When is a writer a writer?

Julie Please welcome guest blogger and writer Julie McDowall. This is her story of how she became a published writer.  As you know, we love to hear from you, so do please leave a comment and/or ask Julie a question. 🙂

When Is A Writer A Writer?

I always wanted to be a writer. Aside from being a nurse or a suffragette or to be off building schools in Tanzania could there be anything more worthy and fine? I longed to be a writer: sitting at my desk all day, serene, shielded from the world, inking delicious words onto pristine paper.

But what business did I have with serenity? There was a rat race to be run. Every day I’d get on the 8.14 train to Glasgow Central to work in an air-conditioned office where the air conditioner never worked. Breathing in stale air, and getting stressed, irritable, sapped of all inclination to write. Back home in the evening, I’d sit at my desk and try to conjure up that wonderful image of the writer, the one I wanted to be: a proud and lofty lover of literature who effortlessly etched words, sentences, chapters, whole novels onto the page. But I couldn’t do it. I was too grimy with the working day. Weighed down by stats and sodden with spreadsheets and weary with monthly targets and office politics and who’s getting promoted and did you see she was late again?

I was a million miles away from being a writer. I didn’t have a room of my own, I had a desk shoved under the window. I didn’t have a proper writing desk, I had a wobbly IKEA table. I didn’t have clarity and metaphor, I had a loyalty card for my staff canteen.

How can I ever become a writer, when the writer’s life is so far removed from mine?

content Growing up, there were no books of note in our household. There were a few by Danielle Steele or Catherine Cookson, and I remember one on how to lose weight with self-hypnosis, but nothing substantial. Nothing for me to cut my teeth on. I was always aware of gaping holes in my literary education and so clung to the classics in my teenage years. If it was heavy and Victorian them it must be good. I had no self-confidence in my reading, and so none at all in my writing. I needed the branding of Victoriana. Little wonder, then, that I grew up with a skewed and romantic image of what a writer is. How can you be a writer without moors to wander on? How can you create a character who doesn’t wear a crinoline? Are you allowed to put swear words in a novel? Can books be funny?

So I curdled in my ignorance. I made silly attempts at flowery writing, aping the classics. I told myself I couldn’t write until I was alone and unfettered (and no doubt with wild pre-Raphaelite hair), until I was occupying some overblown Victorian fantasy of what a writer should be.

I wrote little and published nothing.

Then, on a whim, I began a blog on WordPress where I’d write about my experiences in online dating. This wasn’t writing, of course, it was just a chance to jot down my crazy tales and make people laugh.

Readers began sharing it on Facebook and Twitter and commenting on how they loved reading it and what a ‘good writer’ I was. I was baffled. This isn’t me as a ‘writer’. This is just a silly way to entertain people. To make them feel the hope and horror that I felt, and to get them wondering what will happen next. To make them forget the dull world for ten minutes and escape with me into my adventures.

Then it struck me, isn’t that exactly what a ‘writer’ is supposed to do?

Without knowing it, I had accidentally become a writer. I had exploded into prose which was funny and scathing and sordid and blunt. I had been shorn of my Victoriana.

Light as a balloon and full of confidence, I e-mailed my blog to HeraldScotland.com to ask if they’d consider publishing it. I smiled as I sent the e-mail, marvelling at how brazen I was. No more flowery idealism. I’ve written a powerful, punchy blog about men and dating and sex and I have the temerity to badger The Herald newspaper with it. Hear me blog!

The digital editor replied and asked to meet me. A few weeks later, my blog was smack-bang on the front page of HeraldScotland.com and where it now appears each week.

During a catch-up meeting with the editor a few months later he suggested I contact a Scottish publisher called Blasted Heath. They mainly publish crime, but it may be worth a try…

Blasted Heath

A few weeks later, I had signed a contract with them. My blog is now appearing as an e-book and paperback in two volumes, called Casting The Net. Uncut, uncensored, witty, cruel and brazen as hell. The opposite of the lofty Victorian writer I thought I had to be.

So when is a writer a writer? When you are writing from the heart, from the nerves, from the very bones. When you shudder and pause and think ‘oh dear, should I write that?’ and you then plunge on regardless, saying ‘Yes! Because that is how it was.’ When you are able to clamber across the barricades of what is expected, and of what is nice, and spill onto the paper your true self.

That’s when you’re a writer.



You can buy  Casting the Netfrom Amazon from today!



Twitter @ariel_mcdowall

Julie is also the editor of The Puffin Review



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15 Responses to When is a writer a writer?

  1. When is a writer a writer? Interesting question. You could say whenever they themselves say they are. Who defines what we are other than ourselves? This article reminds us that so much of life is “right place at the right time”. Combine that with perseverance and talent and the world may yet be your oyster. Good luck to Julie in all she sets out to achieve.


    • Hi Paul, absolutely, luck has a lot to do with everything and combined with skill and perseverance it can help us reach or goals. I also think taking the right opportunities when they present themselves has lot to do with success. It’s that thing Shakespeare said about … “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune …”
      Thanks for comment 🙂

  2. Ruth Hunt says:

    Really interesting post. It shows that to write you simply need to write and if you write about things that you know about or are passionate about, you will enjoy it, whether you are published or unpublished. I think a lot of people do have initially a romantic view of what a writer is. As soon as you get going the romantic image is replaced with the often grim reality. I think this post, encourages us to get our work out there. Submit it into competitions, blog about it. It’s all practice and anything can happen!

    • That is my feeling exactly. As you say, there is an idea that writing is a romantic pursuit and the prerogative of a literary few who have some magical writing gene. The reality is different. Almost all writers are ordinary, normal people, yes, they have talent, yes, they have skill, but they are also not afraid to take risks or work hard to achieve their dream. Absolutely, if you are determined enough, anything can happen.

  3. This prompted me to do some reflecting… I’ve never had any trouble calling myself a writer, because I’ve been writing for a living for 20+ years (always non-fiction).

    But I wouldn’t call myself a novelist, because even though I’ve written one, it still isn’t published and hasn’t had that external stamp of approval from Someone Else, like the one we get from being paid to do our jobs.

    Maybe we should say “I am such-and-such…” based on our passions, rather than our pay cheques! So on that basis, I am a novelist. 😉

    • I think it is wrong to define ourselves and what we do by our pay cheques but the pressure is on us to do so. I know people who are artists and painted all their lives and made very little money from it – certainly not enough to live off – and they rightly call themselves artists. So, yes, when you have written at least one novel you are a novelist, regardless of the income the novel generates.

  4. Katie says:

    Hi Marianne

    When is a writer a writer? Interesting question I think its when you decide to be one. And start putting words on paper. Its up to you what type of writer you are. I agree with Ruth I think people create this idea of writer, like when I was a kid I used to think of writers as creative orbs that wrote under trees. But really its just the case of setting aside time a writing what you feel strongly about, then you are a writer published or unpublished.
    Interesting blog post.

    • Yes, published or not, if we write regularly, we are writers. Of course, we are. But there is an incredible pressure on us writers to have what we do validated by publication. Likewise, there is an incredible misunderstanding of what a writer is and what a writer does … the romantic idea of writers being special and mysterious, effortlessly writing stories under a tree or in an attic persists despite all the evidence to the contrary: studies show successful writers are people who work very hard, are not afraid to take chances and don’t give up! Onwards! 🙂

  5. I still think the ‘validation’ of publication is needed before someone can call themselves a writer. Earnings and fame are irrelevant, but the stamp of publication is necessary. We wouldn’t call someone who ambles onstage in a concert hall and starts striking the piano keys a ‘concert pianist’ so I don’t think we can call ourselves ‘writers’ just because we write. It can’t be – and shouldn’t be – as easy as that.

    • I think what “publication” can do is give us the confidence to carry on. For most of us, writing is about pegging away and “publication” helps us to keep going in the face of continuous self doubt – that fear of the blank page doesn’t seem to ever go. It allows us to hone our skills with the bit more belief. And while, I agree, we wouldn’t call someone who writes the occasional poem or odd short story a writer, there are an awful lot of good writers out there who “write” on a regular basis but who are not published despite seeking publication. For me this doen’t make them any less of a writer. There are so many factors which affect us “getting published” and being able to write well is only one of them – and even then, we have all read published books which are badly written. John Kennedy Toole won a posthumous Pultizer Prize For fiction in 1981 for his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which wasn’t published until eleven years after his death ( he committed suicide in despair at not being able to get published). He was a a very good writer but had the misfortune not to find an editor or agent who had the vision and/or the courage to recognise it. John Gardner (who wrote the novel Grendel and a whole heap of books on writing and was Raymond Craver’s tutor) wrote for years before he was published and famously carried his work around with him in boxes. He wrote regularly and rightly called himself a writer, as others did, including his pupil, Raymond Craver (who I think was published before John was.). And, yes, to write well is not easy. I agree. It is a skill. It requires a lot of effort to hone our craft and to be good at it and that is what marks out a writer for me : a writer is a writer when we start to take our writing seriously, when we start to write regularly, and passionately, and when we seek to tell our story in the best way we can and don’t stop until we have. A writer is a writer who carries on writing despite not being published – and that really isn’t easy at all.
      Thanks again for a great guest post!

  6. Wendy Clarke says:

    I agree with Julie above. I didn’t call myself a writer until I had my first story published and started making an income from it. This was the proof I needed (both for myself and others) that it wasn’t just a whim or a hobby. I think that it is subjective, though.

  7. Ruth F. Hunt says:

    Interesting discussion going on here! What of those people who are self published are they any less of a writer than one traditionally published? It could be that publishers wary of risk are only publishing sure bets. Whereas someone who is coming up with original, even experimental fiction may not be published. Who is to to say who is a writer and who isn’t. We shouldn’t be sniffy about publishing these days as the industry is changing so much. Somebody who spends each day writing, can hardly be called anything else than a writer. In art if you paint you are an artist whether you choose to sell or not. Why is this different in writing?
    Interesting discussion, thanks to Julie and Marianne.

    • I think it is very much an individual way of feeling, as Julie and Wendy said, until they were published they didn’t feel they could call themselves “writers”. I don’t feel like that at all. For some of us, being a writer has little to do with being published – self published or otherwise. It really is an interesting discussion.

  8. TheGirl says:

    Hhhmmmm…..I think anyone can be a writer. I know someone who gets up at 5 a.m and writes until noon, although he is not interested in publishing.

    I even read another post where someone asked the difference between a writer and an author. An author is someone who is published (traditionally, I might add), while a writer is anyone with a pen, or keyboard.

    I don’t get caught up in labels. Even though I am releasing my debut novel, I don’t think I’ve called myself a writer.

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