I know a lot of writers—those who are just starting out, seasoned professionals, and everyone in between. I work with writers, go to conferences, connect with writers on Facebook, and attend writing conferences.
I love this community, but I’ve noticed something that’s troubled me for a while.
So many writers are setting themselves up to be miserable.
This isn’t about a certain technique, or working habit, or anything on a surface level. The error goes much deeper—to the very essence of who people believe they are.
What does it mean to be a writer?
Years ago, I was presented with a simple but extremely useful definition of what it means to be a writer: A writer is a person who writes.
Now many writers share certain characteristics—introversion is common, as is the love of reading, plus a few quirks like jotting ideas down in little notebooks at family dinners. But being a writer isn’t based on how you think, your personality type, or even how others react to your work (thankfully!).
It’s a description of your actions. It is not a separate category of human being. Why is this important?
“Writer” is a great descriptor. It’s a horrible identity.
The critical error I see many people make is that they don’t see themselves as a person who writes, or even as a person for whom writing is a very high priority. Instead they take the concept of “being a writer” and apply it to the very essence of their personhood.
And this, my dear dreamers, is a recipe for personal misery.
Why things go so wrong
On the surface, these two perspectives—seeing oneself as a person who writes versus seeing oneself as being a writer—may seem identical. But this subtle difference in attitude plays out very differently in the day-to-day experience of writing.
Let’s imagine three types of writers—all who have the same raw talent starting out. The only difference is their attitudes about writing:
- Hobby Writer Hannah: Hannah plays a lot of different roles in life. Maybe she’s a mom, a full-time accountant, a musician, a volunteer—possibly all of them at the same time. For years she’s just written stories for the fun of it. Now she’s wondering if she should pursue novel publication in her spare time.
- Determined Writer Darren: Darren, on the other hand, sees writing as his career. His dream is to get his fiction or non-fiction book published, and in the meantime he’s picking up odd copywriting jobs to gain experience. He’s “young, scrappy, and hungry”—he’s got a lot riding on his success, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get better.
- Writing-is-Who-I-Am Wendy: Before discovering her talent for writing, Wendy wasn’t quite sure who she was. But now, Being A Writer suddenly seems to be her great calling—it’s what she’s always been, deep down in her core. Life all makes sense now. She declares herself an introvert, a bookworm, a sensitive soul, and a hater of crowds. Maybe she was these things before, or maybe she wasn’t. But now she’s a writer: a stereotypical personification of writing itself. In her mind, if she’s not a writer, she’s just not anything.
All writers who want to get their work out to an audience will have challenges. After all, writing is a tough field: it requires hours of hard work, mostly in isolation, and there’s no guarantee of success. Even if you’ve crafted the next Great American Novel, some people will hate it—or (arguably, even worse) just ignore it.
So every writer faces hardship and some level of rejection. It’s just part of the territory. Here’s where the attitude difference plays out for our hypothetical writers:
Scenario 1: Going to their first writer’s conference and realizing they know a whole lot less than they thought they did:
- Hobby Writer Hannah says to herself, “Wow, I guess I really am a newbie. I suppose that’s to be expected, though. No sweat.” She goes to some interesting workshops and learns some helpful techniques. When she gets home, she continues writing and gets better at it.
- Determined Writer Darren says to himself, “Wow, I guess I really am a newbie. I’m going to have to up my game if I’m going to compete. I wonder what I can learn from these seasoned writers?” Darren uses the conference to meet people and ask questions. He gets a lot of helpful pointers. When he gets home, he implements new habits, and his writing improves as a result.
- Writing-is-Who-I-Am Wendy says to herself, “I thought I was a writer, but compared to these people, I’m nothing! Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Will I ever be any good? If I’m not a writer, who am I?” She leaves the conference discouraged, too dismayed to have learned much of anything. She spends the next few months paralyzed into inaction, unable to write without feeling inferior.
Scenario 2: Encountering their first mean critiquer or first negative review online:
- Hobby Writer Hannah says to herself, “Ouch. Well, I guess my book can’t please everyone.” Hannah keeps writing and putting her work out there. Some people like it, and some people don’t. She gets better over time merely because she’s practicing.
- Determined Writer Darren says to himself, “Ouch. I wonder if this person has a point, though? Let me get some more feedback from other readers. Let me see if I really did make a mistake, and if so, I’ll figure out a way to fix it.” Darren does some hard searching and makes some hard edits. His writing gets significantly better as a result.
- Writing-is-Who-I-Am Wendy says to herself, “How could this person attack me like this? Am I really that bad of a writer? Maybe I’m doomed to fail. Maybe I’m not even a real writer! Who am I?” Wendy can’t do any writing for a long time because she’s so crushed on a deep level. She may come out of it eventually, but she’ll be vulnerable to any other negative feedback in the future. She has a really hard time improving.
Scenario 3: After ten submissions, their novels get rejected from yet another publisher:
- Hobby Writer Hannah: “Rats. Oh, well. Eleventh time’s the charm!” She sends the manuscript out again.
- Determined Writer Darren: “Rats. I wonder if there’s a pattern here. Let me get some more reader feedback and make some hard edits. Then I’ll send it out again and see what happens.” Darren works hard, rewrites large sections, and sends an even better manuscript out the next time.
- Writing-is-Who-I-Am Wendy never gets to her tenth rejection. She was crushed at the first rejection—if she even sent her work out to begin with. She feels like a failure, and she struggles with feelings of inadequacy.
Notice how when faced with the exact same setbacks, only Wendy is truly hurt. That’s because Hannah and Darren take their writing seriously, but not too personally. They may be disappointed or frustrated by roadblocks, but they will remain well-adjusted people, and just try to find different ways to succeed.
But Wendy—who remember, is no less talented—takes each challenge as a personal attack to her core. Anything that goes wrong causes her to question the essence of who she is. Too much is on the line for her, and it’s exhausting.
The curse of fragile identities
It’s not just writers who fall into this identity trap—artists of any kind can get caught up in it. But you can also misplace your core identity in being an athlete, a mom, an entrepreneur, a volunteer, or some other (temporary!) life role. You can stake your entire personhood in a relationship you have or a personality type you match (I’m looking at you, fellow INFJs).
But really, all of these things are either roles or descriptors, and while they can be good, each of them can be taken away from you. An injury can end a sports career. Kids grow up and move out. Businesses fail. Even personality traits can shift over the years.
And once your role changes, you need to have something unchangeable to fall back on, or else you’ll stand empty and lost, wondering who you even are.
That’s why it’s so important settle your core identity on something bigger than yourself, something that’s not dependent on your performance, something that can’t change or go away no matter what life throws at you. (For me personally, my identity is centered in Christ’s love. Writing performance matters a lot less when you believe you’re fully loved and fully accepted no matter what.)
Whatever that is for you, Being a Successful Writer is one of the very worst identities you can choose.
And so …
Do you feel called to write? Great! I wish you the best of success. Take your writing seriously, but don’t lose the joy of it. Pursue your dreams, but don’t be a slave to them. Be fearless. Be flexible.
And know that at the end of the day, your worth does not depend an iota on how many books you sell.
All my love,