When can you call yourself a writer?

Do you confidently call yourself a writer? Or does the word feel alien on your tongue, somehow ridiculous when it comes out? 

If calling yourself a writer makes you bristle, you’re not alone.

When I’m at the hairdresser, or the doctor, or making general chat with the checkout operator, whenever they as me what I do I know that being a writer is an interesting starter for conversation. However, before the word comes out I think better of it and only mention the job I do full-time: “I work in marketing.” Somehow, I feel like I’m saving myself from being scoffed at for having no bestselling novel to my name. If I say “writer”, –I somehow sound like a child being asked what they want to do when they grow up.

So much of this has to do with preconceived (and often false) notions of what it means to be a writer.

And “poet” is even worse.

What does a writer look like to you?

If I ask you to picture what a writer looks like, did you picture an older, middle-class white man? Did you imagine someone with a walnut desk and expensive-looking shoes, penning their next bestseller with an expensive glass of whiskey at their side? 

If I say “poet” do you imagine a bloke in a flat cap, handing out scraps of scribbled verse for some change to spend on his next pint? Perhaps your vision is slightly more ethereal–some spiritual being who speaks only in riddles and whose ideas transcend those of everyday chitchat.

Growing up, none of those images were me.

In Mary Ann Sieghart’s book The Authority Gap, she commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out the gender of the most popular authors people were reading. She wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed that men were disproportionately unlikely even to look at a book written by a woman.

Poetry in particular has long been dominated by white male writers. In school, it was Shakespeare and Heaney and Chaucer (as much as I adore Heaney and Chaucer). It wasn’t until college and university, when I discovered Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks and Carol Ann Duffy did I learn that poetry is for women too.

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.

For people who are non-binary or not white and/or middle-class, representation is even more difficult.

Girls like me from working-class families did not fit the definition of a “writer” I was taught at a young age.

Perhaps this is why saying: “I am a writer” felt so wrong for far too long.

When did you call yourself a writer?

I often told myself, albeit secretly, that I was a writer from a young age. But it wasn’t until I won the Terry Hetherington Young Writer’s Award in 2015 that I actually believed it. Someone out there thought my writing was good enough. It just took validation from someone other than my mum to accept it.

External validation is something I believe is another key factor in how comfortable we are with calling ourselves writers. We also often don’t want to seem like we are bragging in any way–we might admit to writing, but if we say “I am a writer”, are we giving ourselves undeserved validation? Will we be seen as somewhat pompous?

I put the question out on Twitter: When did you call yourself a writer? The responses were interesting. Here are just some of the replies received:

  • “I’m still not fully comfortable. I was proud to call myself a journalist when I was one (different country, different language). I started using writer here after book 1 was out (now2). Author feels more appropriate than writer for me so I tend to use that more. Author points to clear distinct chunks I can prove exist. Writer is less clear (imaginary screenshot of Submittable goes here). Also writer feels more fictionish to me and I only have nonfiction out right now. I have no compunctions with calling myself an artist.” – Lior Locher (@ChristineLocher)

  • “I was a few months into my job at ITV News before I felt comfortable saying “I’m a journalist” and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite comfortable calling myself a writer – even though I write/publish scripts and articles every single day. For me, I think my WC upbringing comes into it. Being a writer wasn’t a career to aspire to so. It’s not a “proper job” – if you know what I mean.” – Paul Davies (p_m_davies)

  • “The first time someone asked me to write something they’d publish, in my case just a short article not too dissimilar to a blog. I’d been blogging for a while before that but didn’t class that as writing as no one had asked me to (in fact some probably wished I wouldn’t).” – Gary Cookson (@Gary_Cookson)

  • “Because I read a lot, always have & studied lit degree…writers to me are ethereal geniuses – special – gifted. I’m realising I’m a bit of a writing snob…if I was coaching myself on this block I’d say a writer is a writer if they write something folk want to read.” – Jayne Rooke (@JayneHarrison3)

  • “Only after my third Poetry Wales publication when I noted how all of a sudden writers on twitter were following me back, interacting with me more seriously! The confidence to introduce oneself as a writer is probably dependent on the general levels of confidence each possesses?” – Taz Rahman (@amonochromdream)

  • “I don’t say it. I write a blog post every day but don’t consider myself a writer.” – Andrew Jacobs (@AndrewJacobsLnD)

  • “I feel like I’m kidding myself calling myself a writer even though I’ve had some things published (and occasionally been paid). I work on writing in one way or another nearly every day but I feel like people will expect me to have a book published to consider me a writer.” – Katie Bennett-Davies (@kbennettdavies)

  • “I started writing stories when I was 5-6, & I was def calling myself a writer by the time I was 7-8, at least. Obvs I was not published yet. I guess though my publishing chops aren’t the world’s most impressive, I’ve just always been very confident in that as part of my identity.” – Clarissa Aykroyd (@stoneandthestar)

  • “When I realised that no-one grants you the title writer or poet. They are what I am and so I declare that to the world.” – Kevin Connelly (@KevinConnelly5)

  • “I think it took me until my MA to start saying it regularly, which was a while after I had my first publication. Even now, I tend to say it in a self deprecating way, like when I say something grammatically incorrect I’ll add: ‘I’m a writer, you know’, for an easy punchline.” – Jonathan Macho (@Oncomingsmith13)

The majority, it seems, have either needed someone external to validate them as a writer, or they have problem with a preconceived notion that they don’t feel they fit. 

How do you know when you’re a writer?

Do you write?

Then you’re a writer. We’ve got a long way to go in unpicking some of the preconceived ideas we’ve long held about what it means to be a writer. No careers officer in any school is going to take you seriously if you tell them that’s what you want to be–it’s far more likely that they’ll force a stack of information sheets on teaching and journalism careers into your hands (I walked out with one on veterinary science. Don’t ask).

We’ve also got some serious work to do in reading work by authors who are not white men. Women shouldn’t have to hide their first names under the cover of abbreviations or use a male pen name just to get their work taken seriously. You shouldn’t need a private school education. You shouldn’t need to be born into a certain family. 

Calling yourself a writer does not make you a fraud. It does not make you arrogant. You likely have no problem with saying: “I’m a teacher” or “I’m an accountant” or “I’m a journalist”. If you teach, you’re a teacher.

If you write, you’re a writer.

This is your validation to let yourself say it out loud.

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