Writer as Career v Writer as Identity

Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:

Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naΓ―ve.

There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).

That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”

I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.

If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.

Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.

Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.

That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.

If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.

You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.

All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.

  1. Hello, HSC year. []


  1. Lauren on #

    Wow. you made me think. I think that I’m like you, I could write about anything or anyone and thats the way I’m wired. thank you!

  2. Roxanne Rhoads on #

    I agree with your thoughts. I have always been a writer. From the time I could hold a pen in my hand I was a writer even before my first “real” published poem at the age of 11. Even when I haven’t been “working” as a writer, ie getting paid to write I ahve always identified myself as a writer. It is who I am, not what, not just my career. I am a writer.

  3. Mark Welker on #

    Lovely post Justine. I think every writer has a part of their persona that yearns for acceptance, and I guess publishing regularly is one way that some writers can justify saying to a friend or colleague “I’m a writer”. Not everyone needs this self assurance, and I guess for those who need it, it isn’t very helpful at times. For me I guess the only other thing that makes me feel like I’m a writer is an audience. Vain as it is, my stories don’t feel complete unless they are read by someone else. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I think deep down writing is communicating, so if there’s no one around, the conversation can get a little muted.

  4. Liz W. on #

    Thank you for writing this, and for explaining the difference between writer and author so eloquently. I have been trying to explain this difference for a while – I am working on being a writer – and now I can simply send people here!

  5. Pam on #

    Yes, yes, yes: it’s all true! I’m a bit published but not enough for any sort of career so I work at an unrelated full time job. I’ve tried to give up writing but I can’t. When I’m not writing, I’m irritable, unhappy and painful to be around. I came across this quote from Kafka than sums it all up: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” He knew how we’re all wired.

  6. AliceB on #

    This is so true, Justine. Thank you.

  7. Catherine on #

    I really appreciated this differentiation. Many of my writing friends who are emerging novelists are trying to sort out this very dichotomy.

    I am a college professor. I didn’t want to hedge my bets on trying to make a living as a writer. I like to eat, pay bills, and so on. However, my goal now is publication because I hope to retire in around 10 years at 55, and I’d like to have revenue from royalties.

    As you note so well, there are no guarantees that will happen, so I would rather rely on my retirement income primarily as I move toward the author goal. If I am lucky enough to publish, good. I’ll probably be sending things out for the rest of my life.

    I do find discouragement in rejection. For all of us, it stings. I think another important facet of writing is you come back to it and try again even after rejection, because what you value about writing is intrinsic.


  8. wandering-dreamer on #

    I’d been wondering after reading some of the comments on this blog a while back what exactly the word “writer” meant to most people. I used it to mean “someone who writes” but it seemed like many people (outside this blog which was why I was confused) used it as a synonym for “published writer” (which is technically correct I guess). So I was glad to see this little post on the subject and I agree, a person who is a writer and a person who is a novelist are two separate things and I know that I’ll be trying to use the correct terminology from now on.

  9. Delia on #

    I have been delivering this speech, or a variation of it, to every writing class I’ve ever taught (except Freshman Comp, of course). Most of them don’t believe me, but I continue to think it’s more important to write for the love of the thing than for the glory. Glory is largely a matter of luck. Some who don’t deserve it are swimming in it; many who do deserve it never get a whiff. Those who treat writing as the vocation it is at least have the satisfaction of doing what they love best to the best of their ability. And if only their flist and their writer’s group ever reads it, well, that’s more readers than Emily Dickinson had in her lifetime.

  10. Daisy Whitney on #

    Brilliant and thoughtful post!

  11. Sofie on #

    Brilliant post – I was struggling with this very definition when discussing the pros and cons of different kinds of writer-groups – ones that are largely for encouragement and socialising vs ones for critique and development. It was so hard to find a way to distinguish the ‘writers’ from the ‘authors’ without sounding like I was patronising somebody!

    I’ve always loved Robert Jordan’s quote: “If you want to be a Writer, go be an accountant. If you want to write, write.” If the point of it is the publication/recognition rather than the process, then you’re going to burn yourself out long before you get there.

  12. Ross Hamilton on #

    A good post and one that I strongly identify with. I am unhesitating in describing myself as a writer and getting what I can, published as and when I can. Being able to actually pursue it as a career is something that not all of us are going to be able to do. And Tessa’s blog is always worth a read. πŸ™‚

  13. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I find the description of myself as “an author” to be unutterably pretentious. I’m not “an author” unless it is followed immediately by the title of a particular work. “The author of BLANK.” I know my publishers call me “one of their authors” but I think that’s the same thing. I’m only one of “their” authors because I authored a particular work they hold the rights to. When I go into a bookstore and walk up to the counter and say “hi, I wrote this book, can I sign it?” and they call their manager and say they have “an author” in the store, they are again referring to the author of a specific work. When I go in with my laptop and a latte, I’m a writer.

    “Writer” is what goes on my tax forms. I guess I got used to it because for years, I was a writer for a living — but not of books. I wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines and websites. I wrote advertising copy. I made money out of words. But no one in the newspaper business calls themselves “an author” when they see their work in print. That pretentious title seems unique to the book biz.

    When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer, or, to cut to the chase, I say I’m a novelist, since that’s more specific and I haven’t written a newspaper article in years (though I have done non fic work for books).

    What’s interesting to me is that usually, at these cocktail parties, people immediately ask “published?” which leads me to think that most people who say this ARE talking about their identity, not their profession.

    (Which is actually quite refreshing, as Americans always ask “what do you do” first thing in a conversation — especially here in DC.)

    I think it’s great that people use “writer” as their identity without publication credits, especially if they have feelings of fraudulence otherwise (like they couldn’t attend a “writer’s conference” since they aren’t REALLY writers). But when I say it, I am talking about my profession. the IRS says it’s one. πŸ˜‰

  14. Scotti Cohn on #

    Nicely done! I consider myself a professional writer because I have been and am currently being paid for what I write. Could I support myself with my writing alone? No. Fortunately, I have a husband whose income makes it possible for me to write without worrying about that. Would I keep writing even if I weren’t published? Probably. But I would still keep trying to get published. I spent the first half of my life writing “just for the love of it.” I still love to write, but I am not content to write “for myself” any longer. I want lots of other people to read what I write and for my work to be acknowledged in the form of publication. I think writers go through different stages in their writing lives, all of which are equally valid and valuable.

  15. Angela Parson Myers on #

    I absolutely agree that a writer writes and a professional writer gets paid for it. I, too, have been a writer ever since I could hold a crayon. First got paid for it as a senior in high school, and have been fortunate enough to have a great career as a writer–but as a corporate writer/editor, not a novelist or freelancer. Now I’m retired and writing fiction. Some people still don’t call me a writer. How silly.

  16. pjthompson on #

    Thank you for this. Thanks so very, very much.

  17. Justine on #

    So pleased this post has been useful to so many of you. I always think of this particularl conversation in terms of cooking. Many people, including me, adore cooking but most of them do not make their living at it. The conversation between pro chefs/cooks is frequently very different from that between amateur cooks. But there’s also a big overlap when it comes to talking about ingredients and process.

    Diana: Ha! Yeah I put “writer” on forms that want my profession. In general conversation I say “novelist” because it shortens the what-do-you-write convo. However, for these conversations about identity v profession I find the author/writer distinction extremely useful.

  18. Tessa Kum on #

    You’re too much awesome for one person, lady.

  19. dirtywhitecandy on #

    This business of profession as identity is crucial. I’ve been a journalist, but don’t like journalism much, so didn’t want that to define my identity. At one stage I was a manager in a small publishing company and really hated to be known as such. It took me years to say ‘I’m a writer’ – but when I did I liked the way it fitted.

  20. Gabby Fox on #

    A friend emailed me this article, perhaps as a friendly reminder to be gentler with myself and not self-criticize each time I sit down to write (just because, if I can’t properly call myself a “writer,” why bother with the act of it?). The artist as perfectionist has been the little devil on my shoulder since I realized I don’t make sense when I don’t process the world through the written world, but if a word falls in the forest and no one reads it, we may still call that writing? Perhaps. Thank you for your article.

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