So You Call Yourself a Writer?

The difference between having the talent, and doing the work

Computer typing
All rights reserved by Oscar Wong / Moment / Getty Images

“Can we talk about the role of napping? It’s underdescribed and so essential. There’s something about the creative process that requires it.” - A. M. Homes

Why is it so hard to write when it is the one thing you are supposed to be doing? What makes it so unbearable, even when you have nothing else to do? What about the guilt of not writing when you have the time? There are enough things to feel guilty about.

I know about discipline. In college, my writing professor told me that if I didn’t write every day I would never be published.
Another mentor said, “If you aren’t writing, don’t call yourself a writer.”

I’ve heard all the tricks.
“Write in the morning when you are half awake and still in that dreamy part of your mind.”
“Put aside a certain amount of time every day and do nothing but write.”
“Get that software that stops you from going on the internet.”
You could even do like John Cheever did, and get dressed up in a suit and tie, walk down the stairs to your office at 9am, and write until 5 in the evening.

Here is the truth: I don’t write for days. For weeks. But when people ask me what I do, I always say I’m a writer. So what is it that makes you a writer if you are not always writing? If you are sleeping, walking, eating, listening, TV watching, laughing, living...

I know many people that I consider to be writers who write very little.

Each writer has a different process. A writer, to me, is not necessarily someone who produces 100 pages, but someone who has the capacity to break my heart with words.

I can often recognize writers right away in my classes. They are not always the most verbal, and they do not always give the best critiques.

They are not always hyper-intellectual or well-read. I am probably going against every teacher's manual and classroom rule when I say this, but in my experience, writers are not always the best students.

Being a writer has to do with being what I call “emotionally smart.” It is about understanding people, their complex interiors, the “whys” of the symptoms, not the symptoms themselves. I often tell my students to take psychology classes. Everything is inside.

Being a writer means being hyper-aware. It means seeing where the beauty, the humor, and the sadness is.
Being a writer is recognizing the moments to write about. It is knowing what is “fiction-worthy,” and what is not.
Being a writer is being able to live in two minds, to observe while interacting, and to see the truth.

Being a published writer is something else.

I believe that good writers need to have all of the traits above, but the work of being a writer comes from another place, and the work is not always fun. Being a writer is unconscious, doing the work is the opposite. They are two different parts that need to be combined: one is a talent, and one a job.

However, I often tell my students this:
If you are inspired, then write.

Do the work. But if you are writing and feeling that nothing is going the way you want it to and that you are simply writing for the sake of it, wasting your time, then go on a bike ride, call a friend, jump on a trampoline, dive in the ocean...
The thing about being a writer is that it doesn’t go away. You can never retire. It is your job to show the world what it is missing. Which might be the hardest job there is.