Real Writers

Back in high school, I was friends with a girl who’d read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. She even claimed to have enjoyed it. She did me the great honor of letting me borrow her copy of it after learning I’d recently become enamored of W.B. Yeats. I gave it an honest go, but tossed it aside as soon as Sir Tristam re-arrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war – that is to say, in the middle of the second sentence – in favor of my new Stephen King novel. She gave me a superior roll of her eyes and told me to give her a call the next time I’d read the work of a Real Writer. I called her the next evening. Right after I finished Misery.

About a year ago, I met a woman online who asked me to critique her recently completed manuscript. It was a great read, bordering on brilliant. The kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve put it down. I told her so in an email after I’d finished it, adding that she was now on my list of favorite writers. Her response: “I’m not a writer yet. Not a real one, anyway. I’m not published. I don’t even have an agent.”

Her comment took me aback. I hadn’t realized that within the twenty or so years since I’d had that high school conversation with Miss Pretentious, the definition of Real Writer had been amended from “producer of unreadable literary fiction” to “agented and published author.” Yet, if you peruse most writing blogs these days, you’ll see that this new definition is the widely accepted one. Some go so far as to define Real Writer as an author who can support him or herself on writing alone.

I refuse to subscribe to any of those definitions. I know I have talent. I know I can write, and that I do it well. Not because an agent has told me so (even though many of them have) and not because I’m a published author (even though I am). I know it in the same way Ted Williams knew he could hit a baseball or Jimi Hendrix knew he could play a guitar. It’s just always been there. Through use and training I have improved over the years, but I’ve still always known I had It. Even when I was fighting in the battle for getting my work traditionally published … I knew. It’s why I showed up to fight in the first place, not the spoils I expected to claim at the end of the war.

Being a real writer isn’t about literary importance, and it isn’t about sales. A real writer is someone who has written something that resonates with someone, even if it’s just one other person. Something that makes someone look at the world in a different way, or makes them think about an issue in a way they never thought to before. Something that inspires, something that moves another person to tears. Or to laughter. Or takes them to far away, or even imaginary, lands.

It’s why W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf can sit beside Stephen King and P.G. Wodehouse on my bookshelf. It’s why I think my online friend’s book deserves a spot there, too. It’s why I think – even after a year of unsuccessfully shopping her book out to agents – that she’s a real writer. It’s why I wish she’d put the damned book out herself. It’s why I chose to publish mine independently. And it’s why I refuse to let someone else’s narrow view define me.

About RJ Keller

R.J. Keller is a writer from Central Maine, where she lives happily with her husband, two kids, and the family cat. She is the author of the independently published novel, Waiting for Spring.
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8 Responses to Real Writers

  1. Alan says:


    Great post. I’d have to agree with every point. Anyone that writes is a writer – especially if others have read and enjoyed that writing, but even that’s not essential. I’ve been traditionally published (in short fiction) self and indie published (with my novels and other short fiction/novella) and I’ve had great feedback on all of it. But even before my novels started getting good reviews I was a writer. Because I write. Simple as that.

  2. Laura Eno says:

    Bravo! A narrow definition of rules, no matter the subject, leaves little room for creativity. I, for one, do not want to be subjected to cookie cutter attributes whether it’s writing, art, music or what-have-you.

  3. I’ve written since junior high school, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I took it seriously. A story that had been nebulizing in my head for some years suddenly coalesced around a line from a song, and I sat down and began to write. Six weeks later, I had a 22,000 word novella. The first non-relative to read it was a friend I’ve known for thirty years.

    So here’s this large, bearded, Alaska-outdoors-in-winter, commercial fisherman sitting in a tire shop, and he pulls my half-read manuscript from his pocket and begins to read. When he got to a certain plot point, he says, he got up to go outside:

    “I knew I might get emotional,” he emailed me. “I thought I might get teary, and I didn’t want to do it there. I walked several blocks to a quiet residential street and tried again to read. No. Put the story away. Just breathe. Watch the sky. Try again.

    “To my surprise, I began to cry. Not a soft weepy kind of a cry, but a sobbing, gasping, break-down kind of a cry. The thought that there was to be no ‘story-tale’ ending for these two people was too much for me.”

    This about fictional characters, that I had made up out whole cloth, that he knew were fictional. I read that email so many times I had it memorized. I felt on the one hand that I should apologize profusely for so deeply upsetting my friend, and on the other hand, I felt pride that I had done my job so well.

    I turned to my wife, and I said “Well, I guess I’m a writer now.”

  4. Henry Baum says:

    I’ve got nothing to add but thank you, yes.

  5. Kristen says:

    Thanks for posting this, RJ!

    I think each person who writes has his own feeling about when it’s comfortable to refer to himself as a “writer.” And I think there SHOULD be some hesitation. Like anything else, the label you apply to yourself should be earned. But earning seems like something that should be an internal and personal journey rather than a process designed and dictated by others’ arbitrary milestones & rules.

  6. This blog strikes a note of resonance with me. I have been writing and pouring myself into my writing for over twenty years, always thinking that someday I would be a ‘real writer’. I had an agent once who told me that as soon as he found a publisher for my work, that we could both retire and live on the residuals. I’m still waiting to retire.

  7. Great post.
    This is a quandry, so many pros and cons. As a former English major I was trained to be a literary snob, but then I took a hard look at what I actually like to read — ghost stories, paranormal, occult thrillers, dark fantasy, fairy tales…What’s up with that?
    I found my muse in the pop fic section — (Medieval lit Prof rolls eyes –) but I love Medieval lit too…

    I think traditional publishing gives one a sense of validation. You have made it to the big time! Acceptance by the big shot big shot makers gives you credibility and money justifies the hard work and sacrifice that goes into writing novels especially.

    BUT, I haven’t read a new book written and published since about 2003 that isn’t badly edited, lacking in cohesion, half baked, or in need of serious cutting. I haven’t even finished some books that are best sellers! Anathema!

    So trad publishing, agents, the opinions of THEM are no guarantee of quality control. With the prices of books being what they are today, readers can’t afford to be burned.

    That’s my 2p.

    Arlene deWinter

  8. Jessie says:

    Thank you! I needed to read this– I’ve been depressed because, due to finances, I cannot afford to quit my “real job” and become a “real writer.” This article lifted my spirits. And Stephen King always has been, and always will be, a “real writer.” Possibly the greatest writer of the 20th/21st century!

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