Although it was 20 years ago, I can still picture every line on my creative writing tutor’s face, her gums, blackened from too many cigarettes, her teeth, yellow-white and dull. Her smile, creasing the edges of her mouth without igniting any embers of fire in her eyes as she spoke:
‘You can only call yourself a writer if you’re published.’
‘What are we then?’ I asked, glancing around at my fellow MA students and trying not to sound hurt or defensive.
‘You’re aspiring writers,’ she answered.
‘If you write, you’re a writer,’ I replied defiantly.
She laughed dryly and the energy of the entire room changed instantly. It dipped and lowered its head towards the floor, nervously picking its finger nails, shoulders hunched, all of its worst fears confirmed.
All 15 adults, vibrant writers with dreams, writing fiction and poetry day in day out, workshopping each other’s work, squeezing their words in around jobs and family and real life with the aim of becoming the best writers they could be, weren’t actually writers at all, it turned out. They were wannabes. They’d only be writers once their words were published and not a moment before.
20 years later, I’m now a published author with my third book out this year – but if anything, I disagree with my MA tutor’s assertion more now, not less.
I think she probably meant well. She might have felt she was being motivational, that we’d all be fired up, even more hungry for the validation of publication when we could at long last feel worthy… basking in that magical moment as the imposter syndrome melted away and we could call ourselves writers!
In my experience, that moment never comes. Success and publication don’t define you as a writer. Writing does.
It takes fortitude and self-belief to be a writer. Rooms full of it. Even with the support of close family and friends, nobody can give you the strength and belief to carry on but you. Take it from someone on the other side, getting published doesn’t change your writerly insecurity.
And what of self-published authors? Are they never to call themselves writers unless a traditional publisher picks them up? Where does the distinction end?
Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not a writer if you’re yet-to-be published.
Don’t call yourself an ‘aspiring writer’ or a ‘wannabe’ writer. Don’t use any unnecessary adjectives. You’re a writer. Own it, embrace it, it’s a beautiful thing.