Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Writing as an Identity

One of the more unique aspects of writing is the way people associate themselves and their identities with their words on the page. People don't just spend time in the evening reflecting on the capricious vicissitudes of life and/or zombie killers from another planet. It somehow becomes more than that.

You can see this in the way people talk about writing: some people compare it to oxygen, i.e. something that they can't live without. They don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It's who I am."

I'm going to be honest here and say that while I don't judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.

First of all, people just don't tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don't hear anyone shout to the rafters, "I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!" or "I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!"

To be sure, there's something about writing that's a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting. It's more personal, even when it's not a memoir or something that relates directly to someone's real life. Putting thoughts on the page, any thoughts, means taking one's inner life and putting it all out there for the world to see. Normally we're at great pains to keep our emotions hidden, whether that's concealing anger or love or nervousness. Writers do the opposite: they take their innermost thoughts and show them to the world. And there's something scary/thrilling about externalizing what is normally kept hidden.

But an identity?

Here's where that becomes problematic. Once someone makes the leap from writing as a fun, intense pursuit to something wrapped up in identity, it's a dangerous road to be walking on. As we all know, the path to material success in the writing world is ridden with obstacles and rejections. And when people begin to wrap up their identity with the publication process, the rejections become personal, and a judgment on a book becomes intertwined, in the writer's eye, with a judgment of self.

Sure, there's something unique and personal about writing, which is what so many people love about it. But I don't think the ideal is pursuing it in an all-consuming Randy "The Ram" fashion. The moment the writing or the publishing process becomes the defining part of someone's identity, when it becomes oxygen, that's a time when the writer is risking having that oxygen choked off by forces completely outside of their control.

I hear from these people all the time. They're the ones who start spamming agents, who write me angry e-mails, and who go on tirades about the publishing process. They've stopped enjoying the writing process, and because writing is so wrapped up in their self-conception, they can't bear the pain of rejection and instead look outward for blame.

What do you think? Is it realistic to think that something so time-intensive and personal can be placed in a more hermetically sealed mental box? Is there even an ideal approach?

UPDATE: I scrubbed this post of the word "hobby" because I think it was distracting from the intent of the post. For the record: I don't think a creative pursuit is the same thing as a hobby, I don't prejudge people who call themselves writers, and as I hope is already abundantly apparent, I admire anyone and everyone who takes the time to put word to page. I only meant "hobby" as in something that one does that is not one's career, not as something trivial.

As I mentioned in the comments section, this post could have been summed up: "Don't let the publishing process define you." But I didn't have time today for such a short post.


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chinson said...

I find that the people quickest to wrap their identity in writing are the ones who have done the least of it.

Margaret Yang said...

I have a different opinion about that.

For many writers I know, it was a huge leap to even admit, in public, to being a writer. Many, many of them write secretly for years before telling anyone that they like to write, much less calling themselves "writers."

You may have a flawed sample. The writers you meet at conferences feel it is a safe place to call themselves writers. And the crazies who spam you are just...crazy.

Julie Gillies said...

Hi Nathan,

I've just started to read your blog thanks to Rachelle. Love what I'm finding here.

For me, there's safety in numbers; I do so much more than just writing--and that prevents me from getting all wrapped up in one identity cloak.

But for record, during three hours a day, I offically consider myself a writer. (Oh, and whenever I receive a paycheck.)

Amber said...

In a way, I agree with Margaret. I am a writer, and I consider myself so inside and with my small community of the few family & friends and other writers I spend time with.

But, I keep it close to the vest, because yes, it is just a hobby at this point - if a very time, mind and effort consuming one.

Once I get published is when I'll feel able to shout it out from the mountain top that I Am Author :)

But, at the same time, it's just part of me, and not even the biggest part. I'm also a wife, a mother, a woman, a friend, ect. The list could go on & on.

I've been querying lately, and have been able to take all the "No thank you's" in stride, even if I'm ready to go hide in the corner for a while before reworking my query then trying some more.

Jane said...

There is a lot of territory between hobby and identity. I don't make my living writing, but I do make some of my income from writing.

That someone would think of writing as my hobby is insulting.

On the other hand, I never announce "I'm a writer." I usually tack it on. "I teach writing and I also write."

Gee, I hope that's okay . . . why so territorial about who can call themselves a writer?

Bane of Anubis said...

Does it portend poorly that I was listening to GNR's "Dead Horse" when reading this post?

I'm in concurment (my word, feel free to add it to your lexicon, better than concurration, IMO) w/ Margaret. About 10 people know that I write outside of my family and lit agents, and merely by accident.

Until I get something published (currently shortlisted for an anthology, so I'm crossing my fingers and would do so with my toes, but they're locked in place - my wife calls me abnormal, but I say I've evolved beyond simian adroitness), I am not really a writer.

IMO, Writing makes one a writer as much as playing basketball makes one a basketball player. Drinking, however, does make one a drinker :)

I enjoy the process and if I never find success, it will hurt, but, thankfully, it does not define me - though God help me if I ever can't play hoops - I'm gonna have to take up golf - egads!

RW said...

Elizabeth Stroudt who won the Pulitzer a couple weeks ago for her most recent novel talks about a related issue:

How hard it is to separate the idea of artistic identity from the idea of publication.

If you wrap up your identity with artistic success, that's a dangerous road, as Nathan says. But it's possible to identify oneself as a writer without wrapping up your identity with publication. One can BE a writer without being a successful, published or successfully published writer. It's discouraging, but it needn't be a crisis of identity.

adamchristopher said...

Hmm, sure, until you get paid for it, writing is a hobby.

But then what's a job? Does a job define you as a person?

Say Mandy has a passion for rock-climbing. She goes all the time. She blogs about it. She takes part in a rock-climbing forum. She goes on big trips. She's a bone fide, through-and-through rock-climber.

During the day, she's a receptionist at the HQ of a stationery chain.

So what is she? Is she a receptionist? Does that define who she is? Not at all, she's a rock-climber. Rock-climbing is her life.

You see it on game shows all the time, and it drives me wild. Hi, I'm Bob, I'm a realtor. Hi, I'm Mary, I work in marketing.

If that's all they do in life and that is their one and only passion, then cool, Bob is a realtor, Mary works in marketing.

But if it's just an annoying necessity that ties you up for 8 hours a day, keeping you away from what you want to do just so you can pay the bills, does "realtor" define Bob? Is that the sum total of his existance, being a realtor? No. His hobbies and interests - which, let's face it, are what life is all about - define him. He's a fisherman and he plays the trumpet in a band. Mary is a volunteer at an old people's home.

So me, I'm a writer. That's what I do. I have a day job, but the day job is not me. The day job pays the bills which means I can have food and electricity and heating while I sit at home and write.

wickerman said...

I think folks want to be labeled an 'artist'. 'Writers' think there is some automatic level of respect and awe that comes with the title or, at the very least, a cool factor.

There is something really attractive about the image of sitting in the corner of a coffee shop working through your pain and pouring your blood sweat and tears into your art.

Or some other horsesh*t.

I gotta go with nathan on this one. It's a hobby. I love it - hell I spend time I should be fixing my leaky faucet with writing. I have never felt the need to 'hide' it or equate 'revealing' it to the world as being somehow analogous to a gay person 'coming out.' That's just people taking themselves too seriously. They want to be 'something'.

Too many 'writers' forget that the 'greats' they they aspire to be like - The Dickens and Twains of the past and the McCarthys on today still wipe their butts with Charmin just like we do.

Your hobby, your job or your 'art' are fine, but they do not make you - you. There is no better person than the one you are right now even if they are richer, more famous or more successful than you.
That may be the god that some of the 'writers' pray to, but i prefer to live in THIS world.

I'll write forever, published or no, but I'll also continue to play paintball and watch football too.

It just isn't as mysterious, cool or artistic as some of us would like to fool others into believing.

Anonymous said...

The problem, from my perspective, is when people who really are NOT writers,i.e. they don't write that much, don't strive to improve their writing, don't take critiques well, don't really have any natural talent, identify themselves as writers. Real writers are the ones who write because they love it. More than being published, more than having something cool to say about themselves. You'd like to hear more from these people. But you won't. They're busy writing.

Nathan Bransford said...


It wasn't my intent to segment off who can call themselves a writer. And I agree that there's a broad spectrum. I just wonder if perhaps there's a relationship between letting writing define a person too strongly and subsequently living and dying by publication in an unhealthy manner.

JohnO said...

I just saw Elizabeth Gilbert's wonderful TED talk about creative genius, which has a really healthy take on creativity and fear and identity and pressure and failure.

Part of her argument is that in the old days, genius was like the muse, something that came, visited and sometimes helped ... and sometimes didn't.

So you couldn't take full credit for everything if you were a success, and you weren't entirely to blame if your work failed (Pfft. Help these days. etc.)

As she puts it, it's the difference between people referring to someone as "being a genius rather than having a genius."

I think she's right. You work, doing whatever it is you do, and sometimes the inspiration visits you ... or not.

But your work is NOT your identity. After all, you do more work than writing, don't you? ("I am a BIKE COMMUTER!" "I am a DISH DOER!")

What Gilbert implies is how much our culture values "individual genius" that comes in the form of writers and other artists, even though we're all just culture sponges of various sorts.

So you can understand why people want that ego boost (I am A WRITER!). The culture rewards it.

Milan Kundera (I think it was him) once said that the best works of art are a little more intelligent than the people who created them. I think he knew what Elizabeth Gilbert was talking about.

Alex Green said...

I think you're just trying to reference The Wrestler as much as possible and soon your identity will be wrapped up in the words, "I AM a Randy 'The Ram' lover!"

But really, I think lots of artist types can get overzealous. Chefs, poets, painters, musicians. Common sense should dictate a little restraint in titling and wrapping oneself up in that title.

Martin Willoughby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalie said...

I think every writer goes through this phase.

Some hit it in their teens when they write angsty love poems that someone will find when they die, which is when they'll be hailed for their genius. Then promptly grow out of it when the hormones even out.

Some hit it on their first novel and expect immediate best-sellerdom. Then they get burned and realize it's not so easy and they need to take a step back.

Some, unfortunately, never grow out of that tortured artist thing. But I think most eventually see the light.

J. F. Constantine said...


I understand what you're saying, but the people who write angry emails, etc. are frankly, wackos. These are people who are out of touch with the reality of the industry. If they can't take rejections, they need to get out of writing.

It is a statistical improbability that everyone on the planet will love what one person writes. So, why are these people surprised when someone does not find favor with their work? Beats me, but it doesn't mean that anyone with true commitment is a wacko.

I am published; however, I don't make my main living on writing. Certainly, that would be fabulous and I will work hard to make that happen, but I'm also aware of the odds.

BUT, my writing is NOT a hobby. I am an artist and a writer, and writing in an art form. Artists historically starve if they rely on their art. This doesn't mean it's a hobby.

I could no more turn off the stories that play in my head than I could rise and fly. Having a dedication to the work, and feeling it in your bones doesn't make you a wacko that writes ugly emails and disses on agents. Those are the people who need to get a clue, and as chinson says, they are probably the ones who have done the least of it, and I will add, the ones who have the least clue what it really is.

Writing is damn hard work, but it's an art form, not a "hobby". Nobody in their right mind makes these kinds of sacrifices for a freaking hobby - at least I don't anyway. Hobbies are games - fun and games. Writing until 3:00 a.m. and then going to work the next day *isn't* fun and games.

Writing is art *and* a business. Some of us do *breathe* it, feel defined by it, and love it and get real joy from it. A few of us also understand the business aspect and how to take our *hits* with rejections.

There isn't a black and white between crazy, rude people who claim to love writing, and polite people who think it's a hobby. There is something in between. I may be a little crazy in an artistic sort of a way, but I'm totally harmless, and always courteous in my dealings with other people. :)

Martin Willoughby said...

I AM a writer, it is what I do. I am also a father, a pc repairman, website designer and an alien from a planet in what you call the Alpha Centauri system, but don't tell the US military that last part.

There are some who take their identity too far, but most of us identify with our writing in the same context as others would in being a singer.

It's not a hobby for those who read this, it's a goal. Not an all-consuming one, but a goal nevertheless.

p.s. Your blog has become popular amongst my species and they're looking forward to meeting you next year

kristycolley said...

I think I agree with Margaret.
And I believe all of our hobbies become a part of our identity. That's like you saying, "I'm a literary agent with the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd." and me twisting it into the idea that because you identify WITH it, you ARE it.

I agree, while it's funny to BE A STAMP COLLECTOR, I don't think it's quite the same thing.

Julie Weathers said...

I remarked a few years ago, "I wish I could be a writer."

My editor at the magazine said, "Why do you think we send you a check every two weeks?"

"Well, yeah, but you know, a real writer."

My mistaken thoughts were a "real" writer meant getting serious about the novel with an eye towards publication.

I have to disagree a bit that you have to be paid to be something. Lots of people I know have jobs and come home to rope and then go to ropings on the weekend. They consider themselves ropers and there isn't a cut off point in their winnings where they are no longer ropers. There might be good ropers and bad ropers, but they are still ropers.

Two of my sons are cowboys. One drives a truck. One is a mechanic, but they're still cowboys and not the drugstore variety. They won the trophy buckles they wear. Did they stop being cowboys when they stopped riding broncs and bulls?

No, because it's who they are.

I will continue to write even if I don't get published, but getting published is one of my goals. I enjoy the process too much to stop and my success doesn't hinge on if an agent or publisher says yes. I just live in the fantasy land where I keep honing my work and when the time is right I will find the agent who is meant to have my work.

That being said, rejection is part of the journey. Dejection is a personal choice.

Ashley said...

I agree with Margaret Yang. It's taken me a LONG time to admit to being a writer, mostly because people assume that 1) I'm female, so I must write erotica [which I don't], and 2) I don't currently have a job, so it must be a waste of time. Generally, I'm afraid of being looked at as a crazy person BECAUSE I write in all my spare time.

Even though I secretly dream of a day where I get pubbed and can then rub it in the faces of those who told me I was just wasting my time, I'm prepared to accept defeat if my little dream doesn't come true and continue on doing something else.

J. F. Constantine said...

And right on, adamchristopher!

Nathan Bransford said...

j.f. constantine-

I disagree a bit. I think it's a bit easy to say that the people who get angry are the wackos and the people who don't are the real writers -- a lot of these people are otherwise normal people. There are bestselling authors who catalog every single slight they received along the way. It would be nice to think that everyone who gets angry at agents and the publishing process were just crazy, but I've met too many to believe that's the case. There's more at play.

Anonymous said...

It's the same with musicians. I play the trumpet; it's my career. I play professionally. For me, writing is a hobby. I've finished a novel and hope to have it published, but for me, it is a hobby.

However, I will say that music is like oxygen for me...

Genevieve said...

I agree for the most part. I think a lot of people try to put themselves into the "I'm a writer" mold and when something happens to show they are not fitting the identity they created for themselves, they freak out and feel very displaced.

Gryph said...

I am a writer. It's who and what I am, and given all the writing I did as a child, it's what I've always been. It's what I've always wanted to do.

That doesn't mean I can't keep a realistic view of what I am, what I have to offer, and what that means. But that's true of anyone's identity, whether it's tied to a business/profession or just an inner core of being.

Everyone's got a calling, I think. But that's no excuse to be a crazy. Crazies are not representative of the whole. They're just louder than the rest, and give us a bad name.

Davin Malasarn said...

I do consider myself a writer, just as I currently consider myself a scientist. I have made money in both of those fields (science more than writing) but that wasn't the criterion I used to call myself a writer or a scientist.

For me, the publishing side is important. And, one day, I do plan to get published. But, just as you say, Nathan, some of that is out of my control. (Improving my craft being the part I can help with.)

But, even if I never got published, I'd still write. That's the fun part for me. I don't separate myself from the writing, but I separate the writing from the publishing.

AJ Church said...

I agree with Maragaret. There are wackos in every walk of life; writers don't have an exclusive franchise there. That being said, because we, as writers, must put our innermost feelings out there in order to produce a genuine product, there is naturally a large portion of us in our writing, which means we must learn early-on to develop a thick skin or fall by the wayside in the graveyard of wannabes. You have to admit, not too many professions require that of a person.

However, just as an actor becomes a current role or a musician lives for his music, a writer has to have the ability to separate him or herself from their art. This is called mental health, right?

Of course, we writers still talk about our characters like they're real (which is why we love talking to other writers, since everyone else thinks we're crazy). I guess like any creative endeavor, there's a certain amount of neurosis involved, but that's what makes it interesting. I've always felt lucky to have something that I can throw myself into completely ... and then walk away when appropriate.

And Nathan, I would never write you (or any other agent) nasty emails no matter how many times you rejected me. In fact, I've found that most of the agents who've rejected me took the time to be polite, professional, and sometimes helpful. I could never do your job - I hate doling out bad news, no matter how nicely it's wrapped.

Bane of Anubis said...

In echo of Nathan's point, the cultural paradigm shifts toward anonymity and though the impulse to spew invectives may be no less than it was even twenty years ago, the restraint mechanisms are falling by the wayside; just look at most message boards across the web - people are wicked mean, people who are probably fairly civilized when their face and voice is attached to their words.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I'm a Method playwright and I don't care what YOU or anyone else think. too bad if some of you think I'm a sad person and that I need to get a life. I will NOT apologize for being absorbed in my writings.

Myra said...

Your identity can be wrapped in being a writer as long as you're content to be only a writer, not a published author. I tell myself my stories because I have to know what happens next. I find writing to be way more satisfying than tv watching, movie going or exercising (seriously). In that way it is a hobby, but it's still a hobby I wouldn't want to live without.

Michelle Moran said...

I think it's entirely realistic. The book When the Clock Runs Out deals with this subject for NFL players, many of whom went from HS football to college ball to professional ball, and the sport became their identity. At retirement time - which is earlier for them than most people - many of the players in the book admitted to not knowing who they were suddenly or where they belonged. It's a good book, and a great argument for separating hobbies/job from self if possible.

Kristan said...

I don't have any answer for you, but I think your post brings up some good points. I agree that creative types (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) do approach their work with a different mentality than most people, for better or for worse. Maybe both, lol.

Annalee said...

Meh. I get where you're coming from about people who are too invested in writing, but I don't think that everyone who says they're a writer (as opposed to saying they like to write) falls into that category.

A writer is someone who produces written work. I do that. So yeah, I'm a writer. I'm also a seamstress, a motorcyclist, a reader, a ventriloquist, a programmer, and a goofer-about-on-the-internet. Those are all a part of my identity, and yet I do all of them because they're fun and enjoyable.

Those of us who identify as writers because we write aren't necessarily in the same boat as those who write because they identify as writers.

Sarah said...

If you say you're a writer in public, you have to be prepared to back it up, generally speaking. Before I could say 'This is my agent' or 'I'm on submission', I let it pass. I do self-identify as a writer before anything else, but that part of writing - the intimate, identity-making part of it - isn't really touched by the gambol to publication. I'd like to think I'd keep writing even if I never got published (I've gone this long, right?) - but if I do get my deal, I'll be delighted to tell the world at large that I'm a writer.

I think people are allowed to equate vocation with identity without automatically being crazy. You've got to be weird if you want to go pro - but you have to have a thick skin, too. When the angry letters and spam start coming, it's probably from a person who isn't happy writing for him- or herself, isn't happy doing it: this is a person whose identity is wrapped up in fame and recognition and validation, not writing. It just sounds nicer to blame the writing.

Omi said...

Wow, my friend directed me towards this blog, and the first entry I read has profound significance. I proclaim proudly, "I am a writer," not because I define myself as someone who writes in their free time, but as an artist of words. I write for fun, and for myself, and recently, I've begun writing for the pleasure of one day seeing my printed words on the shelves at my favourite book stores, but before I started down that precarious trail so blithely referred to as publication, I had absolutely no idea what sort of work went into it. I naively thought that it would happen something like this; I'd write a very long story, send it to a publisher, they'd print it, and I'd be an author. Some basic research told me that there's a lot more that goes into it than that, and I've got a long way to go before I can even consider anything beyond getting the thing written. Nor did I understand the amount of people who just can't write. Because there's a fantastic difference between writing as a hobby, and being able to write, to not just string some words together to form a coherent sentence but form a picture with those words, to bring to life that secret world that you've imagined, and sharing it with others.
I saw something quite unfair in your post. Most of my friends are artists in the literal sense; they draw, and many of them are good. But even those who aren't 'good' by normal standards, they still draw, and they're still considered artists, so why isn't the same true for a hobbyist writer and those who are serious about it? I got into a discussion of something similar to this last night with one of my author friends that I'm not as good as I could be, and recognise that fact. So should I stop calling myself a writer because so many others fail to meet quality standards, and can't handle the fact that they're not good enough? I'm prepared to accept criticisms and rejections in theory, because I know that no good agent will reject me for no reason, and since any agent I happen to query knows more about writing than I do at the moment, then they have something to teach me, so that I can become better at what I've chosen to do, and lessen the chances of a rejection later.
The crazy people who spam you angrily have no room in their minds to improve, in my opinion, and honestly shouldn't call themselves writers as they disgrace the trade and themselves.
I call myself a writer, not because it's who I am, but because it's what I do. I'm good at it, and I'm only going to get better.

Anonymous said...

I think the most salient point of assuming being a writer as an identity is the danger Nathan points out that rejection becomes personal.

I have to say, both as myself (when I was a much more immature writer) and experiences I've had with a friend of mine, that when this happens it's very hard to get critiqued (or to give criticism).

It's great to be passionate about what you do and your characters, and the world they're in--but at least when you're getting critiqued, bracket out your emotions. You have to look at criticism dispassionately-- otherwise, how will you grow from it?

Kaa said...

Do you know what the difference is between writing and an obsessive-compulsive disorder?

There aren't millions of websites encouraging people in their OCD.

Heard that once a while back and this post triggered the memory.

joelle said...

Usually I agree with you, but not this time. I considered myself a "writer" long before I got an agent or made any money and didn't ever think of it as a hobby, but a goal. There isn't anything unhealthy or weird about that. Maybe if it becomes your identity...okay, but it's not for me. It's my job. A job I love, but definitely not something like stamp collecting, which is a hobby.I think the people you are talking about are not really indicative of most writers, they're just the loudest. If you have a life outside of writing, then it can be a perfectly good and happy job. I think that's the key and the people who send you angry emails are not balancing their lives very well.

Christine said...

I sense a theme in the majority of the posted comments today, and that is that real writers will consider themselves to be writers, whether they get paid or not, and I don't think "admitting" to being a writer will lead to an unhealthy obsession with publishing. Quite the contrary, I think those who are obsessed with publishing as the be-all and end-all of writing are missing the point.

Writing is a process, not a product. Being a writer means we invest in the process of writing. Publishing it would be nice, but it's not necessary to define oneself as the writer.

Writers are artists. As such, we have to resign ourselves to possibly dying without any real fame. It may not be the "job" I get paid for, but it is definitely my vocation rather than my avocation.

Anonymous said...

The best advice about writing I've ever gotten came in this form:

"If you knew today that you would never be published, would you still do it?"

The answer for me is "yes" because I enjoy it, and because it helps me understand the world.

Identity is a dangerous thing because any aspect of our lives can be controlled by it. Be it parenthood, professionalism, or hobby-related, we are all in danger of losing perspective.

TKA said...

"An ideal approach?" I don't know about that. What I do know is that life is not about writing (or any other hobby or profession). Life is about life. Hobbies and professions are just parts of a rich life.

For those of us here, writing is one of the things we do in an attempt to capture and share a part of our lives and ourselves. If we allow ourselves to lose our inner balance by becoming too obsessed with "being a writer" then we also begin to lose at least some of our ability to effectively share our life, our thoughts, and our stories with others. IMHO, anyway.

csmith said...

I agree Nathan.

Simply put:

Anything you do is merely a facet of who you are. The minute one part becomes so overwhelming that you cannot live without its validation, you're fucked.

I am extremely creeped out by people who use ANY profession to define themselves, creative or otherwise.

Justus M. Bowman said...

An interesting viewpoint, Nathan. I'd say "unpopular" rather than "interesting," but I suspect some bloggers will change their minds just to conform to your standards. Perhaps that makes you a hero. Continue using your powers for the light side!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Wrapped up in that identity, part of what makes me a writer, is being a pro about it. Being able to shake off a rejection with the attitude of, "Well, I'm that much closer to finding the right agent/editor/market." To always present the proper face to the public, be it via a guest blog, in a comment on someone else's blog, or in person. For all I know, the mom I see when I pick my kids up from school might read The Demo Tapes and become my biggest champion.

It's part and parcel, Nathan. Being a writer means a LOT more than putting words on the page anymore. It means BEING a writer, acting like one, and taking the lumps -- the bad reviews and the rejections and the poor sales and all that -- in stride.

All the frustration and stuff... that's part of the job. But that's why I've got my MP3 player loaded with Metallica and why I now own two bicycles. Best two outlets I've ever found. And a good way to let my mind wander and ... create the next work of fiction.

'cause that's what it means to be a writer.

Kristine Overbrook said...

It's not about a person calling themselves a writer. I'm a writer. And I'm also a Mother, Wife, Database Analyst, Dog owner..etc.

The issue, as Nathan said, comes when someone is so wrapped up in one aspect of themselves all it takes is one bad word to have your life come crashing down.

For instance, if a mother was so wrapped up in being a mother that it becomes the whole of her self worth, it's not healthy. When the kids grow up and leave or one says 'I hate my mom' (as kids are prone to say) she has a breakdown.

Wrapping your life around one thing isn't healthy. Even if that thing is your profession. It's unbalanced.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, csmith, for distilling it. I'm not trying to say that writers are extra-insane for wrapping writing up in identity, but if anyone who makes one thing definitive of their entire life, whether that's writing, art, music, stamps, etc., it's a recipe for trouble.

AJ Church said...

Now that I've sat back and read some of the other comments here, there is something that bothers me about this question. Why is it a writer cannot call him or herself a writer unless they've been published? Football/basketball/hockey/etc. players in college are still (fill in the blank) players. They don't get paid for what they do, but no one faults them for calling themselves a (blank)player.

So why is that a writer is just a hobbyist until they get published? I made my living as a tech writer for 20 years, which is a form of writing. I've written fiction my whole life, but have never (as yet) sold any. Still, I consider myself a writer, just as I am an artist, a graphic designer, a web designer ... It's part of my personal tool box, and yes, my identity.

I sometimes get the feeling that "being published" is an exclusive clique, and that only those who belong have the right to call themselves WRITERS, which is belittling to those of us who are trying but haven't yet made it. Remember, no one started out as a published writer.

I put stories on paper - hence, I write. Hence (in accordance with the rules of the English language), I am a writer.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I disagree. A writer is someone who writes and it doesn't matter if they sell or not to be called one.

I was frequently called an artist for years before I sold a lick of art. And then after I sold some (quite a bit, actually) guess what? They still called me an artist. (Incidentally, I've sold a lot of writing too -- corporate and fiction.)

I think it's a sad example of the world/US today that one must SELL something to consider it valid and worthy.

simon said...

So Nathan, who gets to decide whether somebody is a painter or not? Your art-broker equivalent?

csmith said...



Nathan Bransford said...

Ok, someone please point me to the part of the post where I said it wasn't ok for people who write to call themselves writers, because if that's what people are getting from the post I need to revise it.

Michelle Sagara said...

I think there's a strong difference between a need to be publicly identified as a writer and the need to write.

The need to write, the compulsion to tell story, can exist entirely apart form the need to be identified as a writer, if that conveys some social import. The need for acknowledgment from other people is part and parcel of any need for acknowledgment from any faceless group of mostly strangers about anything at all. At its least sophisticated, it's not pretty, and at its most intense, it's a huge flag.

I need to write certain stories. I won't apologize for that. I don't, however, need to be identified as the author of those stories. If I wrote entirely under pseudonyms that I could never reveal, but the stories were out there and being read, I would still be happy.

I think the anger you see or feel stems in part from the need for public identification/public respect/public adulation. Like Margaret Yang, I was very self-conscious about calling myself a writer in public, and still am. I will generally tell people I'm a freelance writer, if asked what I do. Well, Mother and freelance writer. Even now, with over a dozen in print novels. I don't need people to see me as a writer/author.

But it's how I see myself, in part; I see myself as a Mother, too. I'm not sure I'll ever feel completely competent at either -- but it's what I work to improve, it's what I think about and struggle with.

Publishing is not writing. The layer that comes after the actual writing is an entirely different thing; it's like a job. They are not the same.

But: self-identifying is, in many ways, a personal choice. There's possibly the TMI factor when confronted with something so personal in a casual setting. It's safe to talk about publishing because that's what you do; it's less safe, and much more personal, to talk about what you think you are. imho.

Matilda McCloud said...

I have been published and get a royalty check every quarter (which is teeny--not even enough to buy a week's worth of groceries), and yet I have never considered my writing to be a hobby--even when I was unpublished.

Playing the piano and singing in a choir are my hobbies--enjoyable pursuits that I take seriously and yet...I'm not going to be playing or singing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon.

I think if I considered writing to be a "hobby," I would never have been published. Writing is a more serious (and frustrating) pursuit for me.

Anonymous said...


It's not exclusive to literary agents and authors. No matter what field you are in, doctor, lawyer, sales, etc., there are always going to be people who will not forgive you for an apparent slight. I would say it would be a safe bet that you haven't forgotten the people who didn't react to you the way you thought they should.

I think defining yourself by something that takes up the majority of your mind space is natural, whether you are paid for it or not.

Dara said...

It's one of those fine line things. One can be too obsessive about their writing and let it take control of their lives. But that can be said about a lot of things.

I still call myself a writer though. It may not be a paying job, but there's no way I'm going to label myself with my current part time day job. I hate to think that's part of my identity :shivers:

It's much like Martin said some comments up; one can take the identity defining thing too far, but it's really just all about balancing the passion and making sure it doesn't take over your life.

Jude Hardin said...

I like to think that attitude, not income, separate the professionals from the hobbyists. And with all due respect, Nathan, I don't really think a non-writer can even begin to understand why our identities are so aligned with our product. I'm sure it doesn't seem very healthy to the rest of the world, and it's not, but there's not a lot we can do about it. Maybe someday they'll invent a pill and we'll all be cured. Of course, then there won't be much of a demand for literary agents, because there won't be any books...

Hilary said...

Nathan, I think you (and the people you're talking about) are confusing "identity" with "expressing one's identity."
I can't not write, because that's the way I express who I am, and so yeah, it's personal when I get rejected, just like it's personal when someone doesn't want to date me. But it's ok. Some things just don't work out; some people can't stand that I leave my towels all over the bathroom floor, and other people can't stand my writing. But some people think those things are funny.
So there is a happy medium, and it's liking who you are and the way you choose to express yourself enough that other people's opinions can't affect that.

csmith said...

@Nathan Bransford

I work as an architect. I completely get this. There are people I work with who never see the sun, never see their kids, never do anything other than push for the next job.

I figure the most important thing is balance. I do my best work (writing/architecture/whatever) when I'm busy, happy, healthy and entertained (was going to use stimulated but that reads really wrong).

arcady said...

I think the obsession with the question 'what do you do?', and the equivalency of 'what you do' with 'who you are' is largely an American paradigm...when I lived in England I was never asked what I 'did' and I found that refreshing.

It was only after I began to be published, pleased and proud (and a little suprised, too) that I did begin to think of myself as a 'writer', though among many other things.

It still isn't how I would introduce myself at a cocktail party, though. I might say that I write about old gardens, but I wouldn't announce "I'm a writer".

Perhaps it's different for those of us who write non-fiction, for whom writing is a second discipline after (for me) history and science.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Thx Kristine, for clarifying, but I still have to disagree somewhat.

Creatives own a sensibility that doesn't apply to other people. It's just different, and it doesn't matter whether you're in music or computer programming or graphic arts or writing. I'm a mom, wife, friend, writer, etc. But if you want to get at the essence of what I AM, the best word is "artist."

I've tried to explain to people who aren't creatives. They just don't get it. I spent a decade of my life not making art. Looking back, I realized I let my soul die a little bit during that time.

But yes, balance in all things. You can be a creative and also be many other things. And being a "creative" or an "artist" is not a license for poor behavior or to ignore the reality of business if you choose to sell your art.

Lara said...

I never called myself a writer until I got paid for it. Then for a long time I would say I did a little freelance writing on the side. It's not really a hobby if you're getting paid.

But I do think I'm one of those people who would still do it even if I never got paid. I would just do it in secret.

CD said...

I consider myself a writer. It has nothing to do with what I make a living at (that's as a lawyer-though that means that I pretty much write for a living, just not writing anything very interesting!) or what I call myself when I introduce myself to someone. I consider myself a writer not because I'm good at it, or because I want a large audience to read my amazing words, but because I just can't make myself stop.

When I got to the point that no matter what else was going on, I still found time to write, when I realized that I was driven to write no matter whether I ever got paid to do it, that's when I finally admitted to myself that I'm a writer. It is an identity, but for me anyway it doesn't have anything to do with whether I will ever be published

Livia said...

Part of this "writing as identity" phenomenon is due to what wickerman mentioned earlier. There is some mysterious appeal to labeling oneself an "artiste" rather than simply someone who writes, paints, draws, acts, etc...
I also think, however, that extreme reactions to criticism or obstacles isn't just limited to something like writing. In any field where you're required to invest an extreme amount of time and effort, you will find people who can't deal with failure. A couple years ago at MIT, an engineering professor went on a hunger strike because he was denied tenure. If you've poured everything you have into a goal, it will hurt when you don't succeed.

Troy Bierkortte said...

You have crystallized the reason why I never think of myself as a writer. I write sometimes - usually only when I can't help myself to avoid it. But, avoiding writing is something I do more often than writing.
Sure, I have the dream of someday having the idea, and the ability to commit the idea to written form, and the luck of getting it published. I certainly do not work at it. Not now. Maybe not ever. It is too draining a process for me to take it up as either a hobby or profession. Perhaps I'll get everything else out of the way before I die, and then I can have the emotional catharsis of "writing my heart out".

Anonymous said...

But isn't that the problem with a lot of things in life? There are District Attorneys and Public Defenders who burn out regularly because they make their job and clients everything.

There is quite a bit of talk in the legal world about how attorneys need to sympathize with their clients without actually taking on their clients' problems. I think the same could be said of writing: someone can enjoy it without letting it consume his life. Once a person reaches that point, it's gone from being a pleasant diversion to an unhealthy obsession.

Tia Nevitt said...

"And until you're making a living at it, writing is a hobby."

The pursuit of an art is vastly different from the pursuit of a hobby. What's the difference between a hobbiest and an artist? The act of creation.

An amateur artist may fill his home with beautiful paintings and never sell any of them, but he is still an artist. In the same manner, an unpublished writer may pass his work around to his friends and never send it to a publisher, but he is still a writer.

I may be a writer, but it's not who I am. I can and have given it up. I suspect the people who say that are very young, and have not faced many challenges in life yet.

And those who spam and write angry emails are just disturbed.

Lara said...

Also, other people besides agents get angry letters, you know.

There are lots of really boring, sane, non-alcoholic writers out there just plugging away.

Annalee said...

Ok, someone please point me to the part of the post where I said it wasn't ok for people who write to call themselves writers, because if that's what people are getting from the post I need to revise it.The part I was responding to is this:

People don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It's who I am."

I'm going to be honest here and say that I find it a little unsettling.
I figured you didn't mean to catch up everyone who calls themselves a writer in that net, because you call people writers on a fairly regular basis yourself. I'm just saying there are those of us for whom writing is an identity (or in my case, part of an identity) who are still perfectly well-adjusted, rational people who don't read a world of insecurities into "not right for me."

Bane of Anubis said...

Can there be an intermediate word between "writer" and "author" - I think everyone being a "writer" sullies the word like the overuse of the words amazing, heroic, courageous, etc... If there are 1 billion writers in the world, how the frick does one delineate between them?

Can I be a AA minor league writer? or perhaps just Sandlot? - we need divisions, dammit! (so says my left brain)

Annalee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzanne Young said...

I guess it depends on how people see writing. When I was a teacher, I said, "I'm a teacher." Now, I say, "I'm a writer." They both work for me.

But I do understand that some people can become extremely offended after a rejection because they take it too personally. At the same time, if they were a teacher and didn't get a job, they'd probably be just as abrasive.

So I think it comes down to people who feel entitled, whether it's in writing or another profession. They're just made that way.

Annalee said...

Hmm. Some formatting fail in that last with the paragraph breaks. I tried to fix it (the deleted comment), but it came out the same. Sorry.

jan said...

Although I do think it can be strongly problematic to put too much of your identity in publication, I don't think writing is a hobby in the same sense that stamp collecting or watching television are.

I think the avocation of writer is more like that of actor or painter or sculptor or pastor. All of which one can do passionately and devote much time to without getting paid and when you are devoting a huge personal part of yourself to them, they are part of what defines you.

Come to think of it, I also self define as wife and mother and don't get paid for those either.

For me, I do get paid to write and it's how I make my living. But I'm a writer because of the time and energy I put into writing. It also happens to be my job. Lucky me.

I wonder if the problem isn't that people self-define as "writer" when they aren't published -- it's that they feel like they CAN'T validly be what they are...writers...until they get published and THAT'S the drive that makes them act crazy.

If you know you're a writer but you're told you can't actually be a writer until you get paid...wouldn't that make you crazy mad to get published?

Samuel said...

I write to pass the time. Until you're published, it really is - or should be - as simple as that.

Nathan Bransford said...


Ah, I can see how that can be misunderstood. I guess what I'd say is that I don't judge anyone who wants to call themselves a writer because everyone is free to self-identify themselves however they want.

But if I'm honest, when people define themselves so unequivocally as writers... I find it a little unsettling.

So for me, it's not about the fact that people call themselves writers, more about people who call themselves writers who shout it from the rafters and live and die by it.

simon said...

so is the point of the original post that it's only acceptable to consider yourself a 'writer' once the industry permits you, and then you can be as obsessive about it as you like? or not?

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between a hobby (god I hate that word) and a passion. And no, I have no intention of taking my galleys to the sack. For novelists to be of the caliber agents and others demand, it's simply not possible to "turn it on" for an hour a day or just on the weekend. (When Elmore Leonard was starting out, he'd write for 2 hours every morning before work, but then he'd take his pages to work, put them in an open drawer and write with his hand in the drawer without looking. THAT AIN'T NO HOBBY.)

When you commit yourself to it, using every waking moment to hone your craft, you're no longer "doing" something as much as "being" something. Do it long enough -- and properly -- and writing changes the way you think, the way you look at the world, even the way you interact with others. Gluing together pieces of plastic that you hope will wind up looking like Richard Petty just ain't the same thing.

Nathan Bransford said...


No, that's not the intent of my post. Like I said (and have since updated the post accordingly), I think people should be free to self-identify themselves however they want.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Actually I know quite a few people who *do* identify themselves by their hobby. Sure, most of the time it's because they engage in some sort of creative endeavor: artists, musicians, costumers, writers, etc. But I know people who find hiking, scrapbooking, listening to music etc., to be a vital part of their identity, and label themselves in such a way.

I think the danger comes in identifying yourself as *only* being a writer. That's why you get the people who go crazy when faced with rejection--they can't separate rejection of the work from rejection of their entire self. You have to have other interests, other facets to your personality. We're complex creatures. We shouldn't wrap up our whole notion of self in one thing, no matter how much we enjoy it or find it fulfilling or are compelled to do it.

Fawn Neun said...

Hmmm... I think you're making the wrong comparisons, Nathan. For the sort of people who read this blog, writing is not a hobby, whether they have gotten paid for it or not; it's a vocation. Something that you DO that requires the kind of intensity, practice, time, dedication that writing requires (paid or not) with no immediate benefits, isn't a hobby. It's why doctors insist on being addressed as "Doctor" or why military members insist on being addressed by their rank, religious clergy by their title. It sounds absolutely corny, but being a writer, or a doctor, or a nun, or a sergeant as a vocation colors your entire perception of life outside the actual job. It cannot be separate because that "job" affects how you see the world.

And yes, it's probably unhealthy to let your identity as a writer live and die on publication. It's also unhealthy to let your identity as a doctor, nun, or sergeant rest on cancers cured, souls saved, wars won. Yes, some things are beyond your control, and everyone faces those factor, even if they're meter readers or sales clerks.

There has been SO much negativity from agents lately online. A lot of snark about raving lunatics, spammers, etc.

I'm kind of on both sides of this; I'm a fiction editor and I'm a writer, so I understand from both viewpoints some of the frustration. I think, and I say this with all respect, that maybe we need to stop wishing that writers will stop taking this personally and maybe realize and accept the fact that they CAN'T not take it personally.

I've gotten my share of snippy emails on rejections. It's not pleasant. But it's a lot easier for me to not take that backlash personally than it was for that writer to take the rejection I just sent them.

And no, I don't think it's possible to hermetically seal that very intimate place involved in the art of writing. Yes, I wish writers could learn to distance themselves - they'd get further that way (and certainly better) - and they'd be less prone to depression. But I think it's unrealistic to expect someone NOT to take rejection of that intimate art personally. Just my 2 cents.

Thornhill said...

I'm reminded of Unforgiven, when English Bob's biographer is asked at gunpoint, something like, "Who the hell are you?" He says "I'm a writer!" Gene Hackman's character replies, all confused, "What, letters and such?"

Nathan Bransford said...


Is this so negative? All I'm trying to say is that letting writing become an all-consuming part of someone's identity is dangerous.

simon said...

That's OK, Nathan.

I think I knew your point all along (and you clarified it between my posts).

I was just playing devil's advocate really, as your post could easily have been construed as sounding a little propriatorial and mean-spirited (even though I'm sure your not at all).

I was expecting it to ruffle a few more feathers though. I suspect the reason it didn't, is because you're one of the good guys there's something of cultural on here to never question or challenge you (which isn't particularly healthy). So I was just mixing it up a little.

I guess I can't use my 'So I suppose Kafka wasn't a writer then?' line anymore.

Suzanne Young said...

Plus, there is a cool factor in being able to call yourself a writer--you gotta admit. haha Especially to non-writers who think the business is all mysterious...

Nathan Bransford said...


More than happy to have people question, as many have done here. But thanks for the clarification, and I think my post suffers from inarticulateness. It's not an easy topic to pin down.

Anonymous said...

How is that different from letting "agenting" become an all-encompassing part of you? In your posts you've said you can't take query "holidays" because you're afraid of missing that special book. You won't go to bed before reply to queries that come in by 5:00. You fly all over to glad hand other agents at conventions. You spend time you don't have to on this blog.

All things that I think are wonderful, but dude...

Anonymous said...


Most everyone here is consumed by writing, that's why we read your blog. Even when I'm driving, I'm plotting. My free time at work, I'm plotting. It takes up all of the space that is left in your brain. We are defined by it. Not to say when I am playing with my children or actually working, that I'm not giving it my full attention. So in fact maybe we are all dangerous, but I hope not. I always thought I was sane.


Nancy Coffelt said...

Way back when as a young artist, I had a lot of trouble defining myself as such. I knew I liked to color, but "artist" just sounded both too lofty and vague at the same time. When I opened my gallery, I felt a lot more comfortable saying I was a gallery owner because at least that felt like a clear definition.

Even now, after being published (fairly regularly) for the last 17 years I still don't call myself "writer". I figure when I'm sitting down at the keyboard I'm committing the action of writing, just like when I'm at my drawing table I'm coloring, and when I'm in the classroom I'm teaching.

When people ask me what I do, I just say I make stuff up. Now that's a clear definition in my book.

Nathan Bransford said...


I don't let agenting define me. It might seem like this is my entire life because I don't blog about my personal life much, but trust me, I have one.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I think it all depends on how the statement is delivered. The tone and texture dictates the level of personal insanity. Writing is not publishing. Publishing is not writing. Egotists have need for stating degrees and titles, not every writer is an egotist. Not every writer makes the statement with an egotist's inflection, and not every writer wants to do it for a living. Most, if not all of us, just want to write. It's an art; it's in the blood, and we can't stop writing -- for good or for bad.

I think a person is defined by their passion, not their hobbies, their passion. A hobby kills time, pleasantly; a passion consumes it. When I am running naked through my dew-laden garden on a spring day, I am a gardener. When I am being ravaged by the word, I am a writer. And when I am slaving away at the day job so that I can afford my gardening and writing passions, I am an artist in a cage staring down at old newsprint.

I might be a writer -- might -- but I will always be a servant to the word ... and I can multi-task too. :)

Passion doesn't always equate to delusional obsession. Crazy is just Crazy: writer, baker, candlestick maker, doesn't matter.

jan said...

Still thinking about this...

Maybe the problem is not so much over identifying with being a writer as over-identifying with what you have written.

I am a writer and a relatively good one. I've spent a lot of time polishing my craft. But I am not the things I have written. Each has something of me in it but it is not me. So if it is rejected -- bummer, pass the chocolate -- but I have more stories, more words, I move on.

joesanchez said...

Risking it all is what its all about to reach the human touch is amazing when it happens but it also comes with a price. The cost me be a smashing of your soul, although the upside can be soaring the skies.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

I think, therefore I am - Descartes

I think and I am
I doubt, I question, I write:
This is the writer

Inside on the out
Drawing worlds from words written
This is the writer

Casting hopes to spam
Evolving in the process
I am a writer

Shannon Gugarty said...

What I find is that writing, like everything for me at least, is come and go. I write a story or something like that and I look back on it and I say, "WOW, this thing SUCKS. IN THE TRASH!" I fear myself more than the world on my writing, as they don't have to read it but it's always with me.

My feeling is that a good writer (whatever it is they have written, whether they identify themselves as one or not, whether they have had their work published or not) has to be able to take criticism. You may think it's the best thing ever, but the guy next door might think it's crap. A good writer is able to say, 'This isn't going to be the next big book that has a million spin offs and a million movies. Not yet, at least. I need help from the world to make it so.'

As for the spammers, those are the kind of people that you tell to either knock it off or block them. Until their work becomes sellable, at least. ... though they are crazy.

mewriter said...

I am a writer. It's who I am. If I define what I do, I am a writer. Unashamedly I am a writer not a hobbyist. Writing is hard. Writing is work. But it's satisfying and it's often fun too.

It's a little like the argument about a work-life balance where you're deemed to be balanced if you do other stuff. But often that other stuff is taking you away from what you really want to do. What's so balanced about that?

It's fine to be clear about who you are. Where it gets problematic is when people have a sense of entitlement or an unrealistic view of their abilities and the realities.

J. F. Constantine said...


Point taken. You are correct. And I immediately thought of one bestseller who writes a blog and that person has the thinnest skin I've ever seen!

I, on the other hand, try to rejoice in the handful of fans I have. :) If all I ever have is a handfull, then at least I have that.


Anonymous said...

I've always written but I never called myself a writer.

In the 80's & 90's I was a visual artist and called myself an artist. I did not have the success I was hoping for.

If feels better to admit that I write, but not that I'm a writer. It's probably a lack of confidence or a fear of failure but it feels fraudulent somehow to label myself "Writer".

Lara said...

Another thing is that the higher your profile, the easier it is for the nuts to find you. This blog is becoming pretty well-known, so I'm sure that has an effect on the number of nuts that send you angry letters, Nathan.

There's a scientist in my family who gets hate mail and death threats, although his job doesn't involve rejecting anyone and he interacts with science professionals mostly. I suppose there's a slight chance that all the people who send him hate mail are also coincidentally writers, but based on the average level of grammar in those letters I doubt it.

PatriciaW said...

I think the problem stems from the notion of writing as some noble cause, something that lifts the writer above the normal station of life inhabited by all other dreary, dull non-writers. It makes one witty, urbane, fun to be around, great at cocktail parties.

Really, after 20+ years in another profession, I know that writing is something I do--and hope to do well someday. Neither it, nor any other profession, defines who I am.

Anonymous said...

"So for me, it's not about the fact that people call themselves writers, more about people who call themselves writers who shout it from the rafters and live and die by it."

I'm still confused. Are you suggesting that we have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy for writers? You can be a writer, but just don't be enthusiastic and open about it? I have made a living off of being a writer, but I don't equate my success in writing with any dollar figure. I know I have many manuscripts that will never sell. I don't care. I wrote them because I needed to (yeah, maybe some oxygen) and I know publishing is a business. If someone rejects my manuscript, so be it. I'll keep writing.

Casey said...

I think a lot of people want writing to be their "thing." The thing they excel at and can be recognized for. When you think writing is your thing, and you've put a lot of heart and effort into it, it can be really hard to admit that it actually might not be what you're good at or you're too impatient for it, and then you're back at square one, trying to find your identity again. For some, it's easier to assume the identity, whether they deserve it, and blame all the forces that are at work "against" them.

Anonymous said...

I am the literary equivalent of the Maytag repairman: I am a poet.
That label is what people make of it, mostly while rolling their eyes and verbalizing softly.

Years ago, I took an oath and got a certificate from the US Government, bestowing on me the title of "officer and gentleman."
I couldn't tell you what the offical form says today when women become officers in the US military.

After all these years, I do think the label "veteran" has connotations many people don't begin to comprehend.

Mary Jo

Suzanne Young said...

Well said, Casey

Jeanie W said...

Have you been dealing with a lot of narcissists lately, Nathan?

I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with identifying yourself primarily as a writer or any other type of artist. I also believe it's perfectly normal to feel let down when an agent or editor rejects your work - just as you would if you didn't get selected for a job you'd applied for or if you'd been passed over for a promotion.

The problem comes when you think being an artiste means you are more important than the people around you - that it matters more how you're treated than how you treat others - that others should serve your dreams even if it's at the expense of their own needs or desires.

You can self-identify as a writer and still have a rational perspective on your own place in the world. You can get that you need to keep your day job. You can get that over 1300 writers follow Nathan's blog and all may be equally deserving of success. You can get that no matter how good you are at what you do, you are still obligated to treat everyone with kindness and dignity. But that doesn't mean writing can't be the one great passion that makes you excited to get up and start your day.

The First Carol said...

Okay, so the gig's up. I'm not a writer, I'm simply passionate about writing. BUT. When I say, "I'm a writer, I have a question about..." I enter into extremely engaging conversations with people who I would never have an excuse to talk to in any other venue: cold case supervisor, medical examiner, retired head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, race car driver, bank president, elected officials, film producers, uh, literary agents.

Admittedly, you and I know the truth, but please don't tell anyone else. I don't want my sources drying up. They're half the fun!

Nathan Bransford said...


Again, I'm not saying anything about a litmus test for who gets to call themselves a writer. I'm just expressing a personal opinion that I get nervous for people when it becomes too much a part of their identity, which admittedly is a fine, invisible line.

But notice how touchy people get about it! Why should it matter what I or anyone else thinks about how you define yourself?

Onovello said...

"I don't let agenting define me. It might seem like this is my entire life because I don't blog about my personal life much, but trust me, I have one."

Nathan, please forgive me if this sounds impertinent, but I'm curious: if your work does not define you, than what does? Your friends, your associates, your family...your hobbies?

I'm interested because I really don't know anyone who does not define themselves -- at least in part -- by their work....

Risa said...

I think the larger point that is missed by Nathan's post is that writing is a creative act of producing original work...therefore identity of course comes into play in a notable manner that hobbies do not. Writing is an artistic pursuit and regular engagement with the sustained efforts needed to produce original works leads to a deeper connection internally. This rich connection naturally then links/imbues the person's sense of identity.

I think it's particularly susceptible in the writing arena since the tools of the art are words, feeling states, imagery, ideas, thoughts, memory...all of which are the substance of activity outside of writing too and the conveyances of our individual identities themselves.

So I feel Nathan's blog post doesn't get it quite right about identity...but the aspect of writers who get too intense in their external contacts around being a writer...I think that's more about perspective and typical struggles with the nature of being an artist.

Eric Maisel's work is quite helpful in helping writers and other creative folks air out the 'hot house' of emotions, thoughts, internal dialogues, and needs that can twist a person out of a productive connection with themselves and other people and/or experiences.

Melissa McInerney said...


So many angst-ridden comments today. I am a person who writes. I have less trouble with this non-paying label than housewife. Our society seems to only reward achievers, ergo, you must be paid to be what you are. That's never really bothered me, it's the label other people use to describe me, but it's only a part. That said, the message most of us get from workshops, conferences, etc., is take your writing seriously. Some people take it too seriously and become the angry scary writers you meet sometimes. Not me, I'm soft and fuzzy, a friendly writer who's not really a writer.

Nathan Bransford said...


If someone asked me what I do for a living I'd say I'm a literary agent. What I meant was just that I try not to live and die by what happens at work and define my self-worth by my success or lack thereof as an agent.

It's hard sometimes because it's so much a part of what I do and spend time on, but as I've said a million times, this is a frustrating business. If I lived and died solely by what the publishing industry were doing on a given day I'd go insane.

Laura D said...

I totally disagree, Nathan. The artistic personality is an all-consuming one. One's behaviour of course is another issue. I may feel personally attacked at my art not being respected, but how I choose to respond is up to me. Not all artists are crazy, but the drive to create art is inherent in their make-up. So it is an identity, and I proudly declare, 'I am a writer!' Just like a painter/waitor calls himself an artist or a pizza delivery man/MC calls himself a rapper, you never know, you may just be speaking to the next Eminem!

Nat said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is getting touchy about it, (and I don't know if just responding makes one "touchy") maybe it's because of this part:

"you can see this in the way people talk about writing: people compare it to oxygen, i.e. something that they can't live without. People don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It's who I am..."

Which makes it sound like we writers are all one mass, all talking about writing in the same way, all feeling the same way about our writing. I, for one, often DO say "writing is fun for me, I enjoy it" and have NEVER been known to say (clutching my heart or otherwise) "WRITING IS WHO I AM!!!"

Nathan Bransford said...


Ok, maybe that was wasn't artfully put. I'll put a "some" in there.

But still, my point remains. Even so much as hint that you don't think people should call themselves a writer (which, in this case, I don't think I did) and people get touchy.

John UpChurch said...

I write because I love to, but more than that, I'm digging the correct use of “i.e.”

jimnduncan said...

I'm not so sure the problem is tying up one's identity with being a writer. I suspect there are a fair number of writers out there who devote much of the waking hours to the art/craft/profession of writing, and manage to be sane, socially acceptable people.

As you point out though, Nathan, it is a pretty thin line between balance and losing oneself to the writing. You have to have a reasonably strong sense of self and self-worth to be a writer and remain sane in the effort to be published. I think the ones who turn to anger, bitching, finger-pointing, etc. don't have the strength of self to be a writer who seeks publication. They don't have the ability to seperate their writing from their sense of self. Of course our writing is part of who we are. It's inextricably tied to us. We are in a sense putting ourselves out there for everyone to see. But without a strong sense of self and self worth, the writing becomes the definition of who we are, and rejection then is a rejection of the writer. No matter how kindly put, it's at its heart saying, "you aren't good enough."

I don't think we can seperate the writing from who we are. You can't box it off. So, if there is an ideal approach, I would say this. We can develop thicker skins, and understand that this is a business and not at all personal, and that we are good regardless of what we write. You have to have a healthy frame of mind regarding yourself and publishing.

erindealey said...

Like most of you (except for MW’s alien confession) I wear various hats: writer, mom, teacher, director, fill-in-the-blank. Some keep me breathing and some take my breath away. To me, writing is a lot like parenting. I’ve met many parents who try to relive their own childhood though their kids. These seem to be the same parents who take their children’s report cards, playground problems, successes, and most of all failures personally. And blame the kid’s teacher or coach. (You wanna see an angry email?)

Sending a manuscript/child out into the universe isn’t easy, nor is hearing anything but loving comments about them. Maybe chinson is right, as the first one’s probably the toughest to let go. But before you launch them, be sure you’ve given them the tools to succeed. And listen to those teachers or editors or agents who have ideas that might pave their road to success. (See my thank you to Kendra Levin at .) Then trust and let go. Did I mention this week is National Teacher Appreciation Week?

Marc Vun Kannon said...

I am a writer, it's what I do.

Nothing in that requires me to be published. I'm not sure I'd want to read a book written by someone who wasn't putting themselves into it.

Anonymous said...

But still, my point remains. Even so much as hint that you don't think people should call themselves a writer (which, in this case, I don't think I did) and people get touchy.Well, I agree that you didn't hint that, but part of my point was that I don't think that's the only thing that made people touchy. It came across as "writers talk about writing like this, and not to be condescending, but you should all chill out a little bit and get a life and maybe join some clubs and go on a date once in a while."

I mean, I'm exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.

Other Lisa said...

Well, I was in the Margaret Yang category of not calling myself a writer. But now that I'm unemployed, I do, because I have to call myself something - before that, I was an "entertainment industry bureaucrat." Though sometimes I refer to myself as a "beach bum."

I think that there are certain professions which take on aspects of a calling - not just artistic ones; I think you get this in medical professions too, as an example. But since artistic endeavors are such a direct expression of personality, it can be a lot harder to make the healthy separation that people here have talked about.

I think I mentioned this book here before - Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art." It's a short book and a pretty simple one, but I found it useful. For one thing, he insists that you treat writing as a job, as a professional. For whatever reason, a couple of seemingly simple tips really resonated with me, and I found it much easier to depersonalize the process after that.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, comparing writing to stamp collecting is unfair and demeaning. Especially considering all the time, effort, creativity and emotion people invest in their work. Writing isn't a hobby for some people. It's a vocation.

And to give someone's passion trivial hobby status until his or her work earns money? I can't even begin to explain how sad and wrong this is. Since when is identity tied up in money? Passion, focus, persistence, determination, talent, all exist with or without a paycheck. Just ask Van Gogh, who only sold two paintings in his lifetime.

Furthermore, I think there's only so much judgment someone can pass on people who write when he hasn't been bitten by the writing bug. Interacting with writers gives you a lot of insight, I don't doubt it, but it doesn't really get you inside their heads, the same way working with parrots all day doesn't make an exotic veterinarian into a parrot and doesn't teach him how it feels to be a parrot. Objective, "outsider" observation can only get you so far, and believing otherwise brings you into dangerous territory of going from telling people how to get published to telling them how to approach their craft. And their lives.

Plenty more to say, but I have a sudden urge to go perch on a pirate.

Kristi said...

Nathan wrote - People don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it."

That sentence actually describes me perfectly. I love to write, it's so much fun, and I don't do anything I don't enjoy (except dishes and taxes).

I don't call myself a 'writer' because I consider that a career term. As my official current career involves being a psychologist and life coach, I use those terms when people ask what I do. If it's a friend, I might add that I also write but that's it.

Overall, I guess I've never really identified myself much with my career as it is an ever-evolving process which is how I like it. :)

helenf said...

Are people being touchy or are they just disagreeing?

Also, when you say that agenting isn't your whole life, the same may well be true of writers who proclaim themselves to be Writers (and I don't mean this in a 'touchy' way - it is hard to convey tone online sometimes).

Personally, I'm a sub-editor by trade, but also a wife and a writer and a tv enthusiast.

I think becoming too focused on any one aspect of your life can lead to trouble - but it's not something that only happens to writers.

I could say more but it would be long and seem ranty so I will leave it there :)

Megan said...

I disagreed with your post at first until I read some of your follow up points in the comments. That said, the part that I keep coming back to it this idea that people don't define themselves by their hobbies. Lots of people define themselves by their hobbies! It might only be one of the things they define themselves by (possibly the most important thing), but it's certainly not exclusive to writing, or even to creative pursuits. A few examples: sports fans, geeks and nerds of various sorts (gamers, trekkers, cosplayers), fly-fishers, and collectors of all sorts.

There seems to be this idea (and I got this more from the comments than the post) that being a writer is somehow diminished if too many other people call themselves writers as well. Why is that? If Mary Sue Fanfic-Author calls herself a writer, it doesn't make Neil Gaiman less of a writer. So what's the big deal?

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, I definitely don't mean to sound condescending, and I understand there's a fine line between pontificating and trying to spark discussion. It wasn't my intent to be more heavy handed than I needed to be.


I think you missed the part of the post where I said: "Sure, there's something about writing that's a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting. It's more personal, even when it's not a memoir or something that relates directly to someone's real life."

Nathan Bransford said...


Sorry, I stand by the "touchy" characterization. I'm not using it as a blanket term to refer to people who disagree with me, just that whenever the subject of calling oneself a writer comes up even tangentially (as it did here) people get sensitive about it. The fact that people read that into the post is, I'd say, being a little touchy.

Mira said...

I have so much to say about this! And Nathan, I commend you for your bravery in going here!

To start with, my opinion is writers fall into two groups.

Group one: Writing as a craft. It's either a hobby or a way to earn a living. Nothing wrong with that.

Group two: Writing as art. It's a channel through which people can express their truth. This goes beyond hobby/profession into the area of avocation. And I mean avocation in the highest sense of the word - for some it is a calling.

I fall into the second group.

As a member of the 'writing as art' I do agree that there are dangers here. Here are the dangers that I think the second group needs to watch out for:

1) People confuse their calling to write with the fantasy of being a famous author. Being called to write is one thing. Being called to be a published writer, read by thousands.....well. There are many reasons someone is 'called.' Being famous is only one of them.

2) People confuse their value as a human being with their artistic expression, and with how famous they become. This can be very dangerous, and very damaging.

It's important to remember that you do not need to earn your value as a human being. You are worthy of existence even if you never write a single word - even if it is your calling.

That's what I believe, anyway.

Anna Claire said...

OK I haven't read all comments (122!) so I hope this isn't a repeat. I completely agree with you, Nathan, and the "writing is oxygen" idea is annoying and sounds so pretentious. We all need to step away from our work, to a point, to avoid placing our entire self-worth on peoples' opinions of it.

I think some people make "writer" their identity because they need to name their identity and somehow "mother" or "attorney" isn't how they see themselves, or want to be perceived. It's like we all have a secret self who wants to be cooler and more meaningful than we think we already are, and "writer" is one way of being that, and seems more achievable than "movie star" or "rock god."

Other Lisa said...

p.s. I think this is a great distinction:

I call myself a writer, not because it's who I am, but because it's what I do.Sorry, it's far enough upthread I can't remember who said it!

Nathan Bransford said...

other lisa-

I agree, that's a great way of putting it.

Onovello said...

Thanks for clarifying, Nathan. I see what you mean.

Many years ago I was a concert musician. When I lost the ability to perform because of an injury, I was upset (understandable, given the years of training that went into that proficiency), but I didn't feel like my life was going to end, as much as I loved performing -- I simply changed focus.

I've been lucky enough to get a few publications, and, these days, if someone asked who I was, I would say I'm a writer. But, as much as I love writing, I know from past experience that I'm not going to live or die by that definition. It's just where I happen to be at the moment...and somehow, that's a very comfortable place to be.

Jean Reidy said...

I think it's completely natural for our identities to get wrapped up in our writing. After all, much of our inspiration comes from our lives, right? And we've all read plenty of analogies between writing and giving birth. So of course, we dare anyone to call our babies ugly.

But before I was a writer, I was a business woman. So while rejection can be disappointing, I completely get the economics of the institutions that must reject.

Generous editors and agents, like you, frequently yet gently remind writers that publishing is a business. So it's been easy for me to separate the identity of a writer and the business of writing and publishing.

But having said that, if we view writing as an art form, we all can name numerous artists whose art became their identity - whether through paintings or music or literature. And thus, they created works of genius with raw emotion embedded on the canvas, the staff or the page. That in and of itself, is not dangerous. But the sick psychology that sometimes haunts the inner working of such artists and leads them down dark paths - or to the spam filter of their target agent - becomes the danger.

terryd said...

Some people take it too far, yes. But if writing wasn't an all-consuming identity, writers wouldn't have the audacity to keep tilting at the windmills created by this crazy industry.

On the business side, ego is glorified. But there's another side to writing. Ego is necessary, yes, but writing is also an attempt to provide something valuable - necessary entertainment or a feeling of mortal camaraderie or perhaps even hope.

There's plenty wrong with the industry, but writers who get angry about the business side of things probably need to revisit their goals.

Mira said...

Wow, Nathan, I've never seen you get so much flack.

It's kind of fun.

I think you're getting so much flack because:

a. You hit a raw nerve. Some people may be using their writing to hide from establishing an identity outside of writing.

b. You're missing something. There is a spiritual component to artistic expression that you're overlooking. That spiritual component, however, you want to define it does impact one's identity at a deep level. That said, balance is still important.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I think you're right. I perhaps do unromanticize (if that's a word) the writing process, whereas other people see it as a deeper, almost spiritual pursuit. I think you see here how my view is conflicting with others' (which is totally fine!)

helenf said...

@Nathan fair enough - after all I was quite sensitive there myself. But while writing is not all of my identity, it is a part of it and I suspect the same for others reading, which is exactly why it touched a nerve. I agree with a lot of what your post said, but just think some of the points were too general. Hope that makes sense. (Oh, and I think loads of people define themselves by their hobbies - and only a few of those take it too far)

Melissa Sarno said...

I've never commented on your blog before but I felt compelled to after this post. I don't believe that calling yourself a writer and making it part of your identity is such a dangerous thing. In my opinion, I write. Therefore I'm a writer. Whether anyone reads it or buys it is another thing all together. That makes me a 'published' writer, a 'successful' writer, a 'popular' writer. Right now, I'm just a writer :-)
When the Williams sisters had just started their tennis careers, they got a lot of negative press for running around the media calling themselves '#1' before they even won a tournament. And I specifically remember Venus Williams responding to the press by saying, 'Well, If I don't even think I'm #1, how am I ever going to be #1?' That has always resonated with me. Nobody is pounding on my door offering me a book deal. So if I don't call myself a writer, who will? Who will ever?

PurpleClover said...

Okay let me be the first to admit I had to look up vicissitudes.

On topic:
I'm a little peeved when people associate status to writing whether someone is doing it as a hobby or doing it as a profession. It really annoys me because while I can't devote my time completely on writing, those that do, consider me as a "hobbyist" as if that is a terrible thing. They think I'm not serious and that irks me to no end. Yes, writing is a hobby and something I feel I must do to be balanced but just because I don't rely on writing for financial gains doesn't mean I take it less seriously.

I believe writing is serious. It is personal feelings and thoughts. While some are willing to write memoirs (something I don't have the guts to do) I write my life through my fictional characters. Sure I mix and jumble past experiences among many of the characters but when we give our characters depth we are pulling from memory of real life incidents much of the time. Doing this still externalizes our personal thoughts and opens ourselves up to public scrutiny (even if they are only judging a character they may be judging the writer unknowingly).

I can't imagine being angry with someone because they don't share my passion regarding my manuscript (the agent that is). I can't imagine putting so much of myself into just one manuscript that it robs me of the only life I'm going to get while here on this earth.

Yes, I want to sell my manuscript. I want to make a bajillion dollars and quit my job so I can travel the world and write about my experience (who the heck doesn't?!) But I want to write and keep writing and even more than that, I want to have my family intact in the process.

So if that means I have to be called the "h" word (a hobbyist) so freakin' be it. In the end, I'm still going to write, I'm still going to submit and hopefully I still get published. Writing hobbyist or not.

(And I made a B on my exam! Woohoo!)

Melissa said...

I see your point, but I disagree with you. I am a writer. It's part of me, and has been since I was a child -- long before I wrote well. I don't mean that I am an author, a screenwriter, a tech writer, a reporter, or a copywriter (though I have done all of those). I just mean that in my soul I am someone who has built a lifetime around written expression.

My career is writing. My hobbies -- more than one -- are writing. My preferred method of communication with work, friends, and family is writing. Even if I couldn't put words on paper, I would still be "writing" them in my head. It's not what I do, it's who I am.

Now publishing... I've written and published a nonfiction book. I'm working on a novel I'd like to have published in the future. If that doesn't happen, I won't be crushed. I'm a writer regardless.

Laurel said...

I am a runner.

Not a good one. I'll never win a race. Sometimes I go a year without getting on a treadmill.

But I've completed several marathons. People who don't do this don't get why I do. I tell them if they don't like running, they shouldn't run. If they ask me how I can run so far I just tell them, "I just want to finish more than I want to quit."

No one laughs at me for telling them I'm a runner, even after I tell them how long it takes me to cover 26 miles.

Distance running is somewhat compulsive. It's not always fun and sometimes downright painful but people who do it self-identify with it very strongly and in my experience are never judged harshly for it. It does take quite a bit of time away from family and other interests, though.

Writing is certainly more personal. I think I'm a lot better at that than I am at running. But I never, ever, tell anyone I'm a writer. I'm not sure why but maybe because there are so many crazies out there. It's part of my self-identity but not part of the image I want others to see.

I do think it's a little sad that so many people think it's cool if you say you're a runner, no matter how lousy, but are likely to believe you are a little unhinged if you tell them you're a writer, unpublished.

Christina Gullickson said...

Nice post.

I would suggest, though, that there's an area between the space where one calls writing a hobby and where one so closely relates to their work it becomes an extension of who they are.

I don't know what I'd call it, but I think of a friend who is a painter. He went to school to study art, he paints every day, and he sells his work.

It's not just a hobby for him and it is definitely part of who he is as a man, although not his occupation, not his family. Maybe this is the balance we should strive to reach.

I feel like if I consider my art form a hobby, just to fill spare time, I won't invest enough in it. If I let it become an extension of me (and I may already be well on the way) then you're probably right and I'll take everything too seriously.

I suggest striving for the middle ground.

Mira said...

Nathan -

I think both are true. People write for different reasons.

I'm the reverse - I can be a snob: What? you mean you want to write for money? What about art for art's sake?

But that's unfair.

But spiritual pursuit or not, I agree that there is more to an individual human being than just their ability to write.

Our identities are bigger than that.

Jil said...

Anything. in my opinion, that is all- consuming is unhealthy and makes for a one sided personality. To be a good fiction writer one must be open to other lives and situations, unlike many scientists who know or care little of other's lives. (My brother -in= law is one!)
I suspect that the people who are rude to agents are probably easily angered and rude to others also. It's their nature.
Lastly. one must understand the culture. If an American asks, "What you do?" they mean "How do you put bread on the table." " What do you do in your spare time?" means just that.
Does Nathan answer "What do you do?" with "I'm a blogger."? I hope not or we've been querying the wrong man.

Lara said...

Being called touchy always makes me a little touchy.

simon said...

Leaving aside the diverting pursuit of trying to tie Nathan up in on knots over some questionable semantics, and actually addressing the crux of the debate, I'd confess to being a little torn.

Whilst I entirely agree with the sentiment of being spooked by anyone who adopts the 'writing is my oxygen' mantra, I do think we all (regardless of published status) have a responsibility to approach our writing with seriousness.

By that, I don't mean pretentiousness or preciousness, but more a dedication to artistic pursuit. Try and be the best you can be, and if you're goal is to be published, then dedicate the requisite level of energy to that process.

In that regard, the desire to be a 'writer' can be construed as the factor that drives people to read agent blogs and adhere to the good advice within them, just as much as it can be attributed to the more cranky behaviour.

Reba said...

Okay, having read most of the comments, and then re-read the post, here's my take:

I do identify as a writer, because it's an important part of who I am. I spent years studying writing. I'm still learning to write. I hope I will always be learning to write. I'm totally okay with being called a writer. I'm fine if other people don't think that definition fits me, because that's not really their call, so I'm free to ignore their opinions.

Having said that, I no more trumpet myself as a Writer (the capital letter being all important) than I do as a Gardener or a Mother or even an Advocate (which is part of my job). I am quite good at all of those things, but defining oneself by a single trait can, in fact, be dangerous. Balance is important. It is my honest opinion that no one is as invested in how we define ourselves as we are.

The people who rail at you for failing to give them what they want are ignorant and rude. I don't know if they're crazy or not. I try not to diagnose people, despite the temptation to stick others in a box based on some aspect of their behavior. I do suspect that they would do the same thing if they were a Programmer and someone criticized their coding skills. Otherwise, all people who identify as Writers would act similarly, and I don't think that's the case. Is it?

Mira said...

I like arguing.

This is fun. Let's argue some more.

Jen P said...

I read a great article a few years ago, by Janet Ruffing RSM, PhD, on 'resisting the demon of busyness'.

In it she discussed the challenges of defining oneself by what one does, and not by who we are as a whole. The label 'writer' (doctor, hairdresser, housewife) gives other people something to understand us by, and the standard associations which we make with it, may be something we want others to see in us. How often do we meet someone for the first time and ask them, "What do you do (for a living)?" I think 'Writer' whether published or not, somehow infers an acceptance of something creative, productive and with potential to greatness.

In the article JR wrote "when anyone or circumstance interferes with our self-importance or level of productivity that our busyness and overly tight control foster in us, we erupt in some form of aggression' - that would be the agent harassers then.

We definitely all need time to 'be', and not just 'do', to give us the opportunity to see ourselves as more than just what we do, what we achieve or don't.

I think we need to approach writing as part of what we do, but not wrap up all of our time in it, with dedicated time-out, so as to 'be' consciously, more of a rounded whole. Then we can write with a broader perspective and experience as well.

Elissa M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elissa M said...

How to know if you are identifying yourself too closely with your writing: You say, "Nathan, you rejected me." You SHOULD say, "Nathan, you rejected my novel."

Writers claim to be artists whose medium is words. Don't be sloppy with your medium.

Annie said...

I just won first prize in a poetry competition (yes! Poetry! Me!) and runner-up for a story, and I've had to write a short bio for the book my pieces will be published in. In this bio I described my job and where I'm from and then I ended it with: "my hobbies are writing and photography."

I was quite happy with this until someone pointed out to me that it might upset the actual poets who came in second or third place – that I've dismissed their years of toil as merely "a hobby".

So, I wrote again to the publishers and asked if they could change the word "hobby" to "interest", because that seemed less offensive, somehow. I haven't heard back from them.

Now I'm in a state of confusion. On the one hand, I don't want to be dismissive of what writing is about for a lot of people, on the other hand, uh, it IS my hobby. I mean, I keep a tidy blog and I've started writing a zillion novels but dude, that's as far as it goes. It's my hobby and I love it. But I don't want to put any noses out of joint either.

Oh, what to do, what to do?

simon said...

@Elissa M

genius comment. I hope you meant it.

Alicia Walker said...

Right now I'm taking advice from my favorite source, Forrest Gump.

"Stupid is as stupid does."

So either I'm a writer or else I'm stupid. "I think it's probably a little of both."

simon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steena Holmes said...

Nathan, I get what you mean, it makes sense. When I have to describe who I am and what I do - I place a label on myself, but I make sure I only mention my passions. Sure, I could say I'm a mother, pastors wife, admin assistant or what not.

But instead I label myself as a chocoholic and a writer :)

The chocoholic is the be-all and end-all of who I am - and the writer is just what I like to do :)

I never thought I would call myself a writer, but I do proudly call myself a chocoholic :)

Furious D said...

I wouldn't say writing is my identity, it is my only real skill, though. So I don't really have much choice in the matter.

vicariousrising said...

I don't see anything wrong with someone's persons being tied into what they do: Edvard Munch was an artist, Mozart was a composer, Captain Ahab was a whaler.

The problem comes when the person starts looking for outside validation to prove who they are. For instance, the writer who needs an agent, an editor, an audience to proclaim on high that his work is indeed a masterpiece. A writer who takes joy in his writing might have a dream that this might happen as a result of his efforts, but the lack of support from outsiders will not change the passion for their craft nor will he blame others for the lack of recognition.

simon said...

@Elissa M

no fair with the editing your post.

Now you're making me look daft.

Renee Collins said...

I think you used the best word in a comment you made, Nathan.


That's the main problem with the notion of writing as a "calling" or "vocation." It adds a mystical element. As some are chosen and they ARE writers, and some are not. As if the calling as a writer sets you apart from all the everyday yahoos trying to write a book. As if it makes you a better writer, a more deserving one.

But, it doesn't. I say there is no such thing as being "called" to be a writer. Writing is a hobby. A wonderful, exhilarating hobby that digs into our souls, but a hobby all the same.

Joel Q said...

People want to be part of something bigger than themselves... a hobby, a sports team, a cause... which in itself is good, though it can become a problem
And sometimes they go overboard. Like when the Cubs drop one in the bottom of the ninth, people cry.
Or like last year when two non-college graduates had a fight in a bar over Texas-Oklahmoa football. Or they cover their car with stickers (political, sports, etc.)

Got to love American, we take it to the extreme like we're rock stars... even if it is just needle point.

Vancouver Dame said...

We all look for ways to identify ourselves, and to acquire some measure of worth in our own and others' eyes. The danger lies in letting that identity control how we relate to life in general, especially when we base that identity on whether or not we are successful in our chosen field.

Many creative people judge themselves by identity parameters that are self-defeating. There are so many instances of authors or artists who feel they cannot maintain their quality level, or have run dry of ideas.

Writing is part of my identity, an important part, but it's only one of the elements by which I define myself.

With so much media attention focused on those writers who do succeed or who do battle their way to the top of the Amazon pile, it's not surprising that many writers choose to focus on that identity as a means to ensure their success. It can have fatal results at times. Wrapping yourself up in any single identity (mother, wife, lover, writer) means you are excluding those other parts of your life perhaps to your detriment. Not a good balance.
Great topic, Nathan.

Mira said...

Wait a minute. I thought about what you said, Nathan.

Are you saying you don't believe that writing can have a spiritual component?

Oh, I would definitely argue with you about that. The beautiful craft of writing is one thing, but the essence of writing is much, much more than that.

The skill of writing is just a vessel for the truth of it. No matter how skillful the craftsman, if they are not channeling something deeper, it's not art.

jan said...

Except that, writing was never my hobby. But it is my profession. It's my means of communication (when I'm offered choices). It's my creative outlet (and about my only one since my eyes have failed so much.) But it's not my hobby.

When I had time for hobbies, they were things like sewing, cooking, drawing, acting...things I could miss if I walked away but not things that actually hurt to leave behind.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think it's probably different for every person. I personally think there's something mysterious and unknowable about creation, and I think you could probably call that spiritual.

But then again, I'm kind of in the sausage-making side of the writing business, and I don't think there are too many people who can see sausage being made and think there's anything too spiritual happening, no matter how good it is.

Anna said...

Nathan, I don't know if there is an ideal approach, because as you said, writing is so personal.

like hanging one's knickers out on a daily basis.

yeah, that personal.

but it's also so cloistered; a paradox! ahhh... I wrote a blog entry about this very notion just this morning, after I took pictures of snails...

I think it's one thing to say, yes, I am a writer. not that I'd go off the rooftops exclaiming 'I am a hairdresser!' (I mean, I used to be but not so much anymore...) but there is something different about setting down words than wrapping a perm. not to diss any hairstylists out there (and I used to be one) but writing a novel is more work.

it just is.

yet, I also don't go exclaiming I'm a mom, a tea-drinker, a Madonna fan (some things are better kept under wraps), yet I'm just getting comfortable saying I'm a writer. like admitting I'm a Madonna fan, sort of looking around nervously, speaking in a hushed tone.

yes, I'm a writer.

because it sounds sort of ridiculous. oh, you're a WRITER, are you?

uh, maybe...

and seeing how this is digressing into something way too long and my daughter needs help with her Spanish, I'll end this here.

it all depends. how's that for ambiguous?

DebraLSchubert said...

"I think defining yourself by something that takes up the majority of your mind space is natural, whether you are paid for it or not."

Some anon said this earlier on. I couldn't agree more. I'm also a singer/songwriter, wife, mom, daughter, etc., but I see myself more as a writer because that's where I choose to spend most of my mind space.

I'm a writer, I love writing, AND I would be perfectly happy if I never wrote another word. Being happy, whole, and complete has little to do with what you do in life, no matter how artistic or spiritual, and a whole lot more to do with how at peace you are with yourself.

Although I'm pursuing publishing whole-heartedly, I will continue to be completely happy and self-satisfied whether I reach that goal or not.

I could be wrong, Nathan, but I think that's at least part of what you're getting at.

Elissa M said...

What is so wrong with the word "hobby" anyway? Would people be less offended by "avocation"?

Many philatelists are extremely serious about their avocation. For some, it becomes a vocation.

I feel this is true of writers as well.

I agree with Nathan's point: identifying your being too closely with whatever you do in your life can have unhealthy repercussions.

If you write, you are a writer. You are not your writing.

Elissa M said...


Sorry. Wish I were as genius as you thought.

Anonymous said...

My dear Nathan:

Love your blog, have read it over a long period of time and have never commented before...

I am sorry to be the one to say writing is my oxygen. It keeps me alive. It is a LARGE part of my identity, and if I get hurt because of it, then so be it.

This being said and I have a regular, well-paying job, kids, AND I have never freaked out when an agent has sent me a form rejection, nor have I attacked an agent for the same.

I am a writer. I will die a writer. It is a very difficult thing to explain. I cannot call it "a hobby."

Anonymous said...

"People don't just spend time in the evening reflecting on the capricious vicissitudes of life and/or zombie killers from another planet."

But that's exactly what I do!

Anonymous said...

What do you do?

Well, I am a Mom,a wife, an artist, a writer.

That's what I do the MOST.

Sometimes in my life, my creativity makes money. Sometimes it doesn't.
But I still DO it.

Being creative is part of my identity.

That part doesn't go away when the economy isn't buying, etc.

I really liked the earlier blog about the difference between writer and author. Most of us, it seemed, thought that writing is what we do that we love (some of us) to do or are driven by the devil (some of us) to do.

Being an author is when we have been published.

The rejection process is hard.

But, here in my closet, tap tap tap.

(still writing)

Anonymous said...

"Sure, there's something about writing that's a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting."

the difference is that with writing or music or any kind of art, you are creating something, whereas with stamp or coin colelcitng, you are appreciating something that someone else made.

Paula said...

Many people think of themselves as writers--no matter how vulnerable doing so might make them--because they can't bear to think of themselves as what they do for a living. To think of oneself as something as romantic as a writer (seems to be, not is) is to have hope.

I understand what you're saying, Nathan, but I think you have to look at the reasons behind the phenomenon.

Annie Reynolds said...

Ok I am a coward, but there was no way I wanted to admit that I had even written a book let alone call myself a writer. I don't know what I thought would happen if anyone found out, spontaneous combustion?
I am a singer, an actor, a children's entertainer and a body artist. I can call myself all those things as these are the ways in which I earn my living. I am also a mother, no money involved, just a lot of frustration and love. Wow being a mother is a lot like being a writer, no money, just frustration and love.

Bill Womack said...

Isn't part of the problem the general way in which we identify ourselves with our work, regardless of profession? I can't tell you how many parties I've been to in which newcomers ask one another the same old question: "Nice to meet you. What do you do?"

At the risk of diving into shark-infested waters, I'll posit that this is probably a more common question when men meet other men, but maybe that's changing. Right or wrong, we're encouraged to identify ourselves by our occupations. Faced with the choice of telling people what pays my bills or what I'm passionate about, am I supposed to answer "I'm a web developer?" No way, Jose.

If you go around telling people you're a cow long enough, sooner or later somebody's going ask for a shot of milk.

David Nowlin said...

I've really got to start reading this blog earlier in the day. My comments are always in the 'Ain't nobody ever gonna read down this far' section.

I think of myself as a writer. I think it's part of my identity. A pretty big chunk, actually. And yet I think of myself as a pretty grounded, conscientious, considerate guy.

I'd never spam an agent or write harassing emails. I've tasted my share of rejection *cough cough*fromyou*cough* and I don't take it personally. Or... if I do take it personally, I also take it professionally.

On the one hand: I put a lot of work into the thing, I think it's good and yes, of course, the process was a personal one and it's hard not to see rejection, no matter how polite, as personal on some level. It's my work getting rejected after all.

On the other: Writing is a business and people are in it to make money and I never intended for my work to please everyone. Hell, not everyone's work pleases me. Not by a long shot. So I try to take a healthy approach to criticism. I try not to get too excited when people like my stuff. And I don't get crushed when they don't.

Finally, I think you'll find that there are immature people in any line of work. Writing is a vocation that is (to some degree) open to anyone at any stage in life with any experience level. Of course there are gonna be a couple nuts mixed in with the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I call myself by whatever I'm making the most $$ at at the time [like that double 'at'--is that grammatically correct?!]. Someone asks me what I do, I answer with the title of my day job. I don't say "I'm a writer," even though I'm contracted and received an advance, because that's not where the majority of my income is from. When the majority of my income is generated through writing, then I'll say, "I'm a writer," or a novelist or whatever. Until then, I don't mention it unless I'm specifically asked what I like to do in my spare time ro something like that.

Morgan Dempsey said...

I describe myself as a writer in the same way I describe myself as an engineer and an athlete and a student: it's simply something I spend part of my day doing. It's part of my identity, but it's not all of it, which helps keep me sane.

jennifer said...

I like AdamChristopher's post--does being paid define who you are?? Did Mozart define himself as a composer and VanGogh as an artist...not to mention all of the other brilliant artists who died penniless?? I'm absolutely sure they did.

I have a day job-but being a writer defines me. It's what, at the end of the day, brings me joy. As for the whack jobs who spam you or send you crazy emails, well, they're just...crazy.

jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to read ALL 175 comments but for me the difference is in identifying yourself as a writer or an author.

I believe it's ok to identify yourself as a writer, like any other artist would. For me, I am a writer, it's who I am. When I walk through the day I think about what characteristics and personalities would fit in what kind of story.

I would be a writer whether I ever published a single word or not. It's in wrapping up your identity in being an author that things can get a little wonky for some.

That's not identifying your art, that's identifying the results of your work and the publics view of it.

Just my thoughts, take 'em or leave 'em.

Mira said...

Nathan - Lol. You have a good point about the making of sausage de-romanticizing it.

Sausage is yummy. Please don't EVER tell me what's in it. :-)

You're just coming up against all of us romantics who think pigs are cute.

Anonymous said...

Also, I don't really like talking about writing. The point is to READ it, not to talk about it.

So I never mention I write anything unless I'm asked point blank. Even after being published, I doubt this will change. I'm just not a talker[with the exception of promotional interviews--I'll do those until I'm hoarse]. But I don't go around talking about writing. Not interested in talking about it, just doing it. These blogs mostly bore me too.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nathan,

You said that people don't use their hobbies to identify themselves, using stamp collecting etc as an example.

But you're forgetting about people who take their hobbies seriously. I mean, really seriously. Obsessively seriously.

For example, those who are obsessed with playing computer games will usually say they are a gamer.

Those who are obsessed with anime/manga will say they are an otaku (or at least be called one by lots of other people.)

Maybe writing falls into the category of an obsessive hobby?

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree that it’s important for a person to not completely define themselves by any one thing they do in life. I strongly disagree that whether or not a person makes money at something should be the differentiating factor in whether or not that activity is considered real or just a hobby. A person is a medical doctor or lawyer if they receive the proper amount of schooling and pass the required tests, even if they later work in a free clinic without pay or take time off from their career to raise children. People who make films are filmmakers, whether or not their films make money. It seems a questionable premise to define "art" and "writing" by the amount of money it makes. In an online writers’ group, someone living in a European country (I forget which country) once said that her country has a completely different view of great books than the United States does – In her country, popular books that make a lot of money are considered an inferior form of literature.

Art often doesn’t make money. That’s the nature of art. What about artists or writers whose work becomes hugely successful only posthumously? Was their work not really "art" or "writing" when they created it? Only money allows something to be defined as art? Should we only call Susan Boyle a "singer" if she gets a record deal?

Many very successful, very rich people ruin their lives by defining themselves by only one label. We see that with "movie stars" and "rock stars" all the time. It also happens with very successful, very wealthy "writers" who have an empty sense of self. It happens in every career and even with hobbies (defined as hobbies by the person doing them). It also happens in regard to personal attributes. Some people define themselves nearly entirely by their "beauty" or their "intelligence" or, ironically, even by how "wealthy" they are.

I think that those who write are writers; those who paint are painters. The labels are just shortcut ways to describe what those people do with huge chunks of their time every day. Now is there "good" and "bad" art? Yes. But the nature of art is such that it’s often in the eye of the beholder, not in the amount of money that people are willing to spend on it.

Martin said...

Maybe it's as simple as not being able to give yourself a nickname. Other people do that for you. Maybe the same holds true and you can never legitimately call yourself a writer, but just do the work so other people will.

Or maybe I've had too much coffee. Is the screen supposed to jiggle like that? ;)

allegory19 said...

A lot of these comments are interesting, and if I read all of them, I wouldn't be able to say I'm a writer at all because I spend too much time reading!

Anyway, yes writing can be part of one's identity, but it's only a part. I'm not a big fan of the writing wackos where everything in their world revolves around the pen. Frankly they scare me and it's not healthy to be that obsessed with something all the time.

I've stayed pretty sane throughout this whole writing process (write, query, re-write, query, re-write some more, place MS in drawer to review some other day...)BUT I'm in the middle of writing a new novel that I really, really believe in and I'm afraid I'll become one of those wackos when I start the querying process because I KNOW I have a great story. I know everyone says it, but I really do! Oh great, I'm already becoming one of "them" =)

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between being an X and being a professional X.

that's reqaly what this post comes down to. YOU might consider yourself to be a writer, and you may be one, if you write, but what most people mean when they say "what do you do?" is what do you do for money? So to answer that by listing a hobby is misleading and essentially evasive.

John said...

All in all, I agree with the points of this post. Rejection seems to be an industry norm. If my book fails, I fail. Why should I see it that way? How can that perspective help me as a writer? My writing is my writing, and my life is my life. They're not completely separate, but they're not identical. Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem about sending her poem out into the world like a child. She loved the child and hoped for it's success, but she understood that she herself was not the child. Nonetheless, I appreciate the depths writers reach. That's why I read and teach and write. Maybe balance is the key.

Sharon Fisher said...

I am a writer. It's who I am. But also: I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it.

I don’t think anyone who didn’t find enjoyment and satisfaction in writing itself could stick with it very long. And I think all writers have feelings of “here are my blood, guts, and soul, please don’t stomp on them.” I honestly believe it’s impossible not to take rejections personally.

I think the venom you’re exposed to comes not from taking writing too seriously, but from not taking it seriously enough. Writers who go on to find agents and publishers do so because they can see the big picture. They act like professionals because that’s what they want to be. When they need to vent – everyone does - they do it in the privacy of their own homes, and most of the time they can roll their eyes at themselves the next day. (Or maybe the day after that.)

Anonymous said...

"So, what do you do?"
"Oh, I like to go to the beach."
"Yeah, me, too. But I meant what do you do for a living?"
"Oh, I develop websites, but what I really care about is going to the beach."
"I see. I've gotta go now--see ya around!"

It's called living in and dealing with reality. If you're not making al iving at it--please keep it to yourself.

Scott said...

Unusual post, Nathan. I guess you're on the receiving end of a lot of misdirected passion. It happens, I guess.

I think there are all kinds of "creatives" everywhere. Some put it away at night, and others live for it and rise higher because of that. Yeah, it's scary if they put all their mental eggs in that basket but sometimes that's "where they live".

There are lots of examples of those who put in more time, more effort and more of themselves to break through. They dig deeper, face harsher mirrors, sacrifice safe havens and inspire us all. The dangers of implosion are there, but in a very real way, we want them to "go there". For some, they're encouraged for our own entertainment.

In other words, we want these marginally adjusted individuals when they lift us, thrill us and show us the way, but not when they fail and act out. Seems a little unfair sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I think of my writing as a product, so I don't take it so personally when I et rejected. when you're producing widgets off an assembly line, it's hard to get all choked up when when of 'em doesn't sell, because you know there's another one about to fall off the line.

allegory19 said...

If you go around telling people you're a cow long enough, sooner or later somebody's going ask for a shot of milk.P.S. Love it!

Justine said...

It's my oppinion that you are what you see yourself as. My identy is what I picture as myself.

I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm a writer, I'm an artist... and so many other pieces that fall into me.

Before I became a mother and a wife I would have told you that I was an artist and a writer.

At the time I made my living as a McDonald's store manager, but that wasn't part of who I was, it was just a job that I worked- one I knew I wasn't making a career though I'd done career moves there. It wasn't part of me, like my family, writting or art.

Okay, so I think we've established what I view as my identity... that doesn't mean I can't take a hit and keep on kicking.

Sure I've only sent out a few queries trying to see what works and so on, most of which have come back in rejections. So what. That doesn't stop me from wanting to work hard to get my work published. And it certain doesn't mean I'm going to start threatening people who don't want to represent my book. I'm quite sure that in two years if I'm still querying for this series I still won't do such a thing, because it's not in my personality.

I don't think you should worry about how people view themselves, but the personalities they have. For you, as an agent who works with authors, you will see more crazy writers than others. Just as those agents who represent artisits will meet crazy art people. It's the job you love, unfortunately, you've got to take the good with the bad no matter if you end up with your dream job or not.

What ever the identity a person chooses, it's not because we call ourselves writers that make us crazy. It's the personality- careful people are careful, funny people are funny, writers are writers, it's the crazies that drive us all nuts, no matter what they call themselves.

Agreeing with a previous post I read, I don't think that an identity needs to go with making money or the job you work. It comes from passion. Which is entirely the reason your post hits nerves. People feel like your attacking thier passion. Watch out, more of those crazies coming your way. :p


Anonymous said...

You're a writer if you write. It's that simple.

If you don't get paid for it, though, people call that a hobby. If you get paid for it but it's not your main source of income, you're a semi-pro. And if you make a living at it, you're a professional.

It's that simple. So when it comes to novelists, everybody in here is either a hobbyist or a semi-pro. I don't think we have any pro's in here, am I right? heck, there's not many pro novelists, period, by that definition.

Anonymous said...

I think calling something a hobby that someone is dedicated to and really earnest about is kind of insulting.
When sales are down, are agents just hobby agents?
I totally get not over-identifying with getting published. You're trying to keep us sane, right?

In the artworld, there is the "Sunday Painter" (i.e., who cares if it's good or bad, it is so cute of them, really, and it's a "hobby.")

But part of the sensitivity on the subject (I think) is that in our culture, identity gets confused with the value that's placed on it economically.

That sort of strip-mines a lot of us earnest creative types.

Also, I am not a hobby-parent. I may not be a famous parent expert/author, but I am really a parent. And I have suffered from empty nest too. But the parent part doesn't ever go away.

I don't think the dedication to one's art does either.It is more of a calling for some than a hobby.

Kate Langton said...

Here's an unorthodox answer to Nathan's question.

This is a video (by a bestselling author). It takes 19 minutes to view. Some people love it, others are more dismissive. Personally, I found it useful. Among other things, Sivers explains why the ancient Greeks thought it wise to keep a healthy distance from one's 'writing identity.' If this has already been posted, then apologies.

Anonymous said...

it gets complicated though, because you have people like housewives who don't have a dayjob, but they publish a novel for an advance/royalities that wouldn't be enough to support themselves without the hubby, but if you assk them what they do they'll say "I'm a pro novelist." I don't consider that pro. To me, that's semi-pro.

Ruth said...

I was really glad to read this post, since I *don't* have that kind of attitude. I've actually been worried about it, since so many other writers have the "writing is my oxygen" attitude - for me, I love writing, and would love to do it professionally, but - it's not my oxygen.

I was starting to wonder if there was something intrinsically wrong with me - if I didn't care enough about writing to be successful at it.

But I do care - a lot - and I've been spending a lot of my recent time revising my current ms, getting critiques, and perusing every agent's blog I can find to see how to be the best I can be at the querying stage. I want to be the best I can be. But writing is not my oxygen.

I do call myself a writer. But I'm many other things as well, and being a writer doesn't define me as a person. When asked to fill in "About me" on websites etc, I never say simply that I am a writer, because I feel there's much more in my life that defines who I am.

I'm rambling here, so I'll stop.

But... I'm glad to hear someone say that it's OK not to define who you are by your writing.

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