Danny Mitola, Non-Fiction and Multimedia Panelist
What makes a writer? I often think about this question in terms of my own writing. What defines a writer? In other words, what differentiates a writer from anyone else? At what point does “someone who writes” cross the threshold into the “writer” distinction?
And it’s not an easy question to answer particularly because not all people who write will consider themselves writers. The National Survey of Student Engagement conducted a 2008 study found that, on average, college freshmen wrote 92 pages of work per year and seniors 146. Still, many of these students will not consider themselves writers. So, when or why would someone cross to the “writer” distinction?
I think the answer is actually somewhat simple, and it comes down to how much the person in question cares about their writing and the method by which they conduct the act of writing. A writer is someone who, after having written, looks on their work with pride, much as a loving parent looks at his or her children. To a writer, a piece of their writing is their child. They care about their writing. There is another aspect, however, which isn’t quite so simple. And that’s quantity of writing.
I grapple with this facet almost every day, as the quantity of my writing is without a doubt dwarfed by that of most of my peers. Yet, I still consider myself a writer. In a large way it is part of my very identity. I love the act of writing; I find it therapeutic. Sitting for hours at my desk mulling over a ten-line poem is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. What I don’t find therapeutic though, is thinking about writing. Everybody has felt it at one point or another – the dreaded “writer’s block” or, more aptly named in this case “writer’s anxiety.”
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” -Ernest Hemingway
My favorite quote on writer’s block and writing in general is from Ernest Hemingway:“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I feel like “bleeding” is an overly aggressive term to use in this case, but I understand the sentiment. In order to write effectively, essentially you must pour your soul into your writing. Writing is the manifestation of thought to page – abstract to physical. This – making one’s thoughts tangible – is somewhat terrifying to me. Once the words are on the page, the thoughts become real. As a result of this, I don’t really do all that much writing. I wait for the moment where it seems comfortable, and seize it. And oftentimes, I feel guilty that this is how I work. I don’t have piles upon piles of writing to show off, so when I tell people I’m a writer, there’s not much to show them. I’m certain this is the case for others too, to varying degrees. So, how do people who consider themselves writers but suffer from this affliction come to terms with it?
Personally, I only very recently was able to find my peace with it. It happened while reading Baltics, a long poem by Tomas Tranströmer.
The introduction to Baltics cites how his work was always scarce in quantity, his first publication being only 17 poems. For contrast, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass contains over 400 poems. In regard to Tranströmer’s works, the introduction from Baltics says, “most of them [were] short…but…this was his way of working.” In the moment of reading that, I was freed. A thought struck me: “Wait… you can write very little but still become a published writer and be considered a good writer?” All my anxiety on the matter faded away. In that moment, I realized I too could be a writer but not feel forced to write all the time. In essence, I could work at my own pace – a concept foreign to me until this epiphany. Especially in a college environment, where everything is “go-go-go!” the pressure was on my shoulders, weighing me down. But this just can’t be sustainable.
“A thought struck me: ‘Wait… you can write very little but still become a published writer and be considered a good writer?'”
So, what makes a writer? Should quantity matter? My personal answer: absolutely not. If you consider yourself a writer but don’t fit into a certain paradigm, you by all means are still a writer. Writing should be something calming, something to make a person feel whole, feel at peace. Nothing should get in the way of that sense. So if you, like me, write very little, but still consider yourself a writer and feel that anxiety, here’s what I have to say: It’s okay. You are as much a writer as any other. Wait for your moment. Know it’s okay to wait. And it’s a give and take. But it’s important to know yourself and your individual style and pace. And hey, if you write boatloads a day – power to you! I’m by no means arguing in favor of writing less if writing lots is what you like to do. Rather, every writer has their own way and should follow their own feet.