Some people have no hesitation: “I’m a writer!”, they proclaim to anyone in earshot. When pressed, they might admit that they haven’t actually written anything - but they’re working really hard on a great state-of-the-nation novel; or thriller or horror or airport bestseller that’s going to make them obscenely rich. Admirable ambition.
Conversely, some who really do earn from writing have no respect for their own output. “It’s not real writing.”
So is it about money? Well, selling your writing is certainly good. Samuel Johnson thought so. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” he said. But it’s a very reductive view of – let’s say it – art. History is full of stories – encouraging to many of us – of writers unrecognised in their lifetime whose work became enormously popular decades or centuries after their death. And very very few writers have ever earned enough to make it their sole source of income.
Of course, if you haven’t written, then you’re not a writer. The first and most important step is actually to write the story. The Internet is full of writers’ web sites and writers’ support groups, all of them encouraging people to write. You can do it. And in general it’s good to get out of the attic. Unfortunately, hard work and enthusiasm aren’t enough on their own. Over the years I’ve been sent literally hundreds of film scripts from hopeful writers. All I can say is that there may well be a novel (or a film) inside everyone. Getting it out is the tough part.
And what about, “You’re a writer if someone else says you are.” Well, yes. Certainly. Somebody else has seen your work and valued it as good. But can’t you also be a writer even if nobody sees your work? There’s a satisfaction in preparing a perfect meal, even if it’s just for you. You can enjoy the craft, and the results. A joiner can make a beautiful chair. It’s still a beautiful chair, even if nobody else ever sees it. A kind of Schrödinger’s chair, where its special value disappears if anyone looks at it…
In the end I think two things make you a writer: compulsion, and craft. You write because you can’t not write. And you do it as well as you possibly can.
Picture: Petra, "The rose-red city, half as old as time." John Burgon's description. My photograph. The picture shows. The words haunt.