Over at Wyrdsmith's Kelly's open call for questions/comments generated some interesting questions. For instance, Michael asked: When did you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer to others?
Sometimes I still don't.
A friend of mine bought me a great ball cap that says "writer" on it from Writers Store. I was a little nervous about wearing it in public because I knew what was going to happen.
Stranger: Hey, nice hat.
Me: Uh, yeah. Thanks.
Stranger: So are you a writer then?
Me: Yeah, I am. (Internally bracing for the follow-up)
Stranger: Anything published?
Maybe if I lived in New York or, really, anywhere other than taciturn Minnesota, I would probably see this conversation for what it could be: a chance to pitch myself and my work to people I meet on the street. Instead, I find myself blushing because I know what I'm about to say is a great big brag (a no-no in Minnesotan): "Yes," I say. "I've had six books published."
Either people are suitably impressed at this point, or suddenly very suspicious. "Really?" They ask, "Anything I would have heard of?" This is where I start regretting my fashion choices. Yet, at the same time I understand what people are really asking, and what I think is at the heart of Michael's question.
Society only values proved success, not process.
I'm a writer to the majority of strangers I meet on the street ONLY if I meet certain conditions: 1) I've published, 2) I've had my book published by a credible (in the case of the stranger this means THEY'VE heard of them) New York publisher, and/or 3) I can show success via awards won that they've heard of or best seller lists they know of.
However, I think that waiting until you can meet all of that criteria before calling yourself a writer is selling yourself (and the process) short. When I teach, I tell my students that they are writers the moment they finish their first short story or novel. If you're sending stories out and collecting rejections, you're a working writer.
Still, it's hard to answer when you meet someone for the first time and they ask you what you do. When you say, "I'm a writer," and you have another job, no one believes you. (Oh, they're thinking: it's the whole -- I'm your waiter, but I'm REALLY an actor syndrome.) I don't think that this assumption is necessarily malicious (though it can feel that way), instead I think people understand on a gut level that "making it" in our profession is really difficult. But, because it _is_ so difficult, I think the earlier we embrace the title writer, the better we can cope with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" which is the writing life.
For me, it took joining the National Writers' Union before I could tell people I was a writer. For one, going to meetings of the local chapter meant that everyone I met was also a writer. I didn't have to explain myself or all the ins-and-outs of the writing life about which the majority of the public has so many misconceptions. Once I got comfortable saying, "Hi, I'm Tate Hallaway. I'm a fiction writer," with my _own_ kind, I found I had less trouble "educating" strangers who turned their noses up the second I said, "No, I'm not published yet."
I wish I hadn't waited so long, but sometimes you have to believe the truth yourself before you can explain it to someone else.