Can You Really Call Yourself ‘A Writer’?

by Guest Contributor

Man reading book and thinking

Today’s post is written by Sarah Callender, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Sarah!

I don’t know about you, but for a long time, whenever a well-intentioned someone asked what I did professionally, I instantly became a mammering, mealy-mouthed mugwump. It just felt so audacious, not to mention goofy, to utter the sentence, “I’m a writer!’

After all, a doctor isn’t allowed to call himself A Doctor unless he’s graduated from med school.

My dear friend, Schmidtie, isn’t A Therapist simply because she listens to me with the perfect balance of tough love and compassion.

My husband isn’t A Master Gardener because he grew some pretty fantastic tomatoes this summer (plus a few naughty-looking carrots).

So it seemed a little high-falutin’ to call myself A Writer, maybe mostly because I am, as of October 2011, still unpublished. And really, can’t anyone write and not get published? Isn’t that what most humans do? Write stuff that never gets published?

To make matters worse, along came Bill Williams.

The Case of the Overconfident Writer

A bunch of years ago, Bill Williams (that’s a fake name), a friend from high school (that’s a fake relationship), announced he was leaving his job as a so-and-so in the such-and-such industry. Instead, he proclaimed, he was going to write screenplays.


Well. I know you don’t know my fake friend, but Bill Williams is devastatingly handsome (that’s true). Plus he has always been about a billion times more athletic than scholarly (again, true).

If Bill Williams had announced he had quit his job to pursue underwear modeling or professional snowboarding? Sure. Rock on, Bill Williams. But writing?

The real kicker was this: Bill Williams acted like writing a screenplay was as easy as getting a date on a Saturday night.

[A brief note: if you, too, happen to be devastatingly handsome, please don’t act like everything is easy. Certainly don’t act like writing screenplays is easy, especially when your only screenplay experienceî occurs while you are at the movies with a devastatingly gorgeous date.]

Bill Williams simply had too much confidence, and because observing writerly over-confidence is both irritating and threatening, I admit I might have done unkind things. Perhaps rolled my eyes. Maybe even thought a few unkind thoughts.

And, because I—not typically one to roll her eyes at the dreams of another—had rolled eyes at Bill Williams’s dream, I became even less willing to share my own dreams of writing a novel. I would not give anyone a chance to roll his or her eyes the moment I turned my back.

Worse, I began to wonder what the heck I was doing, thinking I could write a novel. All I had on my side was my love of reading, my background as an English teacher, and my stupid, stubborn drive to get up each day and write pages and pages of drivel.

Me? A Writer? Ha! Hahahahahahaha! Ha.

The Case of the Underconfident Writer

Until one day it hit me. My under-confidence was far more damaging to my own work, to my own creativity, than Bill Williams’s over-confidence was to his dreams. That realization led to this realization: that I, that all of us bashful writers, should take a page from Bill Williams’s Confidence Bible.

A page. Only one.

Just the page that says this: We writers need to see ourselves as writers so that others will see us as writers.

But (and this is the Big But that Bill Williams ignored), we writers need to do the very, very hard work that will give us the knowledge, the certainty, that even if we are still unpublished, even if agents aren’t wooing us, even if we’ve submitted to seventeen thousand contests and publications yet have no acceptances or prizes, we are writers because we put our tush in the chair and get words on the page every day.

We can feel good about declaring, “I am A Writer” because we are not scared of very hard work.

Making the Most of Our Writerly Accomplishments

Well. I’ve never once in my life been devastatingly gorgeous; therefore, I have never assumed that anything should come easy. Plus, I wasn’t scared of a little very hard work.

So, I started believing that my years of attending writing conferences and pitching to agents, long before my novel was complete, meant something.

That getting up every morning to write for two hours before my kids awoke meant something.

That writing, even when getting words on the page felt like standing in front of one of those insensitive automatic faucets at the airport, (the one where you wave your hands like crazy in front of the sensor and not a drop of water comes out) meant something.

That starting a blog, and applying for writers’ grants, and getting accepted in a professional development program for writers, and attending the readings of other writers, and getting an amazing agent who wants to represent my novel, all that meant something.

Quite a lot, in fact.

I stopped worrying (mostly) that when I told people I was a writer, they would roll their eyes the moment I turned my back.

Even better, when other Bill-Williams-types come along and tell me they are going to be writers, even when they don’t appear to have done any work at all, I don’t roll my eyes or think mean thoughts. I am no longer threatened (OK, I’m still a little threatened) by writers who exude over-confidence.

But mostly I believe that they will learn, just as I have learned, that…

…it’s the work that brings the confidence; the confidence does not bring the success.

It is the dedication and faith and the willingness to learn from others and then to go practice your pants off that makes a writer.

Your Turn

In what ways have you, dear writers, earned your title of Writer? How do you maintain your confidence in an industry where rejection and challenge lurk around every corner?

I’d love to steal a page from your confidence bibles, too . . . just in case I stumble into one of those days where my confidence feels no larger than the dot of an ‘i’.

Sarah Callender is represented by Rebecca Oliver at William Morris Endeavor, and her novel is currently undergoing a round of revisions. She received a 2010 King County Arts Commission grant for an interdisciplinary art/poetry project in the Seattle Public Schools, and the first chapter of her novel, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, received Honorable Mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Sarah blogs regularly at Inside-Out Underpants. She lives with her husband and two children in Seattle where she is hard at work on her second novel. 

  • Jo

    Wow – I totally get this. I recently left my job to do a few things, one of which is to WRITE. While I have had a few short stories published, I, too, am an unpublished novelist ith two manuscriptw up my sleeve and onto the third but as long as I write or outline most days I know I can call myself a writer.

    Years ago I still called myself a writer, but I didn’t write regularly – I revoked the permission to use the title for the longest time. Yes, everyone writes – you might write in your journal, a shopping list, an email – but the difference between us and them is that we write to entertain or to inform.

    So anyway, thanks for the article and for the reminder that you don’t have to be published in order to call yourself a writer. Reclaim the word… Say it. Mean it. Let others use it on you as well.

    • Suzannah

      Hi Jo,

      Just testing comments because we’ve had a couple of issues with them working today.
      Test. Test. Yep, looks like it works!

  • Sarah Callender

    Absolutely, Jo! And gosh, if you have published short stories AND 2.5 novels? You are ten times the writer I am.

    I had an interesting conversation the other day with another writer; she worried that because it’s getting easier to self-publish, then too many people would suddenly become “writers.” She felt very threatened by that . . . which is interesting to me. She must worry that a world with too many writers means fewer folks will read her work. That fear must be a reflection of her self esteem.

    Thanks, Jo, for your scoop and your comment. I loved that “Say it. Mean it.” line. Happy writing to you!

  • ChemistKen

    Excellent post! Hit the mark exactly for me. I’ve already linked to it on my blog and if I could access twitter at work, I would have tweeted it.

  • Patricia Yager Delagrange

    Great post. It took me a long time to call myself a writer and not feel I was lying or blush with embarrassment because I’d just humiliated myself by uttering the words. But I DO write and I work very hard at it. And, as you say, THAT is what gives me the confidence I need to continue.
    Write on!

  • Kathi

    Fantastic post.

    I have struggled with the whole “Am I a writer?”/”I am a writer” thing practically my whole life. I’ve drawn many of the same conclusions as you. But I must say that when I got my first paid gig I could finally shout “I am a professional writer!”. It was a huge boost in confidence.

    The absolutely hardest thing to do is to sit the butt down and do the writing– when it’s not for someone else. I can do my paid gigs and meet my deadlines with ease, but when it comes to writing fiction or articles for content mills (instances when I hope to complete something in hopes of one day getting paid), I struggle. Your post is a great reminder that writers write because it’s what we do, and that mere belief really is an effective motivator.

    Gotta walk the dog, but then it’s WRITING TIME! :)

  • Sarah Callender

    Thank you, all, for your kind and honest comments. As you know, writing is an isolated gig, but your empathy makes me realize that even though we write alone, MANY writers share the same feelings. A great reminder of the importance of having a writers’ community!

    Kathi, I share your feeling that having a paid writing gig helps make a writer feel “legit.” I wish that weren’t the case, but it’s an unfortunate truth that, at least to some extent, Money validates.

    I so appreciate your comments!

  • Ashley Prince

    Wonderful post!

    I am definitely more on the underconfident side, but I really am trying to work on that. I write every day…so I must be a writer. 😉

    • Sarah Callender

      Right on, Ashey. Here’s your mantra: I write therefore I am. :)

  • Christi Craig

    Oooh, I know Bill Williams. And, that little twinge of jealousy he sparked in me was what got me off my “ho, hum, I really want to write…someday” butt and in pursuit.

    Still, like you say, it takes a lot of courage to start telling those around me that I am a writer. Some days I’m more courageous than other days. How I know I’m a writer? I actively search out books, articles, essays that will teach me key lessons about the craft (because of time and money, I’m not likely to earn an MFA), and I write, almost every day, and submit my work. I’ve yet to be paid, but a few publishing credits do help.

    Great post!

  • Rachael Herron

    Long before I was published, I decided to take that plunge, to start telling strangers, when they asked, that I was a writer (because I was writing every day). I thought it would be good practice (and it was) but the first time it happened, I was terrified. I was at a table full of interesting people, and someone asked what I did. I said “I’m a writer. Oh, and I’m a 911 dispatcher.” I expected that the addition would get me off the hook — everyone at parties always wants to talk to the 911 dispatcher for gory stories. But in fact, the man looked fascinated and said, “You’re KIDDING. What do you write?” And then I had to tell him about my writing, and all I remember was being red-faced but very proud of myself for saying those words for the first time. I’m a writer.

  • Rose Byrd

    I can justify calling myself a writer because I write every day, normally in three difference sessions:
    1) The Final Draft either posted on my website or added to my manuscript/collection
    2) Taking the time to thoughtfully comment on the posts of other writers in such a way
    that the communal bond is maintained with idea sharing, not just a “like” or an LOL.
    3) Handwriting my first and second drafts in my notebook that never leaves my side,
    even when sleeping or exercising or gardening or animal care/training or eating or
    Also, I have been published in past decades and certainly expect to be again.
    P.S. If I had not re-joined a community of writers online, I would still be alienating many around me with my loudly expressed “take” on current events and dribbling away the most valuable parts of what I can legitimately contribute to the things of this world I am most passionate about.

  • Sue Morrow

    Sarah–Thank you for talking about the “unmentionable question” that lurks in the dark dusty corners waiting to jump out and say “Aha! A FRAUD!!” Because of course we are not frauds…right? We are writers…right? I guess that I have bested this beast (most of the time) by three things:

    -First, I have had four or five people that I respect highly say “you need to be a writer” in the past two years (I was, I just hadn’t ‘fessed up.)
    -Second, when I was going to print business cards for a conference, I needed to put down something. So I wrote my name, then “Research and Support”, and under that “Writer” (I was in a crazy mood.) The cards were to give out my email and cell number at the conference, but…the more I see it in print on my own business card, the more real it becomes. I am a Writer.
    -The third thing was getting published (for free) a couple of times. For one of them, I had been asked to jot down my feelings about a graduation ceremony. I thought they were going to pull out a word here or there and use it–but by golly, they published the whole thing verbatim on the front page of their magazine! With my name on the by-line!!

    Sarah–as far as the “jealous writer” goes–I have to fight that feeling now and then. Part of it is indeed lack of self confidence, but I think that she can’t write at the moment (putting it off until later or more likely no time /keeping a family going). Life has taken away opportunity after opportunity, and she is genuinely afraid that there “won’t be any words” or “all the stories will have been told” by the time she can finally write the way she dreams of. She needs to get involved in a writing group, or to read more blogs like this one!

    Thank you for writing about the “unmentionable question” that haunts every writer. Being involved in this sharing of ideas and personal stories is an amazing thing!

  • Sarah Callender

    Oh, I am so inspired by your comments! I marvel at how prolific you all are . . . yes, you are ALL writers.

    The business card idea is brilliant! It makes perfect sense that we, lovers of the written word, would connect with the written word “Writer,” after our name. So wise!

  • Carl Purdon

    Great job of hitting the nail on the head with this post. While I don’t call myself a writer when asked what I do, I no longer try to hide the fact that I write from my friends and family. They may pretend not to notice, but it’s out there.

    What has been more important for me than telling others that I’m a writer, is telling myself. Finally, after years of practice, I am starting to think of myself as a writer, and that, at least for now, means more to me than what others think.

  • Sharon E. Houston

    Thank you so much for the vote of confidence! Due to downsizing at my work I have given myself the time to write. I have written articles and have been published, but to have the luxury to spend time writing is a gift I am giving myself. As the days of writing roll on, I feel more and more like a writer, and more and more like calling myself a writer. You are right, to be a writer lies in the practice of writing.

    And if I may, I am going to borrow that business card idea!

  • marta

    Don’t even get me started on beautiful people and their overconfidence. Just…don’t.

    But as far as my own confidence–it has taken something of a tumble recently. In fact, I don’t even know where it is right now.

    • Sarah Callender


      I once had a dear writer friend tell me that if I didn’t often feel like I was an impostor in the world of writers, then I wasn’t a “real” writer. I took great comfort in that. Apparently everyone, even the most successful writers, stumble.

      When I am struggling with my self-confidence, I try to remind myself why I started writing that particular book/story/essay. Knowing there is a worthwhile seed that’s still present in the story is a great help. Trust the story even when you have a hard time trusting yourself.


  • Susan Cushman

    Great post. I’m new to your blog, which I found through the Writer Unboxed group which I just joined on Facebook. Good question about how to maintain confidence in a career that definitely knocks you down from time to time. Although I have 9 published essays, of course I’ve had dozens more rejections, but I’ve come to see them as part of the process. The prologue and first two chapters of my novel-in-progress made the short list in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, which encouraged me to keep working on it. (I think I’m about 5-10K words from finishing… I write slowly and revise a lot as I go.) Blogging, presenting at workshops and organizing workshops all definitely help me maintain a professional attitude towards my writing. (And yes, the business cards definitely remind me who I am:-) Congrats on getting an agent and good luck with your book(s)!

    • Sarah Callender

      Thanks, so much, Susan. I’m thrilled to have the chance to do some guest blogging. Such fun. You are certainly a card-carrying writer. SO GREAT that you are in the home stretch of your novel. Such a marathon, isn’t it?

      Thanks for your kind words.

  • Ileandra Young

    Brilliant post! I had such a major freakout about this not long ago and asked the same questions of myself.
    I’ve never been published and rejection letters were pouring into my house in a fairly steady stream. At that point, admittedly not enough people had seen my work but I was starting to feel the futility of it all and questioning what made me so sure I could do it.
    I wish I could remember which blog post I talked about this now.
    Anyway, the turnaround point came for me when my boyfriend introduced me to one of his friends as a writer. It was perfect. Just a subtle, but very much needed boost of morale and confidence that HE believed I was a writer, even if I wasn’t sure. Then this friend began to ask me about what I’d written and where to find it and it gave me such a thrill! HE believed I was a writer too, and it gave me the chance to talk about what I do as being a writer.
    After that, with new people the phrase would go so something like ‘Oh, I’m a writer. My day job disagrees, but that’s what I do.’
    No turning back now :-/

    • Sarah Callender

      Yes, Ileandra. You’ve hit the nail on the head . . . that’s another huge source of confidence: having a few key people (spouse, partner, writing partner) who totally believe in you as a writer. SO glad you mentioned that. I love your new phrase, too. Brilliant!

  • kathryn magendie

    I used to have these conversations in my pea-headed head: “When I publish something, I am a writer.” That was done, then it as “No, wait when I publish something with these conditions, I am a writer.” That was done. Then, “No, wait. When I publish a novel, then I am a writer.” Then that was done, okay, I’m a writer now, right? Then it was, “but am I an author? Hmmmm . . .” then I began again “when I have published another book, then I think I am an author.” LAWD! And the ligitimacy never stops, the conditions, the expections, unless we step back and note each accomplishment, stop and enjoy that accomplishment–no matter how “small” it may seem, and feel a sense of pride for what we have done – instead of always looking forward!

    Love the post!

    • Sarah Callender

      Yes, Kathryn! That is exactly the problem. We often think, “Once I get X, then I’ll consider myself a writer.”

      And then there’s the whole writer/author thing that is only important to US. I mean, who really cares, right? Author, writer. Potato, potahto. Non-writers at a cocktail party don’t care. My mom doesn’t care. God doesn’t care. But WE care. It’s weird.

      It’s really such a nutty gig. One day you’re up (or down); the next day, it’s just the opposite. From what I have learned, it’s the same for ALL writers. Even the Jodi Picoults and the Jonathan Franzens of the world. (Though JF seems to have written the confidence bible if you ask me!)

      Thanks muchly for the comment. :)

  • Pinar Tarhan

    Hi Sarah,

    I call myself a writer and I believe I’m entitled to it. The thing is, I’ve been writing for a very long time. In fact I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Even when my hand isn’t writing on a page, my head is at my stories and articles. I started getting my non-fiction getting published a while ago, and I’ve been running my own blogs for several years now. But because both my fiction and non-fiction have always been with me, I’ve called myself a writer. Because I believe that you earn that title the moment writing is a part of yourself, and your life, that you can’t give up on.
    Your friend’s confidence is inspiring, obviously, but he is in for a big surprise if he doesn’t do something about his ideas (assuming he has some?). Getting a good idea for a story is hard, but managing to complete a story in a compelling way, and finding an agent that will be interested and a producer that won’t drastically change the script….those require a lot of hard work and persistence. The work and persistence are two things I can pull off, although sometimes pessimism gets in my way. Don’t worry, I don’t let it haunt me for long. I still have high hopes for my first novel, and others to come. Still, I don’t mind borrowing that one page when I need to: )

  • Shyxter

    “…it’s the work that brings the confidence; the confidence does not bring the success.”

    This is really inspiring, Sarah :) I have not accomplished a lot but I call myself a writer because it is my passion and I do my best to be a better writer everyday. Thank you for such a great post.

  • Suzanne van Rooyen

    I asked myself this very question today. I have been published several times over in both fiction and non-fiction. I even have a novel published. But… I never studied English or Literature, I don’t have the revered MFA in creative writing and am still unagented (despite frantic..nay, determined querying) so I asked myself today what on earth I should call myself. Perhaps I am entitled to call myself a writer having been paid to actually write. But I agree with you – if you spend the better part of your day putting words on paper or on a screen then yes, you are a writer :)

  • Darla McDavid

    Great article! It echoes many of my thoughts as I pursue the writing life, and I even wrote a post last week on the same subject. “It is the dedication and faith and the willingness to learn from others and then to go practice your pants off that makes a writer.” Love that. I want to learn and I want to write. Thanks for the boost.

  • Sarah Callender

    I cannot tell you how much I love your comments. It’s such a reminder that there are so many of us who are still “in the closet” . . . not quite comfy calling ourselves writers, yet as many of you have said, you spend a good chunk of each day/week putting words on paper. As I read about your various writing-related accomplishments, it’s clear you have EARNED the right to call yourselves “a writer.”

    You are all so inspiring to ME. Thank you!

    And by the way, Bill Williams hasn’t, to my knowledge, completed one writing project. Interesting, no? So many people dream of being writers; as we all know, actually being a writer is far from glamorous or easy.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. It means so much!

  • Tim Sunderland

    I have written a novel. 458 pages, 120,000 words (okay, it’s a little long, but it’s all good stuff). It’s done and I am editing it and I will sell it someday. How many people have done that? How many people have taken it to their critique group and read every page. I may not be published yet, but how many people can say they have come as far as we have? We are writers.

  • Sarah Baughman

    Wow, could I ever relate to this post! Thanks for sharing it. It’s funny– as soon as I got my first teaching job I didn’t hesitate to call myself “a teacher,” even though I’d only been doing it for a day. Yet I’ve been writing for my whole life and still feel somehow unjustified calling myself “a writer.” Maybe it has to do with whether or not I support myself financially by writing? I like this quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” By that account, more of us should be owning the “writer” title!

  • Jessica B.

    When someone asks me what I do, I don’t say “writer” any more than I’d say “reader”, “runner” or “PTO mom”. Although I spend most of my time on my writing, it’s fun. It’s a hobby. No one is paying me to do it, no one is setting deadlines or expectations or hurdles for me. Sure it would be great to do it professionally some day (and my agent and I are working on that) and when I get to that point, you’d better believe I won’t hesitate to call myself a writer/author/novelist. But, until then, I am more than happy to just consider it one of my favorite hobbies and save defining myself for a time when I have to.

  • Patricia Puddle

    What a great post, Sarah!

    I went around telling everyone that I was a writer as soon as I’d sent my first manuscript to agents and publishers. Friends and relatives rolled their eyes at me too because they knew my grammar and spelling were atrocious. But they didn’t know that I had joined an on-line critique group and had learned how to write children’s stories. I continued to tell everyone who’d listen that I was a writer even though I kept getting rejections. Last year, at a party, someone said I would never get published, that I was a dreamer. Fuming, I announced that I would be published by the end of the year. Yipes! Now, I’d given myself a real challenge. So when November came, I panicked. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll self-publish and then I’ll tell everyone I’m an Author. I did just that. Now, a year later, I have four self-published children’s books. All have received many 5 star reviews and are selling, but the most thrilling thing is to see them in libraries and have children asking for my autograph. Today, an email arrived form a dear lady in a different country, thanking me for helping her autistic son to read. Apparently he’s learning because he wants to read my stories instead of having them read to him. You can’t get better than that. Now, I tell everyone I’m an author and they can roll their eyes all they want, ’cause I am! LOL.

    If you want to be a published author, you have to believe it. Proclaim it and your brain will make it happen, either with a publisher or self-published. I always proclaimed to be a writer, but sometimes I claimed to be an author. When folks said I wasn’t, I told them to check their dictionaries for the word ‘Author’. It means many things in the “Thesaurus’ and one of them words is ‘Creator’

    So if you’re an aspiring writer, you’re also a creator and an author.

    And to sceptics I say, “I am so too an author!”

    • Sarah Callender

      Right on, Patricia! That is so cool. It does take great faith to be a writer . . . and an author. I cannot believe someone had the audacity to tell YOU that you would never get published. That poor person. He or she must have some serious self-esteem issues. Good for you for turning that comment into something good and beautiful! Happy writing!

      • Patricia Puddle

        Thanks, Sara, I only just found your reply.

  • Hallie Sawyer

    This is a post I could have written. Not nearly as profound as you but I know exactly your sentiment. I started writing a novel four years ago, yet to be finished because I keep changing it, then took a freelance writing class last year. Finally, a couple of months ago, one of my articles was taken my a local magazine and it was then, and only then, that I felt somewhat okay with calling myself a writer. I did tell my good book club friends and my immediate family I was also attempting to write a fiction novel but I keep that close to the chest. For some reason, telling people I am a freelance writer is so much easier than saying I write fiction. Maybe it’s because the job title “novelist” isn’t exactly a common job around “these here parts.” I think I would get less confused looks if I ran through the streets wearing a Big Bird costume.

    I have the luxury of being stay-home mom that has recently graduated to “all kids in full-time school.” I have time to pursue what I love during the day and can hide from judgmental eyes pretty easily. I think publication definitely legitimizes what we do to others that don’t DO what we do. Non-writers don’t really GET it. So I tend to just leave it alone when I get asked what I do all day long now with my free time. Once in a while I will spill that I am giving freelance a whirl, like I am just gonna try it out for a bit.

    I think when any of my fiction gets published then I will be able to slap on the writer name tag with a little more confidence. :)

    Loved your thoughts in this post!

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