July 14, 2014

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.

About Daniel Swensen

Daniel Swensen is a fantasy / sci-fi enthusiast, amateur cineaste, avid reader, and compulsive writer, authoring everything from RPG gamebooks to cell phone advertisements. He lives in the hinterlands with his wife and two cats. His fantasy novel, Orison, is available now at the Nine Muse Press Store and on Amazon / Barnes & Noble.

  • http://avajae.blogspot.com Ava Jae

    Great take on an interesting topic, Daniel. I really like your metaphor of the sign, and it’s very true–the when, where or why doesn’t really matter as long as you are (as you said) indeed writing. It’s different for everyone and when you decide to call yourself a writer is up to you–the point isn’t the label at all, it’s that you continue to put words on the page.

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      Totally. Thanks for the great comment, Ava.

  • Jo-Anne (jtvancouver)

    My gawd I enjoy your writing! Who else could write the sentence: ” If you’re on the road to Writertown, and words are your fuel, then the “writer” label is a road sign.”

    As a newbie, I find it interesting how often the word ‘writer’ is modified – as in, ‘newbie’, ‘aspiring’, ‘almost’ etc… All of us who do this wish we had the nerve to just use one word label (or as you say, none at all) but we think we’ll be judged harshly by the pros out there.

    I shall think on this now and see if I have the gumption to just go for it…gosh, it took me 50 years to get this far!

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      Thanks, Jo-Anne! That’s quite a compliment! I think I should make a chart of the adjectives people add to “writer.” So many of them basically stand for “not writing.”

  • http://dustyjournal.com/ Tracy McCusker

    “Let the labels take care of themselves.” Well-said, Dan.

    I’ve been tripped up over the label of writer; and it had more to do with what I was or wasn’t doing. The crisis over the label was the lightning rod that drew my attention. But really, it just the brackets around the questions: “are you writing? Are you not? Why not? Why not right now?”

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      Yeah. When the label itself becomes a roadblock, it’s time for it to go. Thank you Tracy.

  • http://twitter.com/HP4Writers Susan Sipal

    Love the post. That road to Writertown is surely the longest, windingest (yes, it’s a word), most difficult path I’ve followed…no matter where the road sign is! :-)

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      Thank you, Susan. And yes, windingest is definitely the word :D

  • http://twitter.com/ruanna3 Anna Meade

    This is excellent. You might consider doing this as a series, Dan, as there are many misleading signs along the way to writing success. As always, love it!

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      I Picked Up a Psychotic Hitchhiker on the Road to Writertown
      What’s With All This Goddamn Construction Work on the Road to Writertown
      When the Road to Writertown Gets De-Subsidized
      My Asshole GPS Won’t Show Me the Road to Writertown
      No Rest Stops on the Road to Writertown
      The Road to Writertown: Gas, Food, Lodging, Deadline Panic

  • https://catecinem.wordpress.com/ Matt S.

    Well, sure, I’m a “writer.” But when do I get to call myself an ARTIST?

    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      When you figure that out, be sure to tell me.

  • Randyattwood
    • http://www.surlymuse.com Daniel Swensen

      Thank you for sharing the link, Randy. I think there’s probably fodder for at least two or three blog posts in there!