There is something about being a writer that holds a mystique for people. At least, it does for the people who I am introduced to. At my day job, I am often introduced to others like this: “This is Jamie Rubin. He’s a project manager on the Application Delivery team. He’s also a writer.” The last is offered with particular emphasis. As if the person making the introduction is saying, “He’s also a movie star.”
What follows is extremely predictable:
“What do you write?” asks the person to whom I have been introduced.
“Fiction and nonfiction,” I say.
“Have you had anything published?”
“Yes,” I say. I used to offer more than that, but these days, I find a simple “yes” sufficient. If someone prods further, I’ll say that I wrote short fiction, mostly science fiction, but occasionally something else. I write nonfiction on a variety of subjects, but primarily technology-related. And of course, there’s the blog writing that I do.”
But let me get back to that second question: “Have you had anything published?” It might not seem impertinent, but the question is often offered as a challenge: if the answer is “Yes,” well then this person really is a writer. If the answer is “No,” well, gosh, they sure take themselves seriously.
It seems to me that in no profession is a person’s credential questioned more than those in the arts, especially writers. When someone is introduced as a lawyer or doctor, people take it for granted that is what they are, and don’t require further validation. So why is it that a person introduced as a writer is often asked, “Are you published?”
I suspect part of this comes from the celebrity attached to writing. The bestseller lists make Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, J. K. Rowling household names, and the fame attached to those names gives the impression that all writers are celebrities, that we are all rich and famous. Therefore, if I claim to be a writer, I must be rich and famous, but if so, wouldn’t you have heard of me? Thus the question, “Have you been published?”
Perhaps it is the phrasing that gives pause. I wonder if journalists, upon being introduced as journalists, are asked if they’ve been published. I doubt it, since being a journalist implies having a day job. Being a writer doesn’t carry the same implication.
One might argue that I am simply being overly sensitive to the question, but I’ve seen the question applied to many writers, when they are introduced to strangers as writers. But here is my take on it:
If you write, you are a writer, and you should feel free to introduce yourself as such. Be prepared for The Question, but don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. I think when people think of writers, they think of professional writers: one who is paid to write. It is for this reason that I often refer to myself as a professional writer, when describing my writing. The “professional” adjective carries the implication that I am paid for my writing, and if that implication isn’t clear, it is easy to clarify it.
So what is a professional writer? I like a definition I read from Stephen King somewhere: if you write a story, and send it out, and the story is accepted, and you get a check in the mail, and the check clears the bank, and you use the money to pay your gas bill, you are a professional writer.