Pinned on the office wall above my computer is a quote from an agent who looked at my novel. It says:
“I’m so encouraged by the way you treat writing as a craft to be learned and mastered.”
My internal response to this was not only that it was a lovely thing for her to say, but also that I couldn’t figure out why anyone who called herself a writer would treat writing otherwise. When I was a child and a teenager, I figured I wasn’t a writer because everything I wrote was so bad. It took me years to realize that writing, like any other art, can be practiced and improved. I’d grasped that immediately about visual arts, but not about writing.
Once I did figure it out, however, there was no stopping me. I’ve worked on honing my skills to make my writing style readable, clear, visually strong and unobtrusive. I’ll probably keep working on them until I croak, because there is always room for improvement.
And this has led me to revise my definition of a writer. Yes, I know I’ve said that if you put your butt in the chair and your pen on the paper (or fingers on the keyboard), then you’re a writer. In its rawest form, that definition stands.
This is, to my mind, like me calling myself a singer when what I do is sing along to the radio, or sing to myself at home. Yes, in its rawest form, I’m a singer; I am not, however, on a par with someone who thinks about what and how he sings, or who exercises her voice and strives to improve her performance.
Professional singers, and even serious amateurs, practise and work at their art to improve it, to make it more pleasurable to listen to, and easier to understand. Practice means they’re going to hit even the difficult notes, hold the long ones without running out of breath, and do a whack of other things my around-the-house warbling doesn’t accomplish.
I once saw a singer sing while lying on her back on stage doing bicycles. When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell that she wasn’t simply standing before the microphone – her breath control was that good.
A professional writer, or a serious amateur, also needs to practice, and to be mindful of what she is writing and how it sounds when read. A good vocabulary, sound diction, understanding of sentence structure, grammar and punctuation are like that singer’s ability to control breath and sound. What I want to accomplish is the writerly equivalent of lying on my back doing bicycles and singing. I want to have such perfect control over my craft that the writing won’t interfere with the story, and that my own emotional or physical state will not interfere with the writing.
So, yes, a writer is someone who writes, just as a singer is someone who sings. But there are levels, from those who do it for their own private pleasure right up to those who do it publicly for pay. Some even become superstars, although that has much more to do with taste and fashion than ability.
If you take the pursuit seriously, you’ll work and practice regularly to learn and master your craft. You may become good enough that you can do it for pay, and for acclaim. You may become a superstar, but bear in mind – as they knew in Chaucer’s day and beyond – that fame is fickle. I can promise you this, though – if you take your craft seriously, you will be, not only someone who writes, but someone who writes as best they can. And, really, why wouldn’t you?