On Writing: Can You Call Yourself a Writer if You Don’t Get Paid?

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This has been a hot topic in the writing community for a long time now – should you call yourself a Writer even if it’s not your day job? I’m not sure if this is even a debate anymore, because all I ever hear is, “If you write, then you are a Writer.” But I’m addressing this today because I disagree. When someone tries to encourage me to use the term “Writer” to describe myself (“You write, don’t you??”), I don’t feel empowered or proud. I just feel embarrassed.

Recently I was hanging out with a friend who is doing a fantastic job at self-publishing. She is a French teacher and she has written several books geared toward helping French language learners at the middle and high school level. I’m in awe of her creativity and dedication. But when I was heaping praise upon her during our conversation, she stopped me and said, “But you’re the real writer.” I know she meant it, but ugh, that felt phony. Yes, I do write. Yes, I have won little awards here and there, and had some (very) small success with being published, but writing is still just a hobby for me. I have to admit that’s all it is.

I’m not just being humble. I’m trying to be honest and realistic. I am definitely not on board the Everyone-gets-a-medal-for-trying Train, and I feel like if you give a title to someone who doesn’t deserve it, it’s dishonest. (I’m BIG on playing exactly by the rules. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried to play a board game with me and they’ll tell you I can be annoying as hell.)

If you met someone at a party and they introduced themselves as a Violinist, you would assume that playing the violin is their job. It’s how they make a living. You would immediately ask what orchestra or band they’re in. Or you’d conjure images of them playing at fancy, private parties, or ask if they’d ever recorded an album or been part of a soundtrack. Now, what if they came back and said, “Oh, none of that. What I meant is that I can play the violin, but I don’t get paid to do it.” Would you feel that describing themselves as a “Violinist” was misleading? Same with someone who is a “Painter” vs. “Someone who paints.” A “seamstress” vs. “Someone who sews.” “A Tennis Player” vs “Someone who plays tennis.” Et cetera, Et cetera.

I don’t know anyone in any other field who isn’t a professional, but who describes themselves as an “___er.” When people introduce themselves as an “___er,” it gives a certain impression. So while I get that there’s this movement to own our accomplishments and take pride in our efforts, I think we can agree that it’s not okay for people to misrepresent themselves. We typically don’t describe or label people by their non-lucrative hobbies. But by calling someone a Writer, when really they’re a teacher or a doctor or a stay-at-home-mom (like myself) who writes, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Look, I’m like a lot of other people out there – I read. I submit. I query. I enter contests. I attend workshops and panel discussions, open-mics and conferences, critique groups and writers retreats. I study articles to improve my craft. I’m active in my local writers’ guild. And above all – I write. But until writing becomes my full-time job, it just feels dishonest to me to say “I am a Writer.” And every time a well-meaning friend calls me a “Writer,” I’m chagrined.

But trust me, if the time ever comes when I feel I can honestly describe myself with that single word – a capital “W” Writer – I will OWN. IT.

2 thoughts on “On Writing: Can You Call Yourself a Writer if You Don’t Get Paid?

  1. Ugh! This is a highly debatable topic. Yes, it does feel weird to call yourself a writer especially if it’s not getting you any money. But writing is a craft and the one who practices it is a writer. So hope everyone can find their own title and designation.
    It’s about the passion and finding some lucrative offers while pursuing it.
    This is a great article. A very different and honest take. 🙂

    Like

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