On Being An "Aspiring Writer"

I spotted the words "aspiring writer" on a website today. My mood went south, as it always does when I encounter this flawed phrase. When I see aspiring writer, I don't think it's shorthand for meanings such as:

  • "Aspiring professional writer" -- meaning, the person is writing, but aims to someday be paid for her creative investment and output.
  • Or "aspring full-time pro writer" -- meaning, the person is writing, but aims to someday make a living wage from her wordherding.
  • Or "aspiring to complete a writing project" -- meaning, the person is writing, and aims to someday type The End or Fade To Black on her short story, novel or screenplay.

In my more literal view, the phrase means, "I am not writing, but am talking and dreaming about writing." Which might as well be, "I am masturbating." I am qualified to characterize this in such harsh terms because in my own life, I talked about writing fiction long before I actually wrote a word of it. These years of windbaggery added precisely zero words to my novel manuscripts or screenplays. I wasn't aspiring. I was wanking.

You're either writing, or you aren't. Unspoken qualifiers such as "being a writer means making money from one's words" or "being a writer means your entire income hails from writing" feel like strange constrictions to me, mental obstacles that young writers place before themselves to ... to ... I don't know what, precisely. Perhaps it's to:

  • Perpetuate some form of artistic self-loathing? (Oh, how writers love to hate their work.)
  • Ensure years of handwringing and self-doubt? (Writers are unhealthily preoccupied with the notion that they'll someday be discovered as no-talent hacks. They don't yet realize that the only writers who don't have that fear are, in fact, the no-talent hacks.)
  • Permit and maintain a level of mediocrity in the quality of their work? (Qualifiers such as "aspiring" permit such stagnation.)
  • Assign a tangible, rational goal to an intangible, downright spooky act? (Thereby justifying one's creative investment.)

Could be any, all, or none of these things. The only truth that I know is this: In my world, there are no aspiring writers. There are writers, and everyone else.

If you're writing, you're a writer. Own that fact. Be proud of it. Your pen is moving (or your fingers are typing), and that's a thousand times cooler and more committed than the douchebags who endlessly drone on about the books, poems, plays and movies they'll never write. You're not aspiring, because you're already doing the hard part.

Other aspects of the creative life -- such as making money from your words -- do indeed represent aspirational goals. Call yourself an "aspiring professional writer" if that is indeed your aim. But if you're writing, don't dare label yourself as an "aspiring writer." To do so undervalues what you're doing to you and others, and creates a disconnect between the challenging act you're already performing -- the very thing that makes writers writers -- and other aspects of the life.

I assure you: perform enough of the former (the act of writing) and you'll achieve the latter (the goal of getting paid or published, for instance). Your success may be wildly different than you ever imagined, as may your path to achieving it. But it will happen if you continue to put words on the page, and remain committed to improving your craft.

You don't need permission to write ... and you mustn't make money to call yourself a writer.

Writers write. That's it.

Those who don't, merely aspire.

--J.C.