What makes the difference between someone who writes and someone who is a writer?
I’ve thought a lot about the distinction over the years. Like many writers, I can’t think of myself without the word “writer” attached to my identity, yet I sometimes wonder what that means. Almost everyone I know writes, but only some of them are writers. So, what is the difference? What distinguishes a person-who-writes from a writer?
Let's use the process of elimination. Here are some of the things I think don't make the difference:
I know people who call themselves writers but who really aren't, and people who don't describe themselves as writers who I think really are. Here's an example of the former:
Years ago, I knew a young woman who very much thought of herself as a writer. She'd studied writing in school and had done well in her classes. Her aspiration was to be a great novelist.
One summer, my young friend's wealthy aunt offered her a place to stay (not just a place, either, but a BEACH HOUSE) and the money to survive through an entire summer to just write. She was thrilled—for exactly one day. By the second day, she was bored and distracted, by the third she was calling everyone she could think of to complain, and by the end of the week, she gave up and drove back to the city to get a job and be with her friends. I remember this because I and my then-husband, both of us writers, would have killed for a whole summer to do nothing but write, even if it weren't in a house with a veranda overlooking the ocean.
Now, it wasn’t writer's block that sent my friend back to the city, or fear, or loneliness. It was because, when all was said and done, the process of sitting down and actually writing wasn’t what she wanted to do. She was a brilliant, wonderful person and went on to great things in another field. She just wasn’t a writer.
I know excellent writers who haven’t published very much, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they’re just not interested in publishing their work (yes, people like that do exist). Sometimes it’s because they’re insecure about their writing and shy about submitting it. And sometimes, it’s because they just can’t find the right market. But, whatever the reason, I think the external trappings of success—publishing, selling a lot of books, making money—have little to do with whether a person is truly a writer. After all, if that were our touchstone, neither Emily Dickinson nor Herman Melville would make the cut.
Some brilliant, successful, hardworking writers have M.F.A.’s. Many don’t. Some people get M.F.A.’s in writing then go on to do something else.
I’m an academic by profession, so you might think I’d rank getting a degree high on the ladder of what distinguishes writers from people-who-write, but I don’t. I’m a deep believer in education, formal and otherwise and I think getting a degree is great, but I don’t believe it makes someone a writer.
Nope. Not going to go there, largely because I don’t even know what the word means, and even if we could all come up with a definition we agreed on, talent still wouldn’t come to much by itself. It’s not talent that counts, it’s what you do with it. And that brings us, finally, to to the one criterion that, in my view, distinguishes writers from people-who-write:
A deep, determined, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other dedication to writing, to being a writer, to living the writing life. A willingness to be present for writing, to sit down and write, to not get distracted by rejections and lack of remuneration, to beg off getting together with friends because you have a story to write, to spend your Saturday afternoons at your keyboard instead of in the park. To work through the bad times and the good. To keep at it and keep at it no matter what. That is it, folks: The difference between the person-who-writes and the writer. A commitment to writing.
In one of my all-time favorite essays on writing ever, Junot Diaz says, “I didn't become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard). You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...