Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Nobody would question that he was an artist.
These days, writing is not my nine-to-five. It’s my 10pm or my 5.26am or my lunch break or the blessed forty minutes of my son’s unexpected nap. But I have learned to call myself a writer, because that’s what I am. I must write. I cannot go a day without writing. It’s what I do.
I don’t broadcast that I’m a writer. But I tell myself.
You may be a published writer or an unpublished writer. You may still be working out the mechanics or spectacularly accomplished. You may struggle over each word or breeze through pages. Your sentences may be disciplined or wild, bold or mild, furious or peaceful. But if you write, every day, if you sit down and face the blank page or the blank screen and fill it with words, with the contents of your mind, with whatever pours or stutters or spurts out, then you’re a writer.
Don’t be ashamed or coy or reluctant about owning it. ‘I am a writer’. You can admit it. Hey, you’re even allowed to say it out loud.
It feels good, and perhaps it’s a first step towards taking yourself seriously as a writer (though not too seriously in general). As a writer, you’re armed to tackle writing goals. You may journal every day, craft a memoir for your family, finish a manuscript, or gobsmack the literary world. Publish or don’t publish. Whatever.
But you’re a writer. So write.