Yesterday I started reading a book about writing — James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, which is fantastic so far, if anyone else out there needs help sorting out their ability to write plots — and the author talks about some of the ways he’s kept himself motivated over the years to keep sitting down to write. One of his early methods was buying a mug that said “Writer” on it:
I would look at that cup every day to remind myself of my commitment. In fact, on days when the writing drags, I’ll look at it again. It gives me a fresh jolt of enthusiasm.
Of course, if you’re a writer then you’re probably familiar with the sort of intense cognitive dissonance that I imagine every writer, at some point or another, faces over the subject of this sort of naming. I’ve been writing, and rather competently if I do say so myself, for as long as I can remember; yet I’ve always squirmed at the idea of actually calling myself a writer. Surely I wasn’t there yet. I hadn’t sold anything. Then when I had sold something, I hadn’t sold the specific genre of thing that I wanted to sell. Could I call myself a writer if I was self-published? Was I a writer if I’d only published a few articles, and no books? If I’d published only one book? What if I’d written twenty great American novels but was too terrified to let anyone read them? Was I a writer then? If a tree fell in the forest to be turned into paper for me to endlessly crumple and throw into my wastepaper basket, would anyone hear my sobs of helpless self-loathing?
Polling your friends and family won’t help with these sorts of existential questions, by the way. I’m sure my fellow maybe-we’re-writers know exactly what I’m talking about. Your mom might have been calling you “my little bestselling author” since she pinned your first crayon-scribbled essay onto the fridge. Your friends might not think you’re a real writer until you’ve outsold Stephen King.
Logically, if you look at the word “writer,” you might realize that it’s perfectly acceptable to call yourself a writer if you’re somebody who’s writing all the time. Even if you aren’t doing it well. Hell, even if you aren’t doing it frequently. If calling yourself a writer helps you sit your ass in that chair and pound out a few hundred words, who’s to say you’re not a writer? You seem to be involved in the act of writing. Still, your brain can know that logically and still whisper to you at every available opportunity that you’re not really a writer. Not yet. Not until you have fulfilled goals X, Y and Z which have been set entirely arbitrarily by your trolling psyche.
It doesn’t seem fair, because we human beings have very little trouble giving ourselves other titles before we’ve perhaps fully earned them. We have no trouble calling ourselves failures before we’ve truly begun to try; worthless before we’ve even scratched the surface of our ability; hopeless before we’ve even begun to hope. Those titles, it seems, are easy to take to heart.
This weekend I ran my first 5K race. For my $20 registration fee and a slightly greater price extracted in sweat, I got a “Scottish Sprint” t-shirt (I seriously wanted that t-shirt you guys, and I did not care that I had to drive an hour each way just to get to the race), a tag with a number on it, and the fine company of fellow runners through a grueling (well, grueling if you’re me) 3.1 miles in wonderfully overcast weather. I got to sprint across the finish line to the sound of bagpipes in the park across the street as the day’s Scottish festival got going, and I got to feel that in some way I’d just validated all of those months that I’d spent quietly calling myself a runner in my head. A 5K is nothing more than a leisurely warm-up jog to a lot of “runners” I know, but doing your first 5K or 10K or ultramarathon doesn’t make you a runner any more than you already were just by getting out there and running. You know you’re a runner not by how many races you’ve completed or even whether you’ve raced at all. You earn that title by the simple fact that you have run, you are running, you will run.
If holding back from calling yourself a writer helps keep you hungry, then by all means. If calling yourself a writer helps keep you motivated, do that. If you won’t feel you’re a runner until you’ve clobbered that marathon, or you already feel like a runner because you’ve just made it all the way around the block, do whatever it takes to keep on running.
Milestones are important. Goals are important. Dreams are important. But there is no race, no route, no mile marker or timer more important to being a runner than the steady and transcendent rhythm of feet against earth. There is no more important act to being a writer than setting words, one after another, down on paper. There is always hope when your feet are still moving, when your pen is still scrawling, when you have chosen to name yourself instead of letting your doubts name you.