“He thinks you just need to get a job.”
My brow furrowed while I took a quick, defensive inhale of breath. I’d been sitting across the table from my aunt on a hazy, summer afternoon, discussing my career path and where it might lead over lemonade and paninis.
She mentioned that my uncle, apparently, thought I was unemployed.
“But… I’m not…,” I stammered, nearly choking on my swallow of sandwich.
“Ohhhh yes, yes, I know. You do that blogging,” she zipped back, tapping her fingers in the air on an imaginary keyboard.
My eyes swiveled downward, a millisecond-long “Is it worth it to bother explaining/correcting?” internal debate raging my head, and I decided that I would not spend the afternoon teasing out the semantics of my job description.
I took a deep breath and a bite of turkey and cheese.
I let it go in the moment, but a whiff of indignance from the whole interaction floated along beside me like a bothersome cloud for the rest of the day.
Why did it frustrate me so much?
The culture I grew up in plays a part in why I care about my job title.
Here in the U.S., despite our idealized obsession with rags-to-riches self-starters and bootstrapping successes, when you tell some people you write and edit for a living, they give you the same look they give six-year-olds at lemonade stands. (Doe eyes, lip out, “Awww.”)
You say “self-employed writer” or “entrepreneur”, and they read: “between jobs.” In a world where, for many, the first spitfire question at any social gathering deals with how you spend 40+ hours of your week, identity and job title can feel like indistinguishable bedfellows.
So, when you don’t have the institutional-imposed labels of traditional corporate structures, what do you say?
Those of us here in the diverse and oft-misunderstood world of writing cleave to distinctions — labels that demonstrate we have, indeed, arrived and can stake our claim as a real professional writer. We want to beat the odds — be the writers who make it — so we ground ourselves in word trappings that prove it.
While we might reject titles like “blogger” and “freelancer,” or avoid the phrase “I work from home,” we embrace those that draw lines in the sand between us and those deemed ‘less serious,’ or ‘sellouts.’
It happens all throughout the writing world.
Freelancer. Independent writer. Blogger. Website Founder. Hobbyist writer. Novelist. Guest Poster. Online Contributor. Web Writer. Digital Content Specialist. Beat Reporter. Targeted News Analyst.
Beefing up your self-imposed title so you can sound more official is just one way that those in the writing camp battle for recognition and peer respect.
Sound like a load of shit? It is. But that’s the writing landscape today. Quibbling over whether we’re real writers or not, we can forget what the real point of being a writer is — to write.
But most writers must succumb to this categorization system in one way or another for the sake of landing gigs (yes, gigs, because lots of full-time writers do not have full-time financing from one employer. They have to hustle for opportunities constantly… but if you’re reading this, you probably already knew that.)
Like a product, full-time writers have to effectively brand themselves to pull in clients and distinguish themselves from the writhing pack of desperate freelancers pitching like mad and hoping that something sticks. Labels become quick-hit ways of determining caliber and quality, all the while encouraging the cut-your-throat-to-get-ahead culture of the corporate world loathed by so many independent writers (or other self-employed professionals, for that matter).
All in the pursuit of becoming the mythical ‘real writer.’
I’ve talked to enough non-traditional career chasers to know that the struggle is real, and those of us in the creative fields have to decide to either push forward and continue writing amidst the aggressively harsh climate or abandon ship.
Committing wholeheartedly to the former requires a massive perspective shift and a realignment of what really matters in the path toward being a writer.
Identity crisis sold separately.
What are you actually saying when you say you want to be a ‘real’ writer?
Do you want fame? Money? Recognition? Your name on the spine of a paperback? A byline in the New York Times? To be the next Stephen King, Jane Austen, or JK Rowling?
Are you chasing an external validation of your writing aptitude, worth, or abilities?
Did you know you unwittingly entered a therapy session when you started reading this article?
Building a business or career around your writing skills is not your problem, nor is seeking formalized legitimacy in a job title or recognition. And there is nothing wrong with having goals. Hell, getting out my planner is the one thing I actually like about New Year’s. (Gentlemen, gentlemen, one at a time, please!)
But if the acceptance, the awards, the industry acclaim — the official title — proves to be the only fuel to your writing fire, you’re going to run out pretty quickly. While corporate ladder climbers aspire to reaching the corner office, or the C-Suite, your advancements in the writing field will likely be less defined.
This different path to validation means it is all the more important to separate your external motivation (earning a particular distinction or label) from your internal motivation (I want need to write!). Here’s your first tip, so listen close.
Stop waiting for someone to show up on your doorstep with a placard that reads: “Congratulations, [Your Name]! You’re a real writer now! Here is a salary for life, as well as personal and professional satisfaction and peer recognition, plus the approval from your parents you’ve been chasing ever since you were benched on your middle school volleyball team.”
Nope, the good news and bad news here is that you need to let-the-fuck-GO of any needs for approval, recognitions, or ‘atta-girls you may or may not have been used to in your younger years. Ditto for your dreams of being surrounded by fans, clamoring for your autograph.
This real talk is not meaning to say that no one is ever going to say anything nice about your writing ever again, or that the possibility of your becoming famous doesn’t exist, or even that you will never find security or comfort in the warm embrace of a job title again.
BUT — if your ability to soldier on in the face of the real world of writing depends on gold stars, it ain’t gonna happen, friend.
Unlike other career paths with greater degrees of logical steps, security, and benchmarks, the writing industry can feel more like a free-for-all gauntlet. Understand that your career path (and yes, your job title), will be a bit of a windy, murky, subjective road.
Get used to the only constant being constant change.
Given that reality, tap into the deeper, visceral reason why you’re here in front of the keyboard. You’re going to need it.
If you actually love writing — as a craft, as an art, as a passion — you will make it through all the rejection letters, negative comments, or worse, apathy, that your work is met with in the real world.
Failure will strengthen your resolve. Criticism will push your learning. Doubters and haters will actually make you double down on your efforts, guaranteed.
Those same challenges will make the faint of pen quit.
Often, the catalyst of real world knockdowns weed out superficial writers. Regardless of what their LinkedIn profile says, true writers weather the storm, and, yes, keep writing.
Sometimes that means writing by day and waiting tables by night. Or waking up at 5 a.m. to write before getting ready for your office job. Maybe even squeezing in scribbles while running your children “all over creation” (as my dad might say).
You’re playing the long game; chances are, you won’t be one of the fluke overnight successes. You need the kind of push that goes far… the kind of motivation that can span a lifetime.
You need to fall in love.
Yep, just as the business advice goes, do so “… with the problem, not the solution.”
In other words, get a little obsessed, not with the rat race of professional distinction, but with your own journey and growth toward being a better writer.
Are you in love with writing?
Get so enamored with the process of taking the lunacy of your brain and turning it into a series of black and white dots to be read by possibly no one that it feels wrong not to sit down and write.
Not because your job or prestige hangs in the balance, but because you would not be a whole person if you weren’t putting words down on a page.
Write with everything you have; pour it out like you’re sobbing to your best friend about yet another failed relationship. Be that painter that never knows when the canvas is completed because you got so drunk by the process that you have a hangover.
That kind of love? That needs no label. That’s being a real writer.
Tap into that emotion, that passion, that fuel — and turn it into creation.
How do you think great writers are made? By some Newtonian falling apple, gracing them with the prowess of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Stephen King combined?
(Do not even start to argue with me over the authors I combined in that one sentence there; I just picked them randomly, ok? Chill. )
No, great writers work. And they work and work and work and work.
And guess what, most of them suck for a long damn time, and people don’t tell them they are any good, but they just keep writing because, dammit —
They. Have. To.
Are you committed to becoming a better writer each and every day, despite the hard knocks?
That is what it takes. Wholehearted dedication to the craft of writing.
Does that sound painful? It shouldn’t, because this moment is actually when things start getting good.
When you cast aside the things you are supposed to care about (like your resume) and pour yourself into the craft?
It’s a beautiful mess.
Hours and hours of writing, and drinking (coffee… of course), and crying just to the side of your keyboard so you don’t eff up your computer (cause Applecare is too damn expensive).
It’s work! Sometimes it sucks, and you end up closing your laptop and thinking, “Maybe I could go back to Cici’s Pizza. That wasn’t such a bad job after all.”
But then you dismiss that idea, and you get back to writing, and you write some more, and it sucks, and you want to delete the rotten garbage mess you just typed. Then you submit some more pitches, and get rejected, and you write mean response emails in your mind but you never send them, cause what would happen to your budding writing career then, eh?
One day out of nowhere, you get a response back from something you pitched weeks ago, and the person says “Hey, this doesn’t suck, maybe we could publish this,” and you screenshot it and send it to your sister.
Soon they edit your submission and unleash a fury of pink Google Doc changes and comments that tear your work to shreds, and you grumble some more, but you accept that it’s part of the process.
While you’re working, you suck down so much java that you may actually own a share of Starbucks, and your heart rate thumps with the BPM of the song Sandstorm as you edit, change, tweak, read over, delete, sigh, sip, type.
Does all this sound like the ramblings of a person who spends too much time in front of a keyboard? It is! Because I’m fully convinced that another part of ending up as a writer is being a little bit (or maybe a lot) crazy.
If people aren’t holding interventions for you at least yearly, then you aren’t writing enough.
I kid, I kid.
But that’s it — that’s the level of love and dedication you need to have toward your craft. To lose yourself entirely in this messy vessel. This pixelated artifice, where you create art.
Where you sacrifice hours and hours of time writing, not just because you want someone to pay you for it, but because you must.
I have this theory that people who annoy me have some kind of issues with insecurity.
Maybe they oversell their achievements because they’ve never felt like they’re good enough or they’re obnoxiously loud because they don’t feel listened to.
Maybe they vehemently defend their job title because it gets looked down on or scoffed at.
Like many creative professions, writing can elicit healthy scoffs and down-the-nose sneers from those outside the profession.
The inconsistent jobs, the at-times meager pay, the high competition, the low success rate, the lack of societal recognition — they’re the makings of insecurity. Is it any wonder that writers act the way they do about their professional identities?
They’re just trying to hang on, man. Unfortunately, for some writers, that means pushing others down because they feel it’s a competition for external approval.
But you don’t have to choose that road. When the infighting and self-congratulatory high fives and the gossip and the jabs get exchanged across the writing road, you can opt-out. There’s a back road.
It’s by no means a shortcut, it’s a lot lonelier, and the terrain is steeper, but real writers come out the other side.
Spend your time writing, trying, failing, and getting up again. Surround yourself with others who are focused on doing the same.
Stop waiting for someone to tell you you’re a writer, and start acting like one.
In a world where pretty much anyone with a blog can call themselves a writer, where do you fit in?
Maybe that’s the exact question you need to stop asking.
Instead of focusing on where you stack up against other writers, or your place in the grand rat race of professional achievement, or if you’ve arrived, change the question.
Where are you at in the race against yourself?
Pour yourself out in the pursuit of greatness, and view your setbacks as chances to get better. Buckle your fucking seatbelt and prepare to have the shit knocked out of you a lot. A lot.
Carry tissues and a flask with you at Thanksgiving to deal with your well-meaning family members who are ‘just concerned about your career.’
Whether you’re writing for your business or the next Great American Novel, put your head down and toil onward toward the pursuit of better.
Toward taking one step at a time.
To creating something beautiful. To making your efforts great and your work greater.
To persisting despite naysayers. To putting in late nights and early mornings.
To caring. To crying. To giving a shit. To trying to be more. To learning. To humbling yourself.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.