If you really want to piss me off, you can say the following phrase. “Oh, I’m a real writer.” At the very least, I’ll text everyone I know about what a goon you are, or I might sub-tweet you. Maybe I’ll laugh in your face, or maybe I’ll go completely Patrick Swayze and rip your throat out, leaving your corpse on the floor of the coffee shop as a warning to others.
“Real” writers. I heard that phrase a LOT in grad school. I went to a grad program with a commercial fiction as well as a literary fiction program, and there was occasional contention between the two. “Oh, I would never write for the pulps” (Yes, she actually said “pulps.” What is this, 1932? Dial down the gaudy patter, ya loopy dame.) “Oh, I write real fiction, but maybe I’ll write a sci-fi novel sometime!” (like it’s so easy, anyone can just slum it). And it’s not just lit fic people. I heard the “real writer” bullshit from people in my own workshops, who thought they were better that everyone else there because of some arbitrary metric, a goal post only they could kick the ball through.
And I still hear it out in the regular world, this intense disagreement about what makes a writer “real.” Are you a real writer because you’ve published something? Because you’re unpublished, so you haven’t “sold out?” Because you hate 50 Shades of Grey? Because you use a Macbook, a Moleskein, handmade papyrus paper? Is it about writing every day, like clockwork? Are you a real writer because you sit in front of a typewriter with an empty page, chain smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking bourbon, pining for the muse over the tinny sound of your Captain Beefheart records? Is it about lighting candles and waiting for inspiration to gently guide your hand?
But I think I figured out what it means to be a real writer. Do you write? Awesome, you’re a real writer. It’s that easy. You don’t need to have a best-seller or a fancy notebook or an MFA. The minute you start writing, you’re a writer. It’s not about the scene or the agent or the tote bag with the block print lettering. It’s about the simple action of putting pen/mouse cursor/typewriter ribbon to paper/screen. When you write something, you’re a writer, plain and simple.
So next time you feel the temptation to differentiate yourself when someone tells you that they’re a writer too, instead, try this. Ask the other person to tell you about their story. Then tell them about yours, without the labels and the bravado. The world is tough enough on writers as it is. Let’s not turn on our own.