What Is a Writer?

by Moira Allen

You want to write, but you don’t. Or perhaps you start, but can’t bring yourself to finish, leaving a dozen promising articles or stories in various stages of incompletion. Or perhaps you finish, but can’t quite bring yourself to stuff those pages into an envelope and pop them in the mail. Your family, friends, or critique group say your work is wonderful. So what is holding you back?

This scenario is far from rare. It isn’t the same as the dreaded malady we call “writer’s block.” It’s more like “submitter’s block,” and I’ve known many excellent writers who suffer from it. They produce quality work — stories, novels, articles — and earn well-deserved praise from peers in critique groups, yet balk at the thought of actually sending that work to market.

Ironically, this syndrome rarely impairs the clueless, who remain willing to send single-spaced, 40-page, grammatically challenged “short stories” into the market without a second thought. And therein lies the key: A writer must reach a certain degree of competence before s/he can begin to question that competence. And questions of competence lie at the core of “submitter’s block.”

The “am I good enough?” question plagues nearly every writer, from newbies to established authors. New writers find the question particularly difficult, because they have less “external information” on which to base an answer. But even if you’ve sold several pieces, you may feel qualms if you try to break into a different subject area or better-paying market, or to switch from nonfiction to fiction or from short pieces to book-length manuscripts.

It would be easy to dismiss this as an issue of “low self-esteem”. If that were the problem, however, “submitter’s block” would never affect writers who have a relatively high self-esteem — yet it does. I believe another factor is at work: The issue of “image.”

When one utters the words, “I want to be a writer,” one automatically has an image of what a writer is. Often that image is more visual than verbal. One person may “see” a writer as a studious, professorial type pecking at a keyboard in a room filled with books; another may “see” a well-groomed, confident author holding forth at a major talk show. No matter what we “see” when we think of a “real” writer, however, the problem is that all too often, we don’t see ourselves.

If your inner “portrait of a writer” doesn’t match what you see in the mirror, you doubt your ability to “become” what you imagine a writer to be. This concern is often fueled by interviews with successful writers whose work habits, experiences, and, yes, personal appearances, bear little resemblance to our own. If we don’t measure up, how can our manuscripts?

What’s needed is a little healthy myth-popping. Let’s take some of those images out of our mental closets and see how they withstand the light of reality!

Myths of the “Real Writer”

By now, hopefully, you’ve put aside the notion that a “real writer” is paid by the wheelbarrow. But what about some of the other things we’ve been led to believe about real, successful, big-name writers?

  1. Real writers are organized. This image is deceptive, because when most of us visualize “organization,” we see “neatness.” An organized writer, we imagine, would have projects filed in neat folders, labeled and cross-referenced, with charts to track works-in-progress. Such a writer’s desk wouldn’t look like ours, with papers and folders strewn everywhere, and notes from our last phone interview scrawled on a piece of junk mail. But does such a desk mean you are really disorganized? Chances are, the answer is no. If you can lay your hands on the folder you need, or read those scrawled notes when it’s time to type up the interview, maybe you don’t need color-coded files. Organization isn’t about neatness; it’s about whatever works best for the individual. And no matter how messy your desk is, somewhere there is a highly successful author whose work-space looks far worse than yours.
  2. Real writers are learned. Many of us cherish the image of the scholarly writer, coke-bottle glasses perched on an inkstained nose, surrounded by shelves and shelves of esoteric books. In reality, a great many highly successful (and extremely well-paid) authors never graduated from college (let alone from a college writing program). Some of the world’s most respected authors worked on tramp steamers, or fought in prize rings, or swept floors, or washed dishes. Many had no opportunity for higher education, because of poverty or because such doors were closed to their race or gender. The power of their words did not come from the ivory tower of academia, but from the grubby alleys of life. So don’t worry about whether you’ve taken the right “courses” to be a successful writer; no matter how little formal training you’ve had, you’ll be able to find a great writer who had less.
  3. Real writers have lived through lots of gritty, intense, life-changing experiences. Granted, Ernest Hemingway got around. But not every action writer has stood in the bullring or wrestled with marlin on the high seas. Nor must a writer suffer tragedy, loss, depression, rejection (excluding rejection letters), or similar “life lessons” to be able to write about the human experience. No matter what your “condition” may be, you’ll find something in your own experience that resonates with others. The key is to recognize those experiences and lessons that have made a difference in your life — even if you haven’t sailed the world or swept floors for a living.
  4. Real writers aren’t like other people. Sometimes, this myth is a sanitized way of saying that real writers are a little crazy, or gain their best inspirations from controlled substances. A good way to dispel the second part of this myth is simply to write something while drunk and read it when sober. As for the rest, “real” writers are pretty much like other folks: They want to pay the bills, eat at a nice restaurant every once in awhile, and put the kids through college. But this myth also has a kernel of truth: Writers aren’t like everyone else. How many of your friends, colleagues, classmates, coworkers, and family members understand your passion for words? How many would give up a full-time job and paid vacations for the uncertainty of the writing life? If you’ve decided that your love of words outweighs your love of evening television or even of a regular paycheck, you’ve already met this criterion: You’re not like everyone else (and who knows, maybe you are a little crazy!). But you are like many great writers who made the same choices.
  5. Real writers are confident. Some are. Some aren’t. But if you’re “blocked” from sending that novel to a publisher because you can’t imagine yourself on Oprah, relax and buy some stamps. Even if your book is accepted, it’s going to be a couple of years before Oprah gets a copy of the galleys, or your phone number. Meanwhile, you may find that you do have what it takes to give a brief talk to your local writer’s club, or go online for an author chat, or accept an invitation to speak at a conference. And before you know it, when Oprah does call, you’ll be willing to think about it — because you’ve discovered that jitters aren’t fatal, and that you really do have something to say, even if (like many “real” writers) you have to drink a bottle of Pepto-Bismol before you can say it!
  6. Real writers are driven. Here’s one of the stickier myths: If you were “driven,” nothing would keep you from finishing that novel, that story, that article. The fact that you haven’t is surely a sign that you don’t care enough about writing to make it your top priority. The simple truth is that most people have multiple priorities, and writing is very often not the first. Chances are, you’re not going to divorce your spouse or put your children in foster homes (however appealing both options might seem) just to get more writing time — or give up your job and eat out of dumpsters while finishing your first novel. Only mythical figures can afford to focus on a single, all-consuming goal; they don’t have to shop for groceries, wash clothes, or change the oil in the car. Successful writers, on the other hand, are simply folks who have learned how to add writing into life’s complex balancing act.
  7. Real writers write every day. You’ve read this advice in every writing magazine, so it must be true, right? Real writers either dedicate a certain number of hours per day to writing, or don’t stop until they’ve completed a certain number of pages. If you don’t write every day, your writing muscle will get “flabby.” If you don’t write today, it will be harder to write tomorrow, and almost impossible the next day. Or so you’re told. Alas, I can’t recall where I read an article that beautifully punctured this myth, so I’ll paraphrase: Do doctors see patients every day? Do sculptors sculpt every day? Do pastors preach every day? No! Folks with ordinary day jobs don’t “work” every day, and neither do writers. Indeed, if we do not take time to relax, refresh, walk around, and interact with the world outside our keyboards, we are likely to lose our ability to remain “fresh” as writers — not to mention the fact that we won’t find very much to write about! That doesn’t mean that a regular writing schedule isn’t important; it is. But a regular “living” schedule is important too. If you’re trying to write every day just because you think you must, writing will soon become a joyless chore, empty of passion or inspiration.

There are, of course, real writers who write every day, real writers with multiple advanced degrees, real writers whose prose derives from the anguish of life experience, and real writers who wouldn’t feel the slightest butterfly-twinge at the thought of guesting on Oprah. There are also thousands upon thousands of others, an infinite variety of “models” from which to choose. The next time you find yourself wondering what a “real” writer looks like, therefore, don’t pick up a writing magazine. Instead, go look in the mirror. Then, finish that piece and put it in the mail.

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen


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