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What Makes You A Writer?
By Jennifer Edelson
February, 2005, 11:47

t goes like this; you sit at your keyboard, or with your purple fine point pen and rumpled yellow pad, and create something that didn’t exist before you woke up, stumbled to your desk and downed that first two percent, double hazelnut Latte.

You work like an automaton while the day snaps from scene to scene like a viewfinder. You groom your characters and fine-tune your inconsistent tenses over slightly stale slices of whole wheat bread, and tightly packed sardines imported from Italy.

When you pause, stuck on a verb that jumps off the page, you push papers from one end of your laminate desk to another, and pick at pink sticky reminders to yourself to keep writing. Later, when muted streetlight spills into the velvet night sky outside your window, you falter. But despite your pretty blisters, and digits that lock when you bend them, you push ahead, sculpting sharp words, polishing up old themes and raw new reality.

With determination rivaled by a pack of wintering squirrels, you persevere when a chapter gets too dense or an idea too unwieldy.

Sometime after midnight you take a deep, stupor-induced breather. After too much deliberation over the merit of the wandering length of just one sentence, you are done. Maybe. But you go back. Drawn by that clever charlatan tucked inside your ego.

You go back like an addict, exhaling paragraphs until you’re forced to tie your own wrists to the radiator. Until you worry that your next clear thought has a good chance of being received between the chartreuse walls of psychiatric clinic. Yes, you let this tenuous romantic notion of idealistic perfection drive you crazy. And now that you have, you can’t look at your manuscript without hating it.

You are dissuaded, and indulge in speculation over which polite euphemism the publisher will use to reject your story. While you mull over your hundredth dismissed idea, it festers. The thing is, this time (like the last, and the time before that) you want perfection. Because you wonder when that gnawing need to explain yourself, after you say that you write, will go away. Whether the day will ever come, where when people ask if you are published, you pull up examples, instead of defenses, like a polished resume.

No bones, you want that secret society to swing its doors wide, to brand you with that coveted seal you misguidedly think makes you a “writer.” Heck, you’re easy. At this point, even one short paragraph on the back magazine page of “Ferrets Make Good Friends” will do.

You ask, who draws that not-so-technicolor line? Is it immutable? And pray the answer is like a summer day in the Midwest, that it changes precariously with the weather. Because though you could use a long break, you don’t actually want to check into a clinic.

But there is no answer really. It is semantic. Philosophy. So you drop your line at parties, fishing for that, “Oh my gosh I love your work, it’s so completely incredible” compliment. Still, sometimes life sucks, and you’re stuck reassuring your insecure self that you don’t need no stinking praise to keep you writing.

You buy a book; Yes You Are A Writer. You spend 16 bucks to read too many corny things you already knew. Yep. Check. And yes, that too. But it doesn't help. Your manuscript is still parked on your desk, cribbed in a manila envelope, demanding attention like your sister’s colicky baby.

You don’t want to own it, but know you owe it to your work after all the insufferable crap you put it through. Then, a last ditch dictionary catches your eye. Of all silly things, “writer” definition number three, befriends you. “Writer: Somebody who is able to write, who writes well, or who enjoys writing.”

When you bear a baby, you are a mother. And now you know; when you write, you are a writer. Because you love to write. Because even if you can’t gauge your skill, you are able, and that is all the definition asks of you.

Because you write novels, opinions, short stories, poems, memoirs, magazine articles, journal abstracts, screenplays, essays, love notes, maybe even ads or copy. Because even if you’ve never been published, you wrote something someone else never had the guts to.

But ever the critic, this caveat haunts you. Even if you crack that list or sell your movie, you will always worry that you are a poser. And you’ll ask it again to be sure.

What is it that makes me a writer?
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Jennifer Edelson is a Minnesota attorney and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities.

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