Gimbling in the Wabe – What is a Writer?

by Sharon Browning

gimbling header

(Due to this nasty thing known as a “deadline”, this Gimbling in the Wabe is a repeat of one first posted here in 2014.  I think it’s still a pretty good one, if I do say so myself….)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is a “writer”?writers-block21

Common sense would tell us a writer is “one who writes”, at least using the word in its broadest term.  Google defines “writer” as “a person who has written a particular text”, and then goes on to give various and sundry examples, from professional to scribe to composer to data storage. has as its main entry, “a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.”

Me?  I’m not so sure.

It seems like there’s a difference between those who write and list it on their resumé , and those who write and don’t feel like they can, at least not as a separate and specific entry.  But I’m not sure that I believe that, either.

It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.  ~ Robert Benchley

Here’s the deal.  I’ve never earned a paycheck from writing.  I’ve never had anything published professionally, never even submitted anything for consideration.  However, I do write for this website.  I write reviews of others’ works, I write a weekly featured column, occasionally I help out with an article or two.  I do it for free, because I can and because I derive great joy from doing it, meaning, by definition, that I do it as a pastime, not as a profession.  Am I a writer?

Here’s another twist on the question:  in a different iteration of my life, I worked for a very large multi-national corporation.  I filled various roles for a specific service line on a national level.  Part of what I did was to document procedure (including making major contributions to the official Policies and Procedures Manual), create training presentations, perform as content editor and major contributor to an internal website, craft service line communications – all of which required skill in language (beyond just punctuation and grammar) and the ability to address subject matter concerns clearly and concisely.  (Okay, at least “clearly” – I’ve rarely been accused of being concise.)

Was I a writer?

I’m not posing a rhetorical question, or setting you up so as to pontificate in what I believe a writer must be.  I honestly don’t know.

A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it to be God.  ~ Sidney Sheldon

In my former job, I never felt like I could claim to be a writer, even on those days where most of my time was spend at a keyboard, crafting words and ideas, even when the projects in my queue had to do specifically with the written word.  I could embrace the word “communications” but not “writer”.  I actually feel more like a writer now, even though there is no monetary compensation.

But a criteria for being a writer can’t really be about how autonomous one is in one’s writing, right?  Certainly, those with published works under their names, real or assumed, are writers.  Even those who write original thoughts on assigned topics are writers, correct?  But journalists are writers, too, and they are (hopefully) bound by facts and events and strictly mandated styles – they can’t (or shouldn’t, at least) simply write off the cuff however they happen to feel like at the time.  And, by definition, a dramaturge is a writer, even though they do not necessarily produce original works.  Editors are also considered writers, yet they tweak others’ work.

And it can’t just be about effort.  There are some writers out there who are incredibly prolific, who can dash off works both large and small with a minimum of effort.  Does that make them “lesser” writers than the person who labors over every word, to whom writing is a weight with which they wrestle, gladly perhaps, compelled, perhaps, but rarely easily?

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.  ~ Robert A. Heinlein

There are technical writers, copy writers, critics, editors, researchers.  Are they any less worthy of the title “writer” than poets and novelists?  What about songwriters?  Are their words not poetry?  Then there are the much maligned and satirized folks who write greeting card ditties for a living.  Are they not writers of merit?  They make their living through their words, as trite as those words might seem.  How can they not be considered legitimate?

I once read an essay that suggested there was a difference between a writer and one who writes.  After making that statement, however, all they gave as evidence was a bunch of hyperbole about the sanctity of being a writer.  I’ve noticed that many writers seem prone to hyperbole – I mean, after all, they are writers.  And some of it is very, very good.

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.   ~ Ernest Hemingway

But hyperboles quickly turn into clichés and any literary power they may have had is lost.  At that point, to me, the effort ceases to be “writing” and instead become merely, as Hamlet would say, “words, words, words,” or to quote poor MacBeth, “… it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Man, that Shakespeare – now THERE’S a writer!

Could that be it?  That writing has less to do with simply being written, and more to do with quality?  That regardless of the humbleness or grandiosity of the writing, if it succeeds in what it attempts to do, even if the success comes in sideways or unexpectedly, then the person who wrote those words is a writer?  If we accept this in being so, then if the procedures are indeed clear and concise, they come from a writer.  If the greeting card is poignant and deft, then it was crafted by a writer.  If the advertising copy makes you want to know more about the product, then it was penned by a writer.

And if you made it this far, maybe I really could call myself a writer.

Of course, in the end, it probably doesn’t really matter if one is in the business or the pastime of word-smithing in order to qualify for the position of writer.  Perhaps what it really boils down to is that which was expressed by the great Southern author, William Faulkner, when he said, “Don’t be a ‘writer’.  Be writing.”

But then, you would expect Mr. Faulkner to have a way with words.  After all, he’s a writer.  I think we can all agree on that.

~ Sharon Browning

Related Posts