03 April 2023

What Makes You A Writer?

Some writers say you're not a real writer unless you write every day. I heard this view espoused by Walter Mosley at NoirCon in 2022. I hope his admirers realize that writing every day will never make you write like Walter Mosley. The divine spark can't be codified or taught. And speaking of the divine spark, many think it doesn't count unless you'd keep writing even if you knew nobody would ever see your work, unless you experience withdrawal symptoms whenever you try to stop. My fellow SleuthSayer Steve Liskow has described having this experience. Not me. Divine spark, yes. Withdrawal, no. If I was absolutely sure no one would ever see it? I don't think so. Writing is meant to give me a voice, not a tree falling in the forest.

An unpublished writer is in limbo. To many, you're a real writer, ie an author, only when you're published. They even have a variety of rules about where you're published and how and what you earn from your writing. There's an insidious doubt in many writers' hearts that even if you think you're a writer—and have the blood, sweat, tears, and hundreds of thousands of words to prove it—you're not a writer unless others think you're a writer. As King Lear said, that way madness lies. Not that that stops us.

In 2007, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Pre-Published Writers and the Glass Slipper":

Back at Halloween, I went to visit my granddaughters and found the 3-year-old decked out in full regalia as a Disney Cinderella. Young Cinderella reenacted the fairy tale over and over all afternoon, kicking off her transparent shoe (“Oh, no! I’ve lost my glass slipper!”) and trying it on again. There wasn’t any prince in her version of the story, and she was in no hurry to get to the happy ending. Instead, before trying to fit the shoe on her foot, she would slip something into it— a sock, a plastic spoon, a finger puppet—leaving no room for her foot. “Oh, no!” she would moan. “I’m not Cinderella!”

I’m reminded of how awful it sometimes felt to be a writer who had not succeeded in finding a publisher for whom my manuscript was a perfect fit, especially in the twentieth century. That would be before I found the legendary Guppies, my first network of other writers who knew exactly how hard it is and that talent gets most of us nowhere without incredible persistence and that bit of luck that can’t be willed or forced.

Back in the 1970s, when I was writing and then trying to sell my first three mystery manuscripts, I remember being asked a cocktail party, “What do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I said. “What have you published?” my inquisitor asked. “Nothing yet,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.” The guy’s eyes glazed over and he drifted away.

Today, I’d have a lot to say to my younger self...I could offer helpful suggestions...“Don’t let anybody call you a wannabe,” I would say. “You’re pre-published. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep sending out. Your mantra is “talent, persistence, and luck.”

For many years, I kept a Peanuts cartoon pinned up on my bulletin board. It showed Charlie Brown lying on his back on top of Snoopy’s doghouse, reading a rejection letter. “Your novel stinks,” it says. “I’ve never read such a terrible piece of writing. Stop trying to be an author.” In the last frame, Charlie Brown says, “It’s probably a form rejection letter.” The trouble with writers is that we need the hide of an elephant, but many of us have the skin of a grape, and most of us lack Charlie Brown’s optimism. An agent or editor writes (as they do so frequently), “Not for me” or “I didn’t fall in love with this.” “Oh, no!” we moan, like Cinderella. “I’m not a writer!”

I’m a lot better writer than I was when I started sending the first version of my book to agents. I was impatient and had to learn from my mistakes. I’m also a much better writer than I was at the age of seven, when I first said, “I’m a writer.” Looking back, I can see it served me better to keep saying, “I’m a writer” and keep on writing than to get so discouraged I stop writing because any given agent or editor’s glass slipper doesn’t fit my manuscript. So here’s another mantra for those working hard to achieve first publication: “I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.”

Back to 2023: Since I wrote all of the above, my writing has continued to develop. I've found my, ahem, mature voice. Over time, I've given up completely on commercial success. I don't have to convince myself of anything. I don't care whose eyes glaze over when I say, "I don't have a new novel," or, "I'm writing short stories these days."

And as for marketing my work, two days ago (April Fools Day—coincidence?) I woke up in the morning from a dream in which I ranted at a blogger, "I don't care if I'm on NPR! Ten or twenty years ago I would have killed to be on NPR, but not at my age!" Hmm.

What makes you a writer?


  1. Great observations, Liz. Health issues caught up with me last fall and I couldn't focus on writing for a couple of months. It didn't bother me as much as I would have expected because I could still play music (badly). I'm writing again now, but nowhere near as much. The ideas don't come as easily as they used to, and I think of myself more as an adequate musician now, but still a writer.

    People who are unpublished are still writers, whether other people believe it or not. If those people are non-writers (or, in most cases, non-readers, too), who cares what they think anyway? It's interesting that the only two friends I have who read any of my stuff are musicians, both of whom have recorded their own music. I've bought their CDs, so maybe it's reciprocal professional courtesy. Oddly, most of my musician buds refer to me as "Steve the Writer." I guess it's like Roger the Shrubber.

    Years ago, when I was still a teacher, a young woman in one of my English classes was delivering an oral presentation and referred to herself as a poet. Her poetry was pretty awful, but she kept working at it and was willing to own it, so she was, indeed, a poet and I wouldn't have dreamed of saying her work was lousy and discouraging her. There's enough of that around anyway.

    1. Thanks, Steve. It's comforting to hear (in a kinky way) that other writers' non-writer friends don't buy their work either. They don't have the excuse of having hundreds of writer friends the way we do, either!

  2. Writers write, mostly because they have something to say or a story to tell. I don't think it's important that we "write every day" - right now, to be perfectly honest, I don't write every day because I'm my husband's caregiver and some days... Well, there just isn't time. That doesn't mean I don't THINK about my story(stories) and come up with ideas. But yeah, I've been writing stories of one kind or another since I was in 1st grade, so yeah, I'm a writer. I always will be.

    1. Eve, I'm always glad to hear someone else say "because I have something to say." I'm surprised I don't hear it more often.

  3. Shaking off the expectations of others is the first step in getting somewhere--as a writer, a painter, a musician, a singer, the list goes on. We're trained to respond to the standards of others, so part of the job is to set our own. Over the years I've listened to a variety of responses when I say I'm a writer ("It's nice to have a hobby," etc.), and all I think is here is a person with no imagination, no creativity. I'm lucky I'm not like them. --Susan Oleksiw

  4. Susan, as a shrink in my "other hat," I can tell you that those expectations are hard-wired in most people and take a lifetime and a lot of hard work to shake off. It's usually not a matter of reason.

  5. Elizabeth Dearborn03 April, 2023 13:13

    I haven't written much of anything in the last couple of years, because of husband's & my illnesses, deaths in the family, & other happenings. But I'm still a writer, I've been published, & I've won a couple of contests. I've experimented with other art forms but they didn't fit.

    1. Sorry to hear of these things happening, Elizabeth, and those that others who've responded have mentioned. Life just keep coming at us. I believe our writing gets richer and deeper as a result when and if we do get back to it.

  6. To me, a retired journalist (who is working part-time again) and a published author, the answer is simple. A writer is a person who writes. You can be a doctor without practicing medicine, or a lawyer without practicing the law. By definition, a writer is a person who writes. Doesn't mean you have to be published or well-known or even a good writer. You don't have to do it full-time and certainly -- excuse me, Walter -- you don't have to write every day, though it helps. To me, the beginning and ending of it all is: If you write, you are a writer.

  7. Good answer, Michael—keeps it simple.

  8. Such a great post! You’re absolutely right—the “thanks, but this isn’t for us” messages feel like “You suck! Why do you even try?” I think callings like ours make us some of the most optimistic people on the planet.
    I write because there are stories inside my head that I feel I must get down on paper somewhere. That’s my particular madness, I guess. I love the puzzle and thrill of “getting a story right”.

  9. 've heard the "write every day" mantra from day one myself. I have mixed feelings about it. I feel we should be persistent, but we need a break every now and then. I've written nine installments of a still unpublished series (several are on the submission docket at AHMM). After getting some feedback, I've rewritten/edited one of the manuscripts. Have also made revision/edit notes for the othèr works in the series and hope to have a month or so off. My family and I have traveled the few years and will be at place without much Internet access in late spring/early summer. It should be the perfect time to delve into such.

    At the same time, I'm still tinkering and writing a few synopsis. One was an eight page writeup combining elements of two books I self-published for a screenplay adaptation. No telling if it'll ever come to fruition, but it was a great exercise so far. Also tinkered with a few ideas far removed from my planned series, they didn't stick despite being very commercial. Then I hammered out a good chunk of a prequel idea related to said series, it felt derivative despite the solid effort. Today, I rewrote the latter synopsis completely around idea I had for the series, but kept holding back on for several months. Hammered out rough story details at last and it feels good. But don't whether I should go ahead and write it. Or read a book for this month and return to it once I revised/edit the other installments.


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