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 which eventually evolved into my childhood public library, my high school library, my college library, my law school library, the library in every town where I’ve ever lived in both Louisiana and Maryland, and the “members only” 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. So, I went back to school and took the necessary courses and passed the necessary tests to become a teacher. Years later while teaching, I decided to open up myself to the possibility of yet another career change, that of a writer. The path to that career change was not as clear. Thus the unanswered questions of what makes a writer a writer? How do you become 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.
For several years, I tried my hand at writing fiction. I have an outline (still) and the early stages of a middle-grade novel featuring a 7th grade protagonist. It’s about a missing suitcase and is based upon the real life story of a close friend of mine. I had the first chapter reviewed by a professional literary agent who was not impressed. She didn’t even like the title. I have a short story that takes place at the filming of an episode of Antiques Roadshow, centered on some porcelain figurines purchased in Paris, France, at the end of WWII and the “paper” used to wrap them for travel back to the United States. I’ve had many people read it for input, but it still doesn’t seem to be “right”.
When I have friends or family members read my fiction, I am almost always told the same thing, “Can’t you write more like the way you talk, the way you tell a story about something that has happened to you?” During an online course for certification as an English teacher, the professor messaged me privately to ask if I was a writer. She had just read one of my assignments, a first person narrative relating the literature we were reading to some phase in our own lives. I responded back that I was a teacher, not a writer. She said that I should be a writer, that I had a very appealing writing style, and that I was a very good storyteller.
So, I decided to try my hand at non-fiction, particularly, memoir-based essays. I’ve read quite a few collections of essays of this particular genre and style, and I really enjoy them. Among my favorites: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron; Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog by Lisa Scottoline; I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman; and Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron.
Now, I don’t claim to be the slightly younger, Catholic, southern, long lost sister of the famous Ephron siblings. However, I wondered, in the spirit of O. Henry, if I wrote a personal essay a week for one year, would that make me a writer? Would someone out there in the digital universe “read” them, “comment” on them, “share” them, “like” them, “tweet” them, “pin” them? Would my storytelling mojo come through loud and clear via the binary code of the digital world?
Update: Mission accomplished! An essay a week for one year (2015) 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. 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.
Did it work? After a year of writing and posting essays, I learned quite a bit about my writing, like how to get to the point before I bore the reader to death, and how to connect my personal experience to something larger, something outside of my own life and experience. While not tied to my essay-a-week goal any more, I still write and post essays periodically. But, I’ve also found success in getting some non-fiction published in a local parenting magazine (Washington Family Magazine), so all in all, I am pleased with my work on An Essay a Week for One Year project!