What makes a writer a writer?
Social media and the interwebs are filled with decrees and passionate rebuttals on this exact topic. Some fall into the camp of “a writer must write every day” while others insist that if you write—no matter how often or little—you are a writer if you consider yourself one. I believe the answer to be more nuanced than a simple measure of time spent. To my mind, there is a difference between being a writer and being a Writer, and which one you are depends on what you put into it and what you seek to get out of it. Indulge me an allegory to explain.
I have a dear friend—Paul, let’s call him—who longs to play the guitar. Six-string talent runs in his family: his brother plays professionally and his father, while also skilled, plays more for pleasure. Figuring it must be in his blood as well, Paul bought an acoustic guitar not long after we first met. He invested in a handful of “How To” books, watched instructional videos on You Tube, and even took basic lessons at a local music shop. In the ten years since Paul bought that first guitar, the number of songs he’s been able to comfortably play has gone from zero to, well, zero. He can strum a few chords and plays a painfully slow and basic version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” but he’s not what you’d call accomplished.
For all his desire to serenade us with songs, Paul lacks one thing: the discipline of consistency. He isn’t bereft of time or support; he just doesn’t prioritize practicing and often goes weeks, even months, without picking up his guitar. The desire to be the type of person who plays is strong, but the drive to do what it takes to actually play guitar just isn’t there. So, would you say Paul is a guitar player?
Successful authors from Ray Bradbury to Elizabeth Gilbert have said that being a writer entails writing every day. Personally, I don’t think they mean a solid 365 days a year. I doubt even they religiously abide by those words. Rather, I think they mean that the consistent habit of writing is an inherent part of any Writer. I use the capital W because I also believe they mean their words to apply to those who claim writing as a profession or who strive to be “published authors,” in whatever capacity that works for them (i.e., traditional, indie, online, or self-published.)
Given this distinction, I tend to agree with Bradbury, Gilbert, et al. A Writer who seeks that title as a profession—whether full- or part-time or even freelance—is someone who is persistent and purposeful in their writing habits. That doesn’t mean writing daily but at least steadily, and can include writing-related activities such as editing, revising, marketing and even studying the craft.
Having said that, I also fall in the camp that someone need not be published or have a lifetime of prose behind them to wear the cloak of writer. My paternal grandmother loved to write poetry. She didn’t write consistently or amass a huge collection, but I think she considered herself a (lowercase w) writer. She had a passion for turning out the occasional poem when the mood struck her, but she didn’t write for recognition or publication (she may have only ever had one poem published in her small-town paper.) No, she wrote because she loved it.
Think about it like this: someone who likes to dance around his apartment naked may not be a Dancer, but he sure is a dancer. A shower stall, shampoo-bottle-mic’d diva maybe isn’t a Singer, but she’s certainly a singer. My mother, who baked and decorated a ton of birthday cakes for her eight children over a span of forty years, was our official family baker, even if she wasn’t a Baker.
Getting back to our erstwhile musician, Paul doesn’t care if he’s considered a “capital GP” Guitar Player, because his hobby isn’t there to suit anyone else’s ideas of what it should be. He doesn’t care about the label and he knows he’ll likely never be paid for it. For now, he enjoys being able to pluck out a few chords from time to time. So yes, he can be considered a guitar player, if an infrequent and not overly skilled one.
I think the root cause of debate is that both camps fear diminishment in use of the label: Writers of their work and writers of their passion. The point is that whether writing is a hobby or profession, both work and passion are required to varying degrees in combinations deeply personal to the writer and/or Writer. The extent of effort put into your passion and the outcome you strive for may define which of the two you are but not the validity of being either.