The other day I did something naughty. When I registered with the London Review of Books to read an article (which it then wouldn’t let me read), I listed my profession as Writer/Poet – something I’ve never done before. Of course I’m not a professional writer – I’ve never earned any money from it and my one royalty of 75p was from a short story published on a website. However, when I scrolled down the list of professions named by the LRB a voice inside me said, Yes, I’m a writer; that’s what I am. I wouldn’t dare to call myself a poet, even though I do write poems, but writer is a good catch-all description. Profession does mean profession, though, and my profession – the work I’m paid for – isn’t writing.
In my long involvement with writing I have had times of thinking of myself as a writer, i.e. someone who wants to write, actually does write, and knows this is what they want to do in life, and other times when I haven’t been writing and haven’t felt entitled to call myself any such thing. When people have said to me, ‘You’re a writer’, meaning I can write fairly well and care about doing it, my response has always been, ‘Well, sort of,’ or ‘No, not really – I just try to write things sometimes.’ To me a writer was not just someone who wrote things in an amateur sort of way, but someone whose work was out there in the public arena, who had therefore proved they had some kind of talent.
When people say ‘I’m a writer’ they mean different things. According to Julia Cameron (in The Right to Write), a writer is someone who writes. Just that. So when I’m committed to writing – whether it’s adding to this blog or revising my novel or even just rabbiting on in a journal – then by definition I’m a writer. I heard an Alan Bennett piece on the radio where he says he is uneasy about calling himself a writer because that implies someone who is constantly writing and is certain to continue, when the continuity isn’t guaranteed – although I would have thought he had a pretty good track record. Nevertheless, saying I’m a writer because I write lessens the distance between me and ‘proper’ writers and helps to demystify the process. Even Alan Bennett, even X (supply your own writing hero) has to get the words on to the page just as I do. That’s what writing is.
A friend of mine who is a published novelist read through the current draft of my novel and commented: ‘But then, you are a writer! That’s clear.’ What she meant wasn’t just that I’d produced all those words and so de facto was a writer; it was that in her eyes I had the ability to do it with a certain level of competence. I’d like to think that’s true. Most of us have at least one thing that we have a feel for and somehow know how to do. Not that it doesn’t need constant working at, but on some level we’ve got it in a way that perhaps we haven’t quite got other things. I love singing and making music, for instance, but I know I’m not a natural musician to anything like the same extent that I would – on a good day – see myself as a natural writer. Dorothy L Sayers says somewhere (I can’t find the exact quote) that you know an art is really yours by the fact that you have patience with the craft of it. If you’re a writer in this sense, you care about the shaping and reshaping of a phrase, the precision with which you capture a scene or character on the page, the structure of this artefact that you’ve created out of words. I’d like to think I have something of that kind of writer in me.
Which brings us back to the writer in the other sense: someone for whom writing is not only something they regularly do, not only something they happen to love and be good at, but a profession they are paid for. It’s perfectly possible to be a writer in the first two senses and receive no money or public recognition whatsoever. Recognition and encouragement from friends, perhaps, and at times the knowledge that you’ve made a story or a poem or an article as well as you can, but neither of those entitles you to call yourself a writer in the professional world. I can, of course, say that I’m a writer in this sense when I’m busy writing and seeking publication, but somehow I won’t quite feel I’ve arrived as one unless and until that rite of passage happens. And it may not. If it doesn’t, I hope I’ll still go on being a writer in the ways that I am and can be one.