A Real Writer

Although I’ve been writing my whole life, I’ve never quite considered myself a real writer.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I was certain I would become one. “Writer” is the earliest answer I can remember having to the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up. But it felt premature to consider myself a real writer as a kid, when I wasn’t yet a real anything. It was theoretically possible to be a real writer while you were still in high school, but only if you were a prodigy, like that fifteen-year-old who wrote Eragon.

In college I avoided identifying too strongly with any one particular group, especially one based around future careers or creative identities. It seemed unwise to think of myself too definitively as a writer when I was still figuring out who I was. Besides, I suspected there were dangers in adopting an identity I didn’t yet deserve. Would thinking of myself as a writer too early sap me of the motivation I needed to keep writing? Perhaps the identity was what I really wanted, and the work itself was just a way to get there.

Even after I graduated and had a few things published, I never thought of myself as a real writer because I was never on the path to becoming one professionally. There wasn’t ever a single point when I stepped off that path; I just decided not to pursue writing at this moment, and then the next one, and then the next one, and then a decade later I had a whole career and writing wasn’t it. Not that I even believe you have to write for a living to be a real writer—I know plenty of real writers who still have day jobs. Or entire second careers, like Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks and other people who aren’t doctors.

I’ve known a lot of writers who felt like they were born to write, that they couldn’t do anything else. Sometimes, when I think about whether or not I’m a real writer, I consider the fact that I can do other things—a lot of other things!—and wonder what right I have to claim their art for myself when I have so many options. Let the writers who can’t do anything else have their writing; I’ll go pass in normal society.

Of course, even the writers who claim they couldn’t do anything else probably could. No one is born for anything. That stereotype reminds me of the idea that the only true entrepreneurs are the people who were setting up lemonade stands in front of their house when they were ten. For a while when I started my former company I felt like “startup founder” was an ill-fitting disguise that everyone around me would soon see through. Now the founder costume fits me well, but I still don’t see myself as a real writer, even though I write every week and haven’t actually been an entrepreneur in years.

Really the question is why we think we have to meet some arbitrary threshold of “realness” in order for what we do to count. I run a couple miles every few days or so and never stress about whether or not I’m a real runner, even though I’m a million times better at writing than I am at running. But there’s something about the arts that makes so-called amateurs feel like they’re trespassing on a priestly rite.

My brain knows that there isn’t actually a clear delineation between the “real writers” and everybody else. But my gut says there absolutely is such a thing as a real writer, and I’m not one. Yet.

Yours in promising I’ll get back to the aliens soon,

Max