Monday, October 10, 2011

I Write, Therefore I Am

About twenty-five years ago, I worked as a reporter for a small-town weekly newspaper. It was the kind of job where I wrote my stories on an electric typewriter, and people would call in to complain if we forgot to run the bridge scores from the nursing home that week. One day a young guy came in (I say young now, but he was probably a few years older than I was then) and asked to speak to a reporter. Since my desk was in the front office, he got sent to me. He introduced himself as a local writer name David Sain. He had just self-published his first chapbook of poetry, and he wanted the paper to run a story on him. Since I was always scrambling to find copy to fill the paper (there were two papers produced in our office, and I was the only reporter working on mine), I thanked the Universe for dropping a story in my lap and proceeded to interview David. He was a well-spoken man, eager to promote himself, and he gave me plenty of information for a story, along with a publicity photo we could run.

"I call myself a poet now," he said at one point. "I didn't used to because I felt I hadn't earned the title. But I sent some of my poems to Nikki Giovanni, and she wrote me back with some great comments in which she called me a poet. So since she bestowed the title upon me, I feel that now I can say with pride that I am a poet."

Last week I was teaching a class, and one of my students asked me how I saw myself, as more of a teacher or a writer. I told him that I have so many roles in life -- father, brother, partner, friend, writer, teacher, citizen, etc. -- that I simply define myself by my name. "Tim Waggoner" encompasses all the roles I play, and all those I'll play in the future.

The student's question reminded me of David Sain and got me thinking about how important it seems to be for writers -- especially beginning ones - to define themselves as writers. And how in many cases, that identity they're trying to create for themselves is just as important to them as writing itself. Sometimes even more so.

I initially resisted self-identifying as a writer. Starting in sixth grade, I began drawing a comic book series of superhero adventures featuring myself and my friends. The Six Million Dollar Man was one of my favorite TV shows, so I turned us into The Bionic Team, four kids who were injured in a roller coaster accident and, thanks to the addition of cyborg parts, were made better, faster, and stronger. I kept the series up throughout junior high and most of high school, but as much as my friends enjoyed reading these adventures, they always said my writing was better than my art. This irritated me to no end because I wanted to become a comic book artist when I grew up -- not a writer. I was only writing the damned comics to give me a story to draw!

In high school, I explored all the creative options I could. I played trumpet in band, took art and writing classes, and was a member of the Drama Club. I was in several plays (only in the spring since I was in marching band in the fall), and by my senior year I'd switched from wanting to be an artist to wanting to be an actor. Laurie Eckert, the Drama Club director, gave me a blank journal as a graduation present. Her inscription urged me to fill it with all my "creative ideas." While I was touched that she recognized me as a highly creative person, I was a bit irritated. "I'm going to be an actor," I thought. "Not a writer!"

A year earlier, I had taken a creative writing class with Mrs. Vagedes. I wrote a story ripped-off . . . uh, I mean inspired by a comic tale I'd read in Eerie magazine about the last surviving Christmas elf who continued delivering presents on his own, only he was a murderous psychopath. I decided to take the basic premise -- which I thought hadn't realized its full potential in the Eerie version -- and I wrote a non-horror tale called "The Last Christmas Present." Mrs. Vagedes was so impressed that she read it aloud to the class. But she didn't tell who had written it. She said that it was up to the author to identify him or herself. I said nothing. I was proud of how the story turned out, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to publicly claim authorship of it. I was just a kid who'd written a story. I wasn't a "writer." I was eventually outed and awarded the honor of Writer of the Month at my school for the story, and the local paper published the story along with an interview with me. (I actually wore a suit to be interviewed by the reporter, and at one point used the word "chagrined" to sound smart.)

Sometime during my junior or senior year, I read an interview with Stephen King in an issue of Dracula Lives. He was a relatively new writer back then, just starting out, really. I remember that in the photo of him which accompanied the article he wore a pair of plastic vampire fangs. Probably not something he'd do today, I'd wager. Reading that interview was the first time I realized that a person could actually choose to be a writer as a career path. King chose it. I could choose it. I left my bedroom, walked down the hall and into the family room, and told my mother, "I think I might like to be a writer." She looked at me for a second, and then said, "I think you would be a good one."

The King interview was a revelation to me. Up to that point, I'd never considered becoming a writer. I'd been inventing stories all my life. Sometimes I'd draw them, sometimes act them out with toys, sometimes act them out on the playground with friends, but it was always Story. It was as natural and necessary to me as breathing. And who decides to make something as simple as breathing their career? I didn't immediately dedicate my life to writing at that point, but I was a step closer.

When I was a freshman in college (this was after I'd switched my major from acting to theatre education), I was sitting on the porch one day when my father got home from work. He walked up to me and handed me a brown paper bag. Inside was a copy of Writer's Digest. "I saw this at the bookstore, and I thought you might like it," he said, and then he went inside. I sat there on the porch and read the magazine from cover to cover, not only because I was interested in the articles, but because my dad bought it for me, because -- even if he hadn't said it aloud -- like my mom, he thought I could be a writer.

During college, I began writing and submitting work for publication in earnest. I took a job as a tutor in the Writing Center. My senior year I became editor of the school's literary magazine. After I graduated, I decided to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration. In my mid to late twenties I began regularly publishing short stories, and my first novel came out when I was in my mid-thirties. But at no point in my life was there one moment when I decided that I was now a WRITER. I grew into that identity, just as I've grown into my others.

Some writers, like David Sain, need someone they respect and admire to anoint them as writers, whether that person's a teacher, a mentor, a publisher, or a reviewer. Others seek to invent themselves as writers, as if they can become whatever their ideal of a writer is through sheer force of will. And some seek to purchase it, although they'd probably never look at it this way. And to make it even harder to develop an identity as a writer, there's a lot of bad advice people get along the way. So let's talk a bit about some of the larger potholes and pitfalls to be encountered on the road to developing a writing identity.

If you write, you are a writer.

I've seen this bit of wisdom posted on many a message board. The idea is opposite of what David Sain needed. Instead of waiting for someone to pronounce you a Writer with a capital W, you are one from the moment you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and begin writing. On one level, this is freeing. There's no need for someone to anoint you. But it doesn't leave room for you to grow. If you're automatically a capital W Writer from the moment you begin, why bother striving to get better? Why bother listening to feedback? Why bother to continue writing at all, really? You wrote once, right? That was good enough to earn your capital W.

There's more to writing than typing. Just ask Truman Capote.

You're only a REAL writer when you (fill in the blank).

There are lots of way to fill in the blank. You're only a real writer when you . . . publish your first story, publish your first story for pro rates, publish you first story in Well-Regarded Magazine, get an agent, publish a novel, get a five-figure advance, get a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, make the New York Times bestseller list and so on. All of this is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. Don't allow others to define your writing identity for you. If you do, either you'll drive yourself crazy trying to achieve one particular goal or, if you do achieve it, it won't be enough. Eventually the glow of success will fade, and you still won't feel "real" yet. (Besides, being real is overrated. I'd rather be a surreal writer.)

Full-time vs day job.

This could also be filed under "You're only a real writer when . . ." Some people believe you're not a writer until you can quit your day job and make a living solely from your writing. (Teaching writing doesn't count, just publishing and being paid for it.) It's long been established by people who calculate this kind of thing that the average yearly income of a writer from writing is $5000 a year. This average includes bestsellers, as well as writers of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, etc. Many writers who try writing full time find that they don't produce any more work than they did when they had day jobs. Plus, not having health insurance or a steady income to pay bills leads to a ton of stress which, you guessed it, impacts productivity. A lot of people act like writing full time is the Holy Grail of the writing life when it's more like a double-edged sword. There are a lot of pros and cons to writing full time, and only you can decide if it will work for you and your family. But do you need to write full time to be a capital W? Of course not.

Literary vs genre.

Some people think "real" writing must be literary. Anything else is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Others believe "real" writing is writing that people read: stories that entertain, and only genre writing does this. Both views are horseshit. You and you alone determine what you write. Write what fulfills you for whatever reason it fulfills you. Anyone who tells you any different is either an idiot or so insecure in their own identity as a writer that they have to push their artistic values on other people in order to feel good about themselves.

You must approach it as a business.

I've heard this piece of advice I don't know how many times from genre writers. The only "must" in writing is that you must use words to communicate ideas in written form. After that, it's up to you. Now, if you want to have a career as a selling writer who makes money, approaching it as a business is a good idea. If you write to please yourself, for artistic fulfillment, and you don't give a damn about making money, that's okay too.

Writers must always get paid.

In a perfect world, we all would be paid for every word we write. In reality, not so much. If you want to use money to keep score of your success as a writer, that's your business. But if you want to write erotic haiku about lemurs in love, go for it. (Then again, you might find there's a thriving market for lemur love poetry.) But don't let anyone take advantage of you. If you choose to write for a nonpaying market for whatever reason, fine. But if a publisher is going to make money from your writing, you should too. And of course, never, ever pay anyone to publish your work unless you desire to self publish and you go into such a venture with your eyes wide open.

Writing programs

University creative writing programs have exploded in number over the last few decades, and for one simple reason: they generate money and employ literary writers. That doesn't mean these teachers are poor ones, but if they could make a living from writing full time, most of them probably would. A lot of beginning writers feel they need an MA or MFA in creative writing so that they are sanctioned as writers by society. It makes sense. You're not a doctor until you get your MD or a lawyer until you get your JD. But often enrolling in a creative writing program is an attempt to purchase an identity as a writer. Yeah, you have to do the course work as well as pay tuition, but getting a degree doesn't make you a writer. It just means you earned a degree from one institution. (And where you get your MFA makes all the difference, but that's a topic for another blog.) Statistics show that most graduates of MFA programs never go on to even modest writing careers. If they do remain in writing, it's as the next generation of creative writing teachers. A graduate program can be a wonderful growth experience for a writer, but you don't need a degree to write. The vast majority of the professional writers I know don't have degrees in writing, and most of the people I know who have degrees in writing don't write and publish. Make of this what you will.

Writers groups

Some think, "I'm a writer because I'm in a writing group." I hate to break it to you, but no, you're not. You're just a person in a writing group. Too many people treat critique groups (or writing classes -- see above) as validation of their identity as a writer -- but they never actually finish work and submit it for publication. Writing groups can be wonderful things, but only as a part of the process of one's growth as a writer, not an end in and of themselves.

I'm a (fill in the blank) writer.

It's tempting -- especially in these days of corporate branding -- to want to label yourself as a romance writer, mystery writer, or even more broadly as a fiction writer or poet. Most people consider me a horror writer, but I write fantasy and media tie-in work as well, mostly for adults but sometimes for younger readers, and my work is often cross-genre and perhaps ultimately unclassifiable. If you love one type of writing to the exclusion of all others, then by all means, call yourself a (fill in the blank) writer. But don't let it limit you. If you're a western writer who wants to try writing an absurdist play, then go for it. There's something to be said for branding when it comes to marketing your work, but there's no need for you to make a brand your identity.

Writers who rush to self-publish

I'm seeing this more and more these days -- writers who feel they must have a book published in order to legitimize themselves as writers . . . at least in their own eyes. E-pubbing has become incredibly easy over the last few years, and it's only going to become easier. If you really honest to God believe that your book is the very best that it can be, that it's of high enough quality to be competitive with other books that are out there, that it's going to be worth a reader's time, attention, and money, that it's so good that YOU would pay to read it if you hadn't written it, then self-publish away. But if you're just in a hurry to be a capital W, do the world -- and yourself -- a favor and hold off until you've written something truly worth taking public. Because when you publish, you begin building an identity in readers' minds, and who wants an identity as someone who produces sub-standard work? Sure, you may improve as the years go by, but why should readers suffer through your growing pains? And do you really think they're going to keep buying your books while you grow? And do you think all those one-star reviews on Amazon and bad reviews on blogs will magically vanish the day you finally write a really good book?

I guess what I'm trying to say with this blog entry is not only be yourself, but create yourself. And it's not a bad idea to have a little fun along the way, too.


Ghost Trackers, the novel I co-wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show, is out in trade, mass market, and e-book formats. My horror novel Like Death is due to be reissued as the inaugural release from Black Room Books, hopefully by the end of the month. Both make wonderful Halloween reading fare and deserve an honored place on your shelf. (Hey, it's called shameless self-promotion for a reason!)


  1. Great thoughts, Tim.

    Thank you so much for sharing them. I posted this on SHU's WPF FB page for others to consider.

    I think at some point, the individual person has to reach the realization of who they are, themselves. And sometimes, regardless of others advice or experience, the only way a person can define themselves is to walk the dark path, stumble down the road, and find the answer on their own.

    At the first residency I attended, I was amazed at how many students in the fiction writing program did not define themselves as writers. I'd published articles in papers and major scientific journals, and I'd blogged a bit, but I hadn't published popular fiction yet. Still, despite the lack of publication in my current chosen study, I defined myself as a writer.

    The self-definition did require help. I'm one of those who other people started calling a writer before I could make the leap to calling myself one. Grade-School/High School teachers, professors, family, friends labeled me so, even though I never made a cent doing it. It took some time to believe in the name, and the process of acceptance was slow.

    Still, I find myself wondering "what KIND of writer" I am. A good writer? A bad writer? A scientific writer? A fiction writer? And if I embrace fiction, then "what kind" of fiction? Since I started the MFA program, so many genre labels have been presented to me, and so many options for a 'name' have been dangled in front of me to adopt. After thinking very hard about it these past few months, I've decided not to worry about it. I'm focusing on learning the fiction craft, and on understanding what makes for an enjoyable story. I'm also not afraid to break barriers, and I feel confident enough in embracing criticisms while also realizing my own artistry/unique voice still needs to be maintained. There are traditional writing patterns out there, set as guru guidelines for writers to follow, but I tend to think that writing systems can sometimes, and should, be broken.

    The one thing I am certain of is that I love to write. I can't NOT write. And the stories inside me want to come out more than they want to stay inside my biological frame. They simply beg to be written. They have an inalienable mind of their own, and sometimes I feel like a puppet, a medium between creativity and the world we live in. Good? Bad? Indifferent? I don't know.

    Self-publication is definitely a risk. But even books placed into the hands of major publishers sometimes fail, and sometimes miserably. In the world of self publication, the writer should simply do all s/he can do to try to make sure the story/novel is the best it can be before letting it loose on the world. Even the most earnest feedback from critique partners, mentors, professors, editors... sometimes isn't enough though, and there comes a time that the writer needs to make a decision whether to let the story be free or put it in a box.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts here, and I'm sure many will glean something to chew on from your words. Write on!



  2. Good stuff! It is actually scary how much our young lives parallel.

    I love when people aske me what I do and I tell them I'm a writer. At first they're afraid to ask me what I write, scared that I might say that I'm a journalist, or, worse, that I write something they disagree with. But I always tell them that "I write whatever's in my head at the moment." This usually stops more questions.

  3. Cool post Tim. I remember realizing at some point that I was no longer embarrassed at saying I was a writer. I thought that was cool. Now its not even a thought. It's both what I do for a living and what I'm learning to do for a future living. Funny though...I don't feel comfortable with Author! Can't wait until that becomes second nature...there's no lack of insecurity among us Writers!