Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Are You a Writer?

By Scott Warner
2007, Scott Warner

I used to wonder, "Am I a writer?" I felt like Pinto from Animal House with an angel and devil on either shoulder. Mine said, "You'll win the Pulitzer!" and "You're a loser!" And left me none the wiser. 

You may be asking yourself the same question. But if you answer "yes," when does self-confidence become delusion? How do you know what you know? Apparitions can't help you. 

You may see yourself as the literary equivalent of the Hollywood sweater girl working at the soda fountain. You might be encouraged by the praise of mentors, the odd hand-written rejection slip, or the dogged support of a loved one. The answer, you may think, is confidence. And you're partly right. 

You might think the answer is easy. Many years ago I read a simple statement by the novelist John Braine that stuck: a writer is a person who writes. While technically accurate, the same logic doesn't make anyone wielding a brush an artist. Many a failed writer has been impaled on Braine's words. But they might help. 

I stopped asking myself the question a year ago. I've been too busy writing and too busy getting published. Self doubt is natural, and judgment is an editor's job. But that trivializes the question. The answer is important if you want to know it.

The trouble is, "Am I a writer?" is a chicken-or-egg question. Once you are a writer, the answer is irrelevant except in a historical sense. And until you are, you don't know enough to answer it. If you asked a soothsayer you might get the sensible retort, "Why do you ask?" The reason you ask, especially in the middle of the night while staring at a blank computer screen, is motivation. 

  • If you receive a rejection for a story you've lost a pint of blood over and you answer "Yes," you'll send the story to another editor and write another one.

  •  If a loved one thinks that your writing is a waste of time and you answer "Yes," you'll pull the barbs from your heart and keep writing.

  •  If you feel that you're tapped out with nothing left to write and you answer "Yes," you'll pull something new from the depths. 

Are you a writer? Sure, if you keep writing. That's what motivation does. It pulls us up when we can't see the edge. 

Football coaches are quintessential motivators. The great Vince Lombardi said, "The spirit, the will to win and the will to excel -- these are the things that endure." Desire, Lombardi is telling us, is more important than destination. 

Put simply, "Am I a writer?" is a form of the question "Do I have the will to succeed?" And while self doubt is a part of who we all are, that isn't a reason to ignore this serious question. Your will to write alone is what endures. It's why you finish one project and start the next. And since it comes from you, your desire is unique. 

Here's how Robert Heinlein put it in 1947: 

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Heinlein's use of the word must is all about inner drive. He doesn't say, "Finish what you write" but "You must finish what you write." His words imply an application of will. Lombardi and he are saying the same thing. Your focus should not be on the goal but on what it takes to get there. 

So you ask "Am I a writer?" to test resolve. What's the real answer? Is there one? 

Of course, there is. Paid professionals don't doubt their standing. A surgeon doesn't stop in the middle of an operation to ask, "Am I a doctor?" And he or she doesn't return to the office to check a diploma on the wall. But one day the surgeon may wake up and wonder, "Do I want to keep doing this?" 

The point where your certitude overcomes faith will be different from others. In general, the tipping point is reached when you have a sense of self-judgment that a profession requires for work. In your case, this might be when you know that an editor accepts what you've written. It might be when your novel is made into a movie. Or it might be when you write on your tax return "Writer" where it says "Occupation." 

Degrees and jobs are signposts on the road to most professions. Recognition comes from the admiration and dependence of peers and reciprocal confidence in doing your job well and ably. You become a professional writer, in short, when you know that you write like a professional. 

If you don't know that yet, the question "Am I a writer?" probes your insides to see what's there. Do you have what it takes? There are, after all, plenty of writers out there who are more talented and more likely to succeed. Does that matter? Your passion for the act of writing does. In fact, it's all that matters, and it's what will keep you going. 

This may not stop the angel and devil from whispering on your shoulders. But keep writing and you won't hear them.