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When can I say, ‘I’m a writer’?

Ask Shelley

Yet another literary dilemma comes crashing onto my desk or, rather, pinging into my inbox. Then another. And another. The whole world, it seems, is wanting to ASK SHELLEY for advice about writing issues they’d rather not talk about to anyone else. Well, perhaps not the whole world. And perhaps the problem is that most other people won’t listen

Well, here I am – poised to disseminate my wisdom, and full of sympathy for my latest solution-seeker, a scribe with a hang-up about stating what is it she does when she is alone with her laptop:

Dear Shelley, I’ve been writing short stories forever, but still don’t feel I am a writer. If anyone asks me what I’m doing, I feel slightly apologetic and mumble something about ‘not being a real writer’ then hate myself afterwards. When do you really become a write? Is it not until you have something published? – Blushing Bella

Hold the blushes, Bella, and ditch the self-hate which is corrosive and deadens creativity. Sit up straight, take a deep breath and, with as much conviction as you can muster, shout from the rooftops, I AM A WRITER. If that’s what you do and if you define yourself by the activity – even to yourself, in deepest privacy – then you’re entitled to declare it loud and clear.

What is it, anyway, that turns someone from an apologetic scribbler into a ‘real writer’? Does being published make the difference? I’m not so sure, particularly now that self-publication is so widespread. Is it length of service that counts? You say you’ve been doing it ‘forever’, so that should qualify you. Is it the quality of the writing that matters? Or the quantity? Or the length of time each day that you devote to producing it?

It is none – or all – of those factors. Unlike the doctor who emerges from medical school with legal entitlement to a professional persona, the writer meanders along an uncertain path that is fraught with setback and rejection. Even the most successful will, if they’re being honest, confess to deep insecurity. Nothing – I suspect not even the Booker – provides immunity from the creeping fear that at some point or another their readers will desert them. So the bottom line, Bella, is that if you’re counting on readers to define you as a real writer, perhaps you should remember how fickle an audience can be.

Which leaves you – where? Back at your desk, engaged in the shaping of your ideas and perceptions, giving shapes to lives, and lives to narrative shape. Excited, perhaps. Frustrated. Engrossed. All the things that you go through when you’re doing it. Writing. And if, as you read this, you’re thinking, yes I know what that’s like, I know exactly what you’re on about – well then, Bella, you’re a writer. Say so with pride.