At what point does writing become a job? At what point do we shift from being a person who writes as a hobby, to one who writes as a professional? Is it when writing takes up a certain amount of our time, regardless of how much we are paid? Or is the pay factor important? There is obviously a huge difference between someone who pulls in one hundred dollars a year, and someone who pulls in tens of thousands – but there is also a wide stretch of grey area in between these points. When do we make the transition from one side to the other?
People often say that they’re a writer, but what is a writer? Are you a writer if you can put pen to paper (fingers to keys) and create something coherent? If you write a significant amount each day? If you write a single breathtaking poem once every five years? If you spend twelve hours a day writing fan fiction you don’t let anybody else read? Once someone reads your work? Once your work appears in print? Are you only really a writer when someone else labels you as such?
The matter is complicated by the fact that many of Australia’s most prolific, insightful and influential writers have other day jobs, as do most other writers for whom the pastime remains a hobby. People who have never earned money from their writing classify themselves as professional writers, while others who derive a regular income from it shy away from that classification.
Many heated debates have been had over what, exactly, qualifies someone as a professional writer. Unlike other industries, there is no uniform position description; there is not necessarily a formal accreditation. There is so little that is concrete. People become writers after studying and gaining qualifications in professional writing, or in something unrelated, or with no qualifications at all. Some people write their first stories when they’re young, and some start writing during middle age. There is no factor which reliably defines a writer other than their ability to write – but every piece of work is different, and writing itself subjective.
The manuscript of my debut novel, In the Quiet, received five offers from different publishers (which I’m still having trouble fathoming). However, there were still some publishers who passed on it. It really hit me, harder than it ever had before, how subjective writing and reading is. I always felt that my writing was either good enough, or it wasn’t. But now I realise that one person’s ‘good enough’ is different from another’s – and that’s okay.
To me, the writing world seems immeasurable. Even achievements that are measurable – how many articles have I published? How many words have I written? – are approached from an immeasurable context. This context has us question further: How many words are enough? Which publications are best? How can I make this story better? The act of writing is completed alone and the writer’s thoughts, often, are twisted and distorted. We adore a scene – or an article – while we’re writing it, only to re-read it and feel like it could have been better handled by a five year old after a litre of red cordial.
Because of the immeasurable and subjective nature of writing – of being a writer – the goal posts are forever shifting. I was fixated on writing a Book. Then I was fixated on getting my short stories published, because I felt certain I would be a Proper Professional Writer once that happened. I then became fixated on short story competitions and awards. Lastly, I decided to try and write non-fiction for Big Important Publications, because then I would be a Proper Professional Writer. And now I am baffled by and fixated on social media. I have felt more like a Proper Professional Writer since I signed my book deal, but this has not lessened my uncertainty, my anxiety. It’s just transferred it onto different things. I am working on my second novel and mostly feel deranged and confused; unable to figure out the value of what I am writing.
There is so much conflict around defining ourselves. There is so much subjectivity, so much which cannot be measured or gauged. The goal posts never stop moving. And that’s okay. Writing is a murky business.