Why it's so hard to embrace the title 'writer'

Why is it so hard to call yourself a writer?

Thousands of news stories, dozens of feature articles, blogs, a podcast script. Why is it so hard to embrace the role of ‘writer’?

The description of ‘journalist’ fit so comfortably. The role was defined and simple to explain in social situations.

“What do you do?” a stranger would ask me. “Oh, I’m a journalist. I work for the local paper.” Cue plenty of questions about daily deadlines and whether I’d ever want to be on television (it’s a no from me). Or, in the worst cases, criticism about the ‘local rag’ and the shoddy state of journalism in general.

I went from school, to university, to my job as a cadet journalist. There was no awkward in-between period where I couldn’t define myself by my profession.

Journalism is exactly that: a profession. We have strict codes of conduct, specific ethical standards, and new key performance indicators in the form of clicks, shares, and subscribers.

I never felt comfortable calling myself a ‘writer’.

That word makes me think of published writers, it feels different. Even as I write this, I can’t quite articulate how.

What is it about creative professions that makes them so intimidating? After all these years, I still don’t feel confident calling myself a writer. But can I still call myself a journalist if I’m not working in the industry at the moment? (For the record, I’ve settled on yes. I’m viewing it as a ‘trade’ more than a job-specific title because I’ve had formal training and industry experience, but I want to talk specifically about the confusion I feel over the title of ‘writer’ in this post.)

When can you call yourself a writer? Why it's so hard to embrace the title.

The writer’s desk: where imposter syndrome thrives

There’s something about the creative industries which allows imposter syndrome to thrive. Maybe it’s the lack of metrics to measure success? Perhaps it’s because most of us work for ourselves and don’t have the daily validation inherent in a traditional workplace.

Connecting with other creative people can provide a hive mind of support. But it also exposes us to the success of our peers in an unparalleled way, which can pick away at our insecurities. Slowly we start to feel our creative output isn’t good enough in some way, whether it’s because we haven’t signed a book deal or because we haven’t cracked 10k on Instagram.

What is a ‘real’ writer? When do we earn that definition?

Joni B Cole writes about the slipperiness of the definition. “What can be pinpointed is what a writer is not,” she wrote. “Similar to a diagnosis of exclusion in medicine – that is, identifying something by it not being other things – it occurred to me that this is also the most reliable way to determine who is a Real Writer, and whether we qualify.”

Cole’s conclusion is that writers: engage in constructive criticism, revise and edit, separate their work from ranting, don’t let others discourage them, and want to be writers.

Angela Meyer, author of A Superior Spectre, wrote two pieces on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and writing life. We also spoke to her about this during our interview on Better Words.

In her blog about the inaugural Stella Prize, Meyer recounts the advice of Australian literary icon Helen Garner. “She spoke honestly and personally about how prizes can be tricky, if you don’t win or aren’t nominated at all. You have to remember, she said, that prizes are judged by people, driven by unconscious urges. It’s also true that even the most intelligent, studied, insightful and well-read critic is a person. There is always a factor of subjectivity.”

Meyer expanded on this blog post with an article for The Wheeler Centre. In this she discussed a feeling of inhabiting ‘a lower rung of the professional ladder’ as a ‘writer’ who hadn’t yet released a book.

The definition of ‘writer’ is so elastic, open to subjective interpretation. We’ve all come up with our own ideals of what the description entails, and therefore what success looks like. By doing so, we’ve imagined a space to fill with our own worries and feelings of inferiority.


So, can I call myself a writer?

I don’t write fiction or have dreams of publishing a book. I blog and create online ‘content’ and I don’t think that necessarily means I’m a writer.

I think what makes me a writer is my interest in the craft, in learning the techniques of writing and exploring new ways to implement them in my journalism, blogging, and podcasting.

I don’t have an answer to the endlessly confusing, incredibly complex emotions entangled in the clash of creativity and self-worth. I’m sure there are many who have explored this more eloquently than I, but I feel a weight lifted just by sharing my thoughts on what it means to be a writer.

What do you think it means to be a writer? Do we need a definition or should we just embrace the endless opportunities of loose boundaries?

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