The beautiful Jenna Moreci, a budding writer who has a YouTube vlog in which she offers writing advice for other aspiring writers, says she is often asked by her followers “How do I know I’m a writer?” Questions like this (and many others) tell you how much her followers admire her. But she seems to have had trouble answering this one, so I shall take the liberty of answering in her stead.
Short answer: If you have to ask, you are a writer. And whether you are any good or not, published or not, relevant or not, commercially viable or not, you can never ever escape this fate. My condolences.
Long answer: Anthony Burgess said it best. “Writers write to write, not to be read”. A writer is a person who explores the language and the possibilities of the narrative. Whether anyone reads the product or not is irrelevant. The best novels tend to be the least read, although their staying power over time will earn them a lot of readers. How many of your immediate friends have ever read Proust and can talk intelligently about his works? If you can count more than one, you are in better company than most. Does Proust care? I doubt he ever did. He wrote to write, not to be read. What if you are not Proust? What if your writing sucks, never got published and nobody ever read them other than your immediate family? Well, that’s a description of me. Am I a writer? I thought not, for a long time. I started writing around the age of 12 and finally gave up and quit around 34. I am now 52 years old, a successful professional with a busy working life and a fair amount of reputation, and I am getting back into writing because I realized that being a writer is not like smoking. It is not something you can quit and walk away from.
Being a writer is not about being a professional writer. If you cannot make a living off of your writing, that is nothing to be ashamed of. Some of the greatest writers in history never made a living off their writing or lived in poverty. Some notables today live by teaching writing in college and not from their works. Then there are the people who simply write private journals for their own consumption, or the numerous bloggers who post excellent short fiction on their blogs. They do not expect any money from their writing. They write for the pleasure of it. But they are writers.
The thing about being a writer is that you cannot choose your genre, the genre chooses you. Of course you can argue all day that Stephen King is not just a horror writer and that he writes a wide range of novels, but he still writes Stephen King novels. He could never write a Jack Kerouac book or a Saul Bellow book, not because he lacks skill but because that is not where his pen takes him. Likewise, if Saul Bellow wanted greater commercial success, he could not have written a Stephen King book. His imagination does not flow in that direction. The genre that chooses you may not be economically viable. Maybe there are too many competitors writing similar stuff or maybe there are not enough readers for your particular field. In that case, keep your day job. But you are still a writer.
If you have the desire to write, you are a writer. Whatever other job you hold to put bread on the table is irrelevant. Giving up or trying to quit is just a waste of time. You will always come back like a homing pigeon. It is your instinct. Take it from me. I’ve been there.