A Misleading Sign on the Road to Writertown

A few weeks ago, I noticed a brief trend sweep through the writers’ blogosphere (do you hate that word? I kinda do) about the proper time to label oneself a “writer.”

Some proposed calling oneself a writer to empower the act of writing. Some advised writing and then applying the label. Everyone seemed to agree with Stephen King’s pithy maxim “if you’re a writer, you write.” Which is great, because if someone came out in favor of calling oneself a writer without ever writing, well, I’d have to put that on the big list of good ideas with the Ford Pinto, DIVX, and the CueCat.

I didn’t sound off at the time, because I’m a big fan of busting out my opinions long after everyone has stopped caring. But as far as I’m concerned, where and when you choose to label yourself doesn’t matter. Not even a little.

Now, when I say this, I’m not talking about “writer” as a description of one’s profession. If you’re already a writer by profession, you don’t need to worry about this question. In fact, you can take the rest of the day off. You’re welcome. Drink one for me, buddy.

However, if you’re a starting writer still wrestling with your first draft, or just staring at the blank page in despair because you can’t resolve this burning and clearly super-important existential question — maybe I can help.

What does “being a writer” mean? Whatever you want. As long as you put words on the page. If you’re not putting words on the page, it means exactly nothing, regardless of how much imaginary weight you give it.

Think of it this way. If you’re on the road to Writertown, and words are your fuel, then the “writer” label is a road sign. You can place that sign anywhere you like. Put it at the beginning of the journey to point the way. Put it in the middle to keep you on track. Put it at the other end of Writertown and gaze lovingly at it only after you’ve made it through.

But the sign doesn’t mean anything by itself. If you never get on the road, it doesn’t matter where the sign goes. You can call yourself a writer all day long, if it gets words on the page. If it doesn’t, then it’s about as meaningless as labels get (and they tend to be pretty meaningless anyway).

On the other hand, if you think that “writer” is something genetic or inherent or vague or luck-based that you have to somehow earn before you can write something — stop thinking that. Just write and stop creating artificial barriers for yourself. You’ll have plenty of real ones to deal with soon enough, believe me.

If the label “writer” puts some nitrous in your metaphorical engine, then go for it. If it motivates you to carry that road sign in your car while you travel, super. Do that. But if it’s holding you back, or keeping you down, or preventing you from putting words on the page in any way — chuck it out the window and don’t look back.

Just write, and let the labels take care of themselves.