A quick scroll through our Quotes of the Week archive will show you how often writers pontificate about what Writers Should Do and What Writing Should Be. Usually, it’s wise, helpful advice, but it is always good to bear in mind that the opposite of any maxim could be true for you as a writer. Alan Bennett says that when you come across a sentiment from another a writer that you thought unique to you, it's like being taken by the hand --- but don't let that proferred hand yank your arm out of the socket and lead you down a road you don't want to travel.
Because in fact, all a writer is is someone who writes stuff. Anything more specific is going to be personal, idiosyncratic, and discovered by you yourself.
Point for discussion: One of my biggest quarrels with Letters to a Young Poet was Rilke’s tendency to make up rules for young writers, who are already have enough challenges. Take this one, from the First Letter:
Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write?...It is possible that even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is indication that, in fact, one should not.
(pp. 11-13 of the New World Library edition)
I take it that Rilke means that if one could live without writing, one should not write. To which I say: Piffle. Poppycock. Tripe and other expressions of increasing vulgarity and anatomic specificity. Certainly there are people who feel that writing is lifeblood—but if you don’t feel that way, or don’t feel that way every second of every day, that doesn’t mean you aren’t a Proper Writer.
What’s really criminal about dicta like Rilke’s is the way they undermine the tentative soul. Who is really confident enough to declare: "Yes! I know exactly what my inner soul is saying and I would die if I couldn't write!" Frankly, such a person sounds insufferable. (Further, I often think that the more unselfish love is the one that can live without the beloved but does not wish to. Then we are looking at the gift of self rather than selfish, acquisitive love.)
I think that for every one reason I have to write, there are about ten insecurities waiting to gobble it up. Writers are geniuses at explaining why their work doesn’t really count, why they are hacks, why they are not even proper writers at all.
Any of these sound familiar?
"Writers are supposed to scribble constantly, seized by inspiration like Jo in Little Women or Cassandra in I Capture the Castle or Jamal in Finding Forrester. I don’t do that. In fact, I hardly ever feel like writing."
"Writers are also supposed to have heads brimming with stories and characters. I don’t."
"I never played make-believe as a child, so clearly I don’t have a vivid imagination."
"I can’t write a novel. Ernest Hemingway wrote short stories for years before he wrote novels, and I haven’t written a single short story, so I have no business writing a novel."
"Stephenie Meyer had a dream that grew into Twilight while her kids were little. I never dreamed when my kids were small because I was too tired! I must not really have a creative mind."
"J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter while she was a down-and-out single mom, but all I can think about is where my next meal is coming from. I must not really be driven to write."
"I’ve never even been in love. How can anything I write be credible?"
"I don’t dress interestingly enough to be a writer."
And the worst: "I’ve never finished anything, not even a journal, so I’m not a writer."
There are plenty of responses to the doubts I’ve just listed. For one thing, wanting to write comes from making a habit of writing. There's a lot of habit-forming that goes into being able to finish something. For another, for me at least, it takes continual practice to crystallize vague emotions and interior colors into characters and plots. They don’t come ready-made, however the movies make it look. It is also ridiculous to compare ourselves to such a rubbish writer as Ernest Hemingway (and everyone has their own genre gifts anyway). Most importantly, if you’re worried about how you dress, just buy some fingerless gloves at Hot Topic. Insta-funky, and your hands will be warm while you type as an added bonus.
Forgive the tongue-in-cheek, but I am writing from a place very close to my heart, as someone who has wasted a lot time enumerating the reasons why I don't "count" as a writer. The point is that we all have different stories. We all have different artistic needs, different ideas to express, different roads that led us to the page. Comparing ourselves to our heroes, fictional or real, is natural, but they can’t be allowed to make rules for us.
The relationship between every writer and his or her pen is as unique as every relationship between one human and another. People are all different; writers are all different. Though you may benefit from the example or advice of Hemingway or Shakespeare, Stephen King or Francine Pascal for all I care, what you write, why you write, and how you write are all up to you.
I really am convinced that there are many more potential writers out there than dare to declare themselves. Many, many people would be happier and more alive if they would allow themselves to be writers or artists of other casts. Please: take a piece of paper, and a pen, and write something. String a few words together to describe what you are seeing right now if you can't think of anything else. It'll probably stink; so revise it. Welcome to the guild.
As Faulkner says: "Try not to be a writer. Try to be writing." If you give up on being Jo March, you might just become yourself.
A writer is someone who writes stuff. End of story.