Last month I was invited to a barbecue where I found myself seated next to a young woman named Kirsten whom I had never met before. When I told her I was the manager of the Writers’ Program, she asked me an innocent question that admittedly left my knees weak and my tongue dangling like a participle.
“Are you a writer?” she inquired.
I scratched my head and gave it some thought. About a dozen of my articles and essays had been published in L.A. newspapers and magazines, and two more had been posted online. I had also written about 38 pages of a novel and so far had resisted the temptation to feed them to my home shredder where my earlier drafts currently rest in peace. But truth be told, the articles and essays were now more than 10 years old, I wasn’t paid a single dime for the online pieces, and sometimes several weeks go by before I find a sliver of time to work on my novel. So could I legitimately call myself a writer? For lack of something more substantive to say, I locked eyes with Kirsten and said, “Define writer.”
She looked at me as if I had a wad of spinach stuck between my teeth, and then excused herself to check her email.
The following Monday I was still perplexed, in a chicken and egg sort of way, about whether I could honestly claim to be a writer. I consulted Wikipedia which defines a writer as “anyone who creates written work, although the word more usually designates those who write creatively or professionally…” So far so good, I thought. But then my trusty old Webster set me back by defining a writer as “one who practices writing as an occupation.” I definitely didn’t qualify.
I shared my self-doubt with a couple of my co-workers, beginning with Program Representative Corey Campbell. Corey was recently accepted into the Warren Wilson MFA program in Fiction and has written more than a dozen short stories, but her work has only been published in two now-defunct Denver newspapers. When I asked her, “Are you a writer?” she seemed ever-so-slightly insulted before replying with an unequivocal “Yes.”
But Program Representative Mae Respicio, whose personal essays have been published in anthologies and journals, wasn’t as quick to commit. “Sometimes I am, and other times I’m not. I feel like I can call myself a writer during those times that I’m actively writing each day, working on getting my stuff out there, and actually getting things published here and there. But there are also those times when I haven’t sat at my computer in weeks, have barely read a book or short story in months, and haven’t had any rejections because I haven’t taken the time to send out my work — so in those times I don’t feel like a writer at all.”
It was time to call in the experts; that is, Writers’ Program instructors, all of whom are, by anyone’s definition, writers. I asked three of them at what point they were finally comfortable calling themselves writers.
Instructor Jamie Cat Callan, an award-winning writer and author of numerous nonfiction books and novels, said it was “when I received a check for $5. It was from a tiny literary magazine called “Buckle” for one poem. This was back in 1977 and my boyfriend and I went out and bought a pizza. ‘Look!’ I said. ‘My poetry is putting food on the table!'”
Aha, I thought. It all comes down to money. Well, I had been paid for my early articles, so maybe I was a writer after all.
But instructor Daniel Jaffe, a novelist and essayist, saw it another way. Dan said he was comfortable calling himself a writer only after “finishing a novel, quitting my day job, and devoting myself fulltime to the study and practice of writing. It would be years before I’d publish,” he said, “but I turned writer the day writing became the primary focus of my labor.”
Well, if it’s about how much time I actually devote to my writing, then I am most definitely not a writer.
Screenwriting instructor David Warfield, who has written for MGM, ABC, Warner Bros., RKO, and Polygram, sealed the decision with his own admission of wariness. At what point did he feel comfortable calling himself a writer? “It was right before I finished my first screenplay,” he said. “Haven’t felt comfortable since.”
If an industry professional with several screen credits to his name still got queasy about calling himself a writer, then what kind of poser did that make me? Clearly, I was not a writer at all.
And then last week, I was looking through the instructor pages of the Writers’ Program website where I stumbled upon Adam Cushman‘s instructor statement. “If you have a strong desire to write,” Adam said, “then no matter what anybody tells you, you are a writer.” It was like finding a golden ticket with my name on it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to my novel.
Cindy Lieberman is the Program Manager of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.