What I Mean When I Say, "I'm a Writer"

Back in December, I went on a do-it-myself writing retreat. I booked a room in a hotel a couple of towns over and holed up there for the weekend. I wrote as much that weekend as I usually write in a week. (Having a soak in a whirlpool tub dangled as a reward helped.) I realized on Sunday, as my weekend came to an end, that for the first time, I'd felt like a "real" writer. Not a dabbler or a hobbyist, but an actual, true, dyed-in-the-wool writer.

Since then, I've been thinking quite a bit about what it means to say, "I'm a writer." The simple answer, of course, is that I write, therefore I'm a writer. Except, things are never that simple, are they?

I make my living writing and editing educational materials. Does that make me a writer? Lately, the answer has felt more and more like, "No." The writing and editing I do for my "day job" doesn't feel like mine. I have no ownership of it. My name is not on it. I do not decide the parameters of each project, parameters that seem increasingly arbitrary with each new project. Those parameters--usually driven by the needs and requirements of the public education system--often leave little room for creativity and exploration. Some are downright soul-sucking. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions are heavily outweighed by the rules. There's no sense of fulfillment in the work. It's just a paycheck. A rather irregular, inconsistent paycheck, at that. More and more often, I have to take on greater amounts of work to make ends meet. I frequently find myself wondering how else I could earn a living.

So what writing does fulfill me? Two kinds: writing history and writing fiction.

I used to write semi-regularly for a now-defunct history magazine for kids. It paid a pittance, but I loved it. Since that magazine shut down, I have not been able to find a replacement. I would love to return to that kind of writing again.

Then there's writing fiction. Whether it's spinning a NYC Midnight flash fiction story in a weekend or plodding away piece by piece on my novel-in-progress, that's the writing that makes my heart sing. The writing that energizes and satisfies me. The writing I want to nurture and grow and develop. The writing I want to strengthen by attending conferences and participating in the larger writer community.

The writing that always has to take a backseat to the writing I need to do to support myself and all the myriad tasks and responsibilities I have as a single, self-supporting woman. I never have enough money or time to attend conferences or even participate in the blogging community. If I'm lucky, I might have an hour a night to devote to "my" writing. Most nights, I don't have that much. Hardly enough to produce the thousand or more words my writer friends seem to produce daily or find markets to submit my short stories or, should by some miracle I finish my novel, find an agent to represent me. Hardly enough to make me feel like anything other than a dabbler or a hobbyist. Hardly enough to give me hope that someday I might actually publish something with my name on it.

So how can I say I'm a writer when so little of what I produce is truly mine? When the writing I have to do robs me of the time and energy I need for the writing I want to do?