On episode 320 of Scripnotes, screenwriters Jon August and Craig Mazin fielded a question about calling oneself a writer. They urged those who write to identify with the verb (writing) and not the noun (being a writer.)
Here’s a my take on that distinction:
At its best, “writer” is the title you get to claim when you write consistently. It’s a statement of one’s habitual action–the noun describing one who does the verb. There’s a difference between calling yourself a writer because you write and claiming the title because you think of yourself as the kind of person who writes. It’s like the difference between being sober and that one Tuesday when you weren’t drunk.
Writing is something we all do all the time. And maybe that’s why we feel like we need to label ourselves in the first place. Everyone writes emails and text messages and to-do lists. Many jobs involve writing, from teaching to law enforcement. Fewer jobs and day-to-day tasks call for singing or painting.
Writing can take you to remarkable places and see you paid hansomely for your talent and hard work. In his infamous memo, David Mamet writes of the financial rewards awaiting anyone who can tell a good story on screen: (Capitalization his)
“WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.”
Neil Strauss recently tweeted that writing is his own form of cryptocurrency. As the volume of words he produces grows so does his wealth and financial security.
I’ve got my own cryptocurrency. It’s called writing. I just write words, and each one is magically worth money. It started out at .05 cents on the exchange, then $1, now it’s past $3 a word. The total volume of words is now in the millions.
That said, writers get paid for writing not for being writers. The only exception to this rule I can think of is the guy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s who secures a pity patronage from a sugar mama who doesn’t much care if he writes or not.
The urge to be a writer can lead to all sorts of intellectual dishonesty and corner cutting, says William Gaddis. The “Fantasy of wanting to be a writer,” he says, can blind you to the actual work of writing which can be “sheer drudgery.”
Being a writer is a dream peddled by gurus, overnight success mongers, seminars, workshops, and MFAs. Writing doesn’t require a degree, a scene, or anybody’s permission. Jean Genet wrote on toilet paper in a French prison.
Writing, as Ryan Holiday points out, is a means to an end. It’s a way to communicate. His advice to anyone who wants to be a writer: find something to say.
The joy of writing comes from the intrinsic pleasures of worldbuilding, making something, communicating your deepest truth, finding an outlet for your feelings, expressing yourself, playing with words, telling tales.
The joy of being a writer, comes from telling people you’re a writer, getting your ego stroked, getting other parts of you stroked by people who think writers are impressive.
Writers feel threatened and discouraged by a world in which everybody writes. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll welcome company, competition, and mentorship, in what can be a very lonely activity.
Writers focus on acting like writers. They drink and tell you that all the great writers died drunk. They dress like characters in Wes Anderson movies and sometimes even wear berets.
Writing, on the other hand, invites you to approach the blank page with a sense of possibility and a willingness to discover your self and your world.