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Am I a Real Writer?

Flickr Creative Commons: Mark Lorch

So here’s the thing: I’m not writing fiction right now. I haven’t written fiction for a solid 18 months, maybe longer. My last novel was published in 2013, the culmination of a writing streak that produced three novels in five years, all of which were agonized over and rewritten and edited and re-edited and shopped around and published and reviewed and read. I started and shelved two different novels over the course of three years after my last one came out and then, dear reader, I stopped writing.

I still write—I have a busy and productive career as a journalist, I teach creative writing to kids and play every writing game and do every writing exercise right along with them—but I don’t have a “work in progress” right now. I don’t have an idea that consumes me; I don’t need to write to maintain my sanity; I don’t write every day.

What have I been doing since I stopped writing? All the work involved in the full catastrophe of any life. Mine happens to include an elderly parent and kids and spouse and work and bills and leaky roofs and grocery shopping and head colds and what’s for dinner tonight? Yours is some variation on that, I’m sure. But if I don’t make writing fiction a part of my full catastrophe, am I really a writer?

When I was young, from age 8 or 9 on, I wrote. I wrote a neighborhood newspaper and I kept a journal and I wrote short stories and I wrote poetry. I kept writing through high school and I wrote when I got to college. I remember vividly during my senior year when a friend mentioned that she’d been doing some non-school-related writing lately, that she was pleased with her writing, that she liked being a writer. When I asked what she was writing she said she’d been writing one or two journal entries a week. To me, that was living, not writing. I marveled at her boldness in declaring herself a writer but I still didn’t think it applied to me.

For a decade or more I would say, “I’m a journalist,” or “I’m an editor,” when people asked what I did for a living, because even though I was writing magazine and newspaper articles regularly and still writing poetry and fiction (for my own amusement) it seemed hubris to declare myself a real writer. Then, after my first book came out, I’d say, “I’m a journalist but I recently published my first novel.” It wasn’t until my second book came out (and I already had a contract on my third, as-yet-unwritten novel), that I began to answer, “I’m a writer” or even “I’m an author.” I felt I’d earned it.

But I think I earned it long before I could say it. I think all of us who have tried to capture the currents of words and images as they run through our brains are writers. It’s ****-ing HARD, what we do, isn’t it? It’s like trying to grasp water as it runs through your fingers and even though you know you’ll never really hold it or contain it, the grasping feels worthwhile, IS worthwhile.

We all have our periods of self-doubt and feelings of being an impostor and dark nights of the soul, myself included. I still think about the characters in those two novels I started and didn’t finish. Why couldn’t I bring them to life, do them justice, tell their stories through to the end? I think about the idea I have for a new novel, an idea I had months ago yet so far I’ve produced exactly seven sentences. I finally worked up the courage to tell my idea to a friend in my small critique group, a smart, straight-shooting, plain-talking brilliant writer. “Oh, my God,” she said, after I told her what I wanted to write. “THAT’S the book I want to read right now.” Her response left me equally gratified and fearful. What if I can’t do it?

Being a writer is such a bold and wonderful thing to be. Whether you’re published or not, whether you scribble stories on napkins or type tomes into laptops, whether you write fantasy or mystery or romance or realistic fiction or horror or adventure—you’re a writer.

No, I’m not working on a new novel right now. No, I haven’t written a book in almost five years.

What do I do for a living? I’m a writer.

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.