Author and Authority: what makes a writer, a Writer

I thought it might be fitting to look at what it really means to be a writer: after all, this is my very first blog post, and it’s a blog in which I’ll be talking about books, writing and things of that ilk quite a lot.

So the question is, what makes a writer? At what point can you officially wear your Real Writer* hat? Whether you write romance, fantasy, thrillers, or even lit fiction, this question is bound to crop up eventually.

For me, it cropped up just the other day, when I was in a bookshop, talking to a guy who, as it turned out, is currently working on his first novel. I mentioned that I was working on my next Regency, and he said “So, do you want to be a real writer someday?”

And that threw me a bit, because what is a ‘real writer’?  This question has been debated an awful lot lately, on Goodreads and writing blogs, and there still isn’t any real solid answer.

For one, there’s the idea that once you’re published – once you’ve signed a contract with a bona fide publishing house, you instantly get initiated into the Grand Hall of Official Writers, and then you can sit with the cool kids.

But what if you choose not to go the legacy route? Does that mean that no matter how much you earn, you’ll never be a real writer? Or what if you choose to self-pub after you’ve spent some time in legacy? Does your writer card get instantly revoked? The ‘published’ label worked a lot better before self-publishing threw the industry for a loop, and it seems a bit silly to use it as a yard-stick now. And this is not counting the fact that in this model you’re waiting for some secondary party to give you the green light to be a Real Writer – if you need anyone to green-light you, surely the most obvious people would be the ones who will hopefully buy and read your stuff…

On the other hand, maybe you’re a Real Writer once you start earning a living by means of your writing. That’s how I used to see it. Once your writing pays the rent, you’re in. But when you think about it, that doesn’t quite work either. Whether you self-pub or go traditional, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll earn enough off your advance (and even royalties, if you manage to earn out that advance later on) for your first book to completely support yourself by means of your writing alone.

It happens, but it doesn’t happen enough to warrant becoming the yard-stick, either. Besides, suppose you do manage it for a while, and then have to go back to a part-time job, or a full-time one, because the economy is wobbly and unpredictable like that**:  Real Writer card revoked. And that’s before you consider all those writers who don’t become famous for years and years, if not till after their death, just because by sheer chance it took ages for them to be discovered.

So, it’s not publishing. And it’s not income. It’s not how much you’ve written (Harper Lee only published one book), or how long you’ve been writing for, what you write or how many writing classes you’ve taken.

In fact, modern ideas of authorship are very modern indeed: in the Middle Ages, when manuscripts were expensive, difficult to make and owned by a privileged few, they were usually written out by clerical and secular scribes (who copied and recopied manuscripts , compiled new ones and frequently made their own changes to the text). They changed words, phrases, even whole chunks of narrative. Sometimes, when a particular section of the original was damaged or unavailable, they left blank spaces to be filled in later (some of which never were). These scribes were usually anonymous. As were most of what we would now call the ‘authors’ of these works. Sometimes the scribe and author were one and the same, but usually not.

Christine de Pizan writing from MS Harley 4431(retrieved from

Christine de Pizan writing from MS Harley 4431(retrieved from

Aside from a few, like Gower or Chaucer, who we know by name, the identities and names of many medieval ‘authors’ have been lost to history, and it’s doubtful if they were even widely known in their day. They just didn’t value authorship identity the way we do now, didn’t see the point of it, and they certainly wouldn’t define authorship as we would.

In fact, authorship of a work was often denied even by the authors themselves, who claimed divine inspiration, or a visit by some personification of Wisdom ,or the like, as the true source of the text: they would say that they had only written down what was imparted on them in some other way. Christine de Pizan and her contemporaries did this an awful lot – and they surely would have been very confused if asked what they thought constituted a Real Writer.

The thing is, there is no official writer induction, or Grand Hall of Official Writers or any of that. If you’ve going to wait for someone else to induct you (and that may or may not happen), then that is entirely your choice. But it’s equally your choice to decide when you have officially become a writer. It can be after you’ve finished your first story, when you’ve decided to make writing the primary focus of your life, or when you book starts selling. It’s about the goals you set for yourself.

Do you want to write a story for yourself and never let anyone else see it? It would be a shame to keep it hidden in the dungeons of your hard-drive somewhere, or in a shoe box, but if that’s your goal than it’s every bit as valid as making enough money to cover half your rent, or just making people happy from having read your work.

Which is to say, at the end of the day it’s you who gets to decide what will make you a writer, and it’s you who has to work towards that goal and celebrate when you achieve it. Although you can always rope in your friends for that last one!

*Capital letters et al.

**Here, you may be able to tell that I am a person with an English degree writing about finance things…