Even when all I knew of writing was the fantasy I'd cooked in my head of the life I wanted to live one day as a writer, I was already pontificating this message that would bleed into all of my work over the years:
There is no one right way to be a writer.
Writing can be whatever you want it to be.
When I decided in 2011 to leave everything else and try my hand at whatever professional writing was, I found no shortage of how-tos, ultimate guides and best practices for doing it right.
How to Make Your First $1,000 as a Freelance Writer
How to Sell 10,000 Books on Amazon this Year
How to Gain 100,000 Blog Subscribers While You Sleep
These aren't snake-oil formulas or overblown promises. Writers use savvy and ethical business tactics all the time to grow huge audiences and make enormous profits.
But their methods just weren't going to work for me. I tried. Throughout the years, I've gone through the gauntlet in blogging, self-publishing, growing a following on social media and building an email list. The best practices tend to be effective... if "effective" refers only to growth in numbers.
Through trial after trial for about three years, I found a perfectly negative correlation between the growth of my "online business" and my satisfaction with my life and work as a writer. I've finally been forced to conclude: The kind of writing I love to do doesn't pay fast, and I hate to do the kind of writing and work that does.
I'm a terrible freelancer, an atrocious marketer, a pitiful salesperson -- but I'm a good writer. And I'm kind of good at building a community - i.e. getting people to hang around and read what I write. (For free.) I know that I will forever be a writer -- mine will just be a slower road to the much more exciting "making a living writing."
The identity of the writer is as personal, subjective, varied and unclear as the labels we use to identify things like sexuality and spirituality. No two people have the same impression of me when they hear I'm A Writer, and no other writer means what I mean when they identify with the label.
The flexibility of the label is as helpful as it is detrimental to those of us tryng to use it. We'll always be met with people who set the bar somewhere we can't reach -- income, readers, sales, accolades, awards, years of experience we haven't achieved. We might be trying to use the label in an arena where we haven't earned it -- calling myself a writer among New York Times bestselling authors won't go over as well as it does when I call myself a writer among other ebook writers. Calling myself a writer among seasoned journalists might earn some sneers; among six-figure freelancers, it might garner looks of pity.
Among other self-publishers and bloggers, though, I've earned the label, and I wear it proudly.
That's the freedom of being something as fluid and varied as "a writer"; you get to choose when it's time to adopt the title.
I manage an online community of about two thousand writers, and for every new writer I meet I ask, "What are you going to cross off your bucket list this year?" I receive the answers you'd expect -- publish a novel, start a blog, do my first book signing, win a contest -- but also as many so personal and subjective I'd never consider them:
I want to finish my memoirs to pass on to my grandchildren this Christmas.
Everyone uses writing differently, and the variety of goals means a different path to success for each. Yet everyone who enters this community has, at least, chosen to identify as a writer.
When these writers join the Writer's Bucket List community, we make no promises of followers or money -- though, over the years I've fallen into the trap of trying to do that. They don't need that. They -- we -- just need a community that makes them feel like a writer.
We are people who have day jobs, families, social circles, and other obligations that make us feel ridiculous sometimes for thinking of ourselves as "writers." Who are we, after all? There's no J.K. Rowling in the bunch, no Hunter Thompson, no Amanda Hocking or Penelope Trunk. (Yet.) We hop online in the mornings, evenings, lunch hours, and weekend afternoons to connect with other creative people and exist in a world where we have a right to call ourselves writers.
Anytime I fall into the trap of trying to sell products, services, or ideas to these writers that promise the kinds of success, income, or influence other experts can promise, I fail. I create something shoddy I don't care about. I ignore all opportunities to market it, because I don't believe in it. I end up in front of an audience I can't connect with, because what I'm trying to sell isn't right for my audience.
My audience are just writers. Plain and simple, we just want to write. Some of us want to publish books, grow blogs, make money, gain clients, become household names. Some do not. Ultimately, we all just want to write and to be welcomed into this community where people don't think we're crazy for it.
That community is the only so-called service I can actually provide readers, because I'm one of them. I've spent a lot of my fledgling career worrying that I haven't earned the title "writer" because I don't properly pay my bills and buy my groceries from the craft. I haven't figured out how to turn the kind of writing and work I'm good at into food and power and lights - yet.
But I've given up worrying. I'm not ashamed to tell writers and friends with successful online businesses that I don't make my living selling my products and services. I'm not ashamed to tell the people at my day job, my family, or my social circles that I'm a writer. None of these people gets to decide whether I'm doing it right or not.
I am A Writer - and that's whatever I want it to be.
This essay was written as part of Writing II: Rhetorical Composing, a MOOC hosted at Coursera and led by instructors at Ohio State University.