Mitch James

Fiction Writer, Poet, Educator

A Writer

           Four or five days a week, I get up at 3 a.m. and write until 5 a.m. I go to work, where I teach writing, read and respond to student writing, spend hours talking with students about their writing, my writing (all kinds of writing), and then go home. This does not count the dozens of emails a day I write, does not include the notes I type on my research or the research I write on the weekends, does not count the grocery receipt after grocery receipt with the first lines of poems that will never make it to the final draft, cocktail napkins with dialogue from stories unwritten. All this writing and more I do, regularly. It’s writing I have to do.

            Despite my writing regimen, I am slow to confess to others that I’m a writer. My handful of creative publications and few academic publications are not enough for me to announce to the known world that I am a writer, though I know I am. I feel this way because being a writer and being known as a writer are two different identities that I feel too many people who write conflate.

            Unestablished writers not taking themselves or the work they do seriously, simply because they are not established, is a real problem. However, people thinking that because they write they should be identified as writers is a problem too, perhaps a bigger one. I put a new alternator in my truck, but I’m not a mechanic, unclogged a drain, but I’m not a plumber, used a chain saw from the peak of my roof to clear branches away, but I’m not a tree trimmer.

            You get it.

            I’m going to make a very unpopular statement, I imagine, to many writers and, certainly, to many teachers of writing. Here goes. Just because you can write or do write doesn’t make you a writer. Just because you have written, doesn’t mean others will or should perceive you as a writer. This rule applies to me too.

            First, just because you write doesn’t make you a writer. I have students in classes, students who are forced to be in those classes, forced to write narratives and research papers. Those students, they work hard. Many write well. Yet, when they leave my class, most will never write within those genres again or ever care to. Most will forget much of what they learned and feel no loss. Did they write? You damn right they did. Did they work hard and do well? Sure. Are they writers. No.

            People who write for a composition course, or who doodle in a book here and there, or write a poem every time they’re pissed at their parents or when some guy dumps them, to say that these folks are writers is unfair to those who are, and by those who are, I mean those of us who write regularly, who sacrifice time, love, money, friendships, and camaraderie for the written word. By those who are, I mean those who must write. By this definition, I consider myself a writer; writing at 3 a.m.; writing in my mind in the shower; writing on my phone at red lights; writing on cocktail napkins and receipts; writing on ripped off corners of students’ papers. I will write. Nothing has ever stopped me. Not a fifty-hour work week while going to college full time. Not poverty. Not being ridiculed by friends or family. Not sucking at it. Not being told I’ll fail. Not having professors tell me my grammar and mechanics are too weak. Not being told to put away the thesaurus. Not hundreds of rejection letters. Nothing. I am a writer, and I know it.

            Being known as a writer, recognized as such, that is a different story.

            Being known as a writer is a privilege, an accomplishment, something earned, garnered. It’s a recognition by those you admire, recognition by the world of your skill. I might write my whole life and always be viewed as a professor, never a writer. I write all of the time and will continue to. It doesn’t seem fair that when I sit down and do my taxes, my occupation isn’t “writer” or “professor and writer.” It doesn’t seem fair that I spend so much time writing but that if I tell people I’m a writer with few publications, no novels, nothing much that they can buy, they might guffaw under their breath, think I’m living a pipe dream or that I’m in denial.

            You know what? Not everyone gets a fucking trophy.

            There might be a day when I find myself flying to another state to read my work at some university; a day when I’m interviewed about my craft; a day after I’m dead and some graduate student culls through my oeuvre. When that happens (except for when I’m dead), I will feel a sense of fulfillment and pride, a sense of accomplishment I’ve always yearned for, and I will feel it because I don’t shit myself or others by saying I’m that person now. I’m not a writer in that way, the way most would understand a writer to be. Nobody thinks of me that way, and they shouldn’t because it’s dishonest. Though I’ve not risen to being known as a writer, I can tell you from the land of can’t, the land of rejection and three a.m. mornings, that if being known as a writer is what really matters to you, you’ve probably failed already because you are relying on others to be what you want to be.

            If you want to be a writer, be it. Write. Have to write. Prove it to yourself first. If you fail yourself, you’ll fail everyone else. Write when you think you can’t. Write before the world stirs, before your child wants to feed, before your spouse needs you. Be a writer. Then maybe, just maybe, someday the world will take notice and confirm what you’ve always known to be true.

            But wait until you earn it. Don’t take away from the true accomplishment of your success by awarding it to yourself simply because you write.