What makes a writer a writer? When do you cross that magic threshold and become a writer? Is it just writing? Is it writing just for yourself or must it be for others? Do you have to be published to be a writer? Must you be paid for it? Do you have to write a certain number of words, or pages, or chapters?
Over the course of my lifetime, I have spent a considerable amount of time in libraries: the bookmobile in my hometown which later became a real library building where I practically lived every summer of middle school, my high school library, my college library, my law school library, the library in every town where I lived in both Louisiana and Maryland, as well as the library of the American Women’s Club of Brussels. In fact, it was while volunteering in a high school library in Belgium that I decided to make a career change and become a teacher. Upon returning to the States, I went to grad school to get certified in English for grades 7-12. Years later while teaching writing to 7th and 8th graders, I wrote essays and literary analysis to model for my students good writing techniques. I felt a yearning to write more, and perhaps, the possibility of yet another career change, that of a writer. The path to that career change was not as clear. Thus the unanswered question of what makes a writer a writer?
O. Henry, the American author who mastered the art form of the short story and its twist ending, moved to New York City in 1901, and for over a year, wrote a short story a week. A short story a week. Just let that sink in. Between 1901 and his death in 1910, O. Henry wrote and published 381 short stories. Clearly, O. Henry was a writer.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in English, Annie Dillard submitted dozens of poems to publishers and was met uniformly with rejection. She spent a year in a cabin in the woods and journaled about her views on nature, the universe, God, and life. The trunk-load of journals from that year became the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. After the crowning feat of being the youngest (at the time) to ever win the Pulitzer, everyone wanted to publish Annie Dillard’s poetry, and probably her grocery list as well. Safe to say that she is most definitely a writer.
Julie Powell decided to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, a lengthy and time-honored tome that made French cooking accessible to American housewives. Powell set a one-year deadline for the completion of this lofty goal, for at the time, she was neither a cook nor a writer (she was working for the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, a city-state joint endeavor to plan the restructuring of post 9/11 NYC). She created a blog, cooked each and every recipe in the book, and then blogged about it, one recipe at a time. Did that make her a writer? The blog drew enormous response and earned Powell a book deal which was then turned into a full length feature film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Surely, she is a writer now.
So, I embarked on a mission to make myself a writer. I challenged myself to write an essay a week for one year, posting a personal essay by midnight every Sunday. With not a single deadline missed, even while teaching full-time and traveling back and forth to Louisiana as my father succumbed to heart disease, I accomplished my goal. My year of essays encompassed quite a bit: musings on my life as a wife and mother and as a daughter and sister, memories from my past as a half French/half Scottish southerner, tidbits from travel, thoughts on food, religion, literature, teaching, theatre, my dog, well, just whatever struck me as interesting or deep or funny or thought-provoking each Sunday when I sat down to write.
My own writing made me a better teacher of writing, and the more I studied the art of writing both fiction and nonfiction, the better my students became at their own writing. One of the silver linings of not being in the classroom this year has been more time to read and write, both helping to make me a stronger writer and a better writing instructor. Now with bylines in multiple magazines and publishing outlets, and my first novel simmering away, I feel safe in claiming the title of writer.