The Role of Author Identity

“Father was the eldest son and the heir apparent, and he set the standard for being a Rockefeller very high, so every achievement was taken for granted and perfection was the norm.”  ~David Rockefeller

How do you identify yourself as an author? On your blog, FB page, Twitter … do you specify whether you’re published or not? When you’re introducing yourself to other authors, do you quantify what you mean by “author” by prefacing your title with a ‘published’ or ‘unpublished’? Someone sent me a note on Twitter a short while ago and thanked me for the follow, then said that they were an unpublished author with one completed novel and hoped to “one day get a publishing deal.”

Not to downplay the achievement of publication, but does it really matter? I don’t mean utterly. Does it matter in the context of how you should be seen by others? Frankly … no. Why do I say that? Well, let’s think about this for a minute.

What did I do before I was published? I wrote. A lot.

What did I do after signing my first novel? I wrote. A lot.

What am I doing now that I’ve signed six novels? … you seeing a trend here yet?

In other words, it makes no difference. None at all. Maybe it would if I were bringing in millions of dollars a year. Maybe. But, actors don’t normally specify their calling with “working” or “out of work.” They do in movies, but not in real life. In real life, if they say anything at all about their status, it’s “I’m between roles.” Better yet, artists don’t quantify themselves at all. None that I know does. It would seem absurd for an artist to say “I’m an unknown artist.” Starving maybe … but not unknown. Why don’t you ever hear that? Because they’ve figured something out that a great deal of authors haven’t.

When was the last time you heard a mother say, “I’m a successful mother of two,” or “I’m a mother of two who hopes to one day be good at it.” Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

It doesn’t matter who validates your stuff. You’re still an author. Your personal validation is all that matters at the end of the day. I’ve read a lot of posts on this subject lately and for the most part authors seem to get the general concept, but there are still a few who struggle with their identity as writers. Who am I and what am I worth?

You’re worth a lot.

I know. I know. We’ve all felt the opposite of that statement. Keenly felt it in some cases. But, was Lewis worth any less before he was published? Tolkien? Woolfe? The very thought seems trite doesn’t it? Then why give yourself so much crap? Or is it that you’re not sure where you fit in? You don’t know who you are yet, so you can’t quantify how much your worth is? Let me say it again … with a bit more emphasis this time.

You’re worth a lot.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing you have that can never be truly taken from you. Your name. The worth of your name is directly correlated to the worth of your word. Do you mean what you say? Are you dependable? In that context, if you claim your name as an author, and you state your existence as an author with the authority vested in such a bold act, then you’re cementing your future. Think of it as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. If you start every session with those high expectations, you will find out how closely related to input, your output really is. You’ll find out that your worth is a lot more than you’d suspected.

My name is _________ and I’m an author.

There is power in a name. There is even more power in claiming that name as your own. You aren’t unpublished, or pre-published, or even published. You’re an author who happens to fit into one of those categories. You’re also an author who prefers your toilet paper roll either over or under, but you don’t bother attaching that to your name as an author, so why attach anything else to it? Why cheapen its value by weighing it down with unnecessary baggage?

It’s especially important, in this changing industry, to learn to identify yourself outside of the institution and its limitations. Don’t hedge yourself in, in an attempt to hedge your bets. It doesn’t work that way. A business doesn’t become successful because it waits for others to deem it worthy of success. It becomes successful because it started out with an identity and a goal and didn’t stop every five minutes to check up on itself. A healthy, thriving business model is one that, while keeping a finger on its customers’ pulse, keeps its eyes and ears on its mission statement. Its goal.

So, what is your mission statement as an author? What’s your purpose? What do you want to see from yourself, regardless of critical success or failure? Only after you’ve determined the answers to these questions, concretely or abstractly, will you be able to see the path marked before you with any sort of clarity.

Who are you? What are you worth?

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26 responses

  1. First, I want to say that I agree completely with your post. Completely.

    However, it’s no wonder that people believe they’re not really an author, a writer, unless they’re published. That is what the publishing industry tells people that want to be writers. You are not one unless we choose to publish you. It’s what agents tell people trying to get representation. Keep working. One day, when you’re good enough, when you’ve made it, when you’ve actually attained “author” status, you’ll find an agent. And it’s the same attitude that people in general have toward unpublished writers. “Oh, you may call yourself a writer, but you’re not published, so that’s not true. Talk to me again when you have a book deal.” They may acknowledge that you wrote a book or three, and that’s cool and all, but it doesn’t really make you a writer. It can be difficult for people to overcame all of that in their own heads when that is what they’re getting from, well, pretty much everyone else out there.

    Still, though, I agree with you.

    • The way I see it—if the apocalypse hits tomorrow, and the whole of the publishing industry collapses and I somehow survive … am I still an author?

      Damn right I am.

      Would I be, if I’d never been published?

      Damn right I would be.

      So why wait till the worst case scenario? If it’s just me, telling stories to the survivors in our little makeshift civilization … then so be it. An author is someone who writes stories, nothing more, nothing less. A writer is someone who writes … and that could be as simple as a memoir or journal entries. Sometimes the two blend, sometimes not. You can’t listen to the rest of the world. “They” have a habit of being wrong. I mean … flat earth? Really?

      I’m glad you agree with me. But, it sounds like there is a large portion of your internal framework that believes the hogwash you’re hearing elsewhere. And it isn’t from everyone else, just so you know. My own publisher, for example, sees no correlation whatsoever between publication and whether someone is an author/writer or not. Maybe I just got lucky enough to find a House that shares my beliefs. But, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. Just because that’s what you’re seeing on blogs and forums doesn’t mean that the majority of publishers/authors/agents believe this. It just means that those who do are more vocal than those who are too busy writing, publishing, repping and/or working on their craft to argue with totaldouchetard78 on some forum somewhere.

      As for agents who are under the impression that you’re not an author until you’re published … their livelihood depends upon you believing that. They have something at stake. They need to be able to offer you that ‘validation’ in order to make a living. I’m not bashing agents, but you have to take what they say in context. It’s all relevant.

      Family and friends and other non-writerly folk who believe that you aren’t an author till your published, will always have something to hold you against … a bar for success. They have bars for parenting and romantic relationships too, but you wouldn’t let them deter you from standing your ground then. Why let it deter you with something equally as soul-searing?

      If you write stories, then you’re an author. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an End Game concept.

      • Oh, no, it’s not my internal framework I was referring to. As I said, I completely agree with you. As in, I’m completely with you on that. However, I do follow the blogs of many, many other writers who haven’t been published, yet, and the mindset is virtually always that of the unpublished writer. Sometimes, there is even the question, “Is it okay to say that I’m a writer if I haven’t been published yet?”

        And, just to say it, I do think you got lucky. What I’m seeing from the big publishers (and agents) is a push that people can’t be authors unless they’re being published (by them). The longer they can keep people believing that they’re not really writers, the longer they retain control of what’s going on in the publishing industry.

        At any rate, I’m totally a writer. One book finished. One being worked on.

      • I don’t follow many blogs. Sad, but true. I do have some friends though who are with “big” houses. Other than a large advance and some premium shelf-placement, our experiences haven’t been all that different. There are positives and negatives on both sides. Personally, I’ll take my positives over their negatives any day of the week.

        Now, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to one day sign a 7 figure advance. But, until the money warrants leaving the perks behind, I’m perfectly satisfied with where I am.

        I agree … I got lucky. Rhemalda is made of awesome.

  2. I say I’m an author. Someone will invariably ask me, “Are you published?” Yes. It matters to them.

    A friend I hadn’t seen for a while asked, “Anything I’d know about?” Probably not. I probably don’t write in his genre. It doesn’t mean I’m not a legitimate author (there we go with the adjectives again), but I felt funny answering his question because he hadn’t heard of me, like that mattered. I don’t even know what sort of stuff he reads.

    I write historical and science fiction. Somehow I doubt this guy reads my stuff.

    Being able to explain yourself as an author is maybe more difficult than explaining yourself as an actor or an artist. The first everyone knows is always between jobs. The second, you can visibly see what they are doing. Authors sit in front of computers in coffee shops or in libraries or home offices for hours on end and after months or years finally produce something they hope will sell. Sometimes, like the actor and the artist, all we have is our belief in ourselves, no matter how miniscule, that this is more than what we do, it’s who we are.

    We are writers, we are creators. We are Authors.

  3. Since I’m married to an actor, I SO get this. It’s absolutely 100% ridiculous to think of my husband as not calling himself an actor if he’s not currently in a show or he hasn’t acted on Broadway or he hasn’t gotten paid for a show recently, or any of that crap. He’s an actor. Period. And I’m an author. Writer. Author. Writer. Who the heck cares what I call it? I write stories. Period. And I’ve always, always, always called myself that. One of the worst things that grates on my nerves is when writers ask that question of whether or not they’re an author. And one of the other worst things is authors who say they are aspiring authors. If you WRITE and you’re working on or have written a story, you’re an author. I could care less if you’ve been published…and let’s lay something else out on the table…WHO has published you. I am no less of an author than a Random House author or an agented author or any of that. I’m just tired of feeling down on myself for not being with a HUGE publisher. This post helped me see how lame those feelings really are, and how much I need to kick them straight out the door and never look back. Thank you, J.S., as always, for a brilliant post. I love your mind. 🙂

    • Darn right girl! I thought about my days back at the Springer, when I did theatre stuff and then got to thinking about my friend who is a potter … then I thought about you and Adam and that’s when the analogy really struck me.

      Yeah … aspiring authors. Sigh. I’m an aspiring human then. Then I have coffee and get over myself. 🙂

  4. I’M WORTH ALOT! 🙂 Thank you so much for writing this post. A good friend directed me here after I finally put my name on my blog after 5 months of anonymity. I’m now glad I did.

    • Yes Julie! You are definitely worth a lot, and I’m SO happy to hear that you took a step like you did with your blog. This tells me that not only are you worth a lot, you’re a brave soul and those are the very best kinds of souls. Much writerly love to you! And I hope to see you around here more at the Asylum 😀

  5. I have also come to this conclusion. It took me a long time. I listened to, and believed in, a lot of the “hogwash” that is out there, and I wasn’t following blogs. This was long before the blog was invented. But I had to make a choice. I had to decide what I wanted from myself. And I wanted to write…so I write. And write. And I am a write.

    Great post, Breanne!

  6. My brother and I published a magazine when we were teenagers. We printed it on a the mimeograph machine my mother used to produce the church bulletin, stapled the pages together and sold it for a profit at ten cents per copy. So I am a published author. I have published articles, reviews and opinion pieces as a guest on this and other blogs. I have published fiction in the “Notes” section of my Facebook profile. Guess what? It all counts. Being published is being published.

    But truthfully, what my “publishing” experience (which, I am fully aware, most people would dismiss) does for me is this: I can say, “I’m a writer,” with such conviction that I’m rarely asked about my credentials. When I am asked for them, I give them. Again, with conviction. Because I’m a writer. I know how to do what I do, and I do it to the best of my ability and with as every bit as much self-doubt as any best-selling novelist out there.

    I have no disrespect for editors, for agents, for publishing houses. It’s a tough job to support, coddle and head-butt self-important, insecure, neurotic people like me. But the need for an agent’s acceptance, an editor’s sanction, a publisher’s imprimatur, is simply a false need. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve handed in a term paper–by god, if you’ve freaking tweeted–you’re published.

    Next time somebody asks if I’m published, I think I’ll laughingly reply, “Who isn’t?”

    • You’re sorely missed here at The Asylum. I love this story and knowing your background makes it even funnier. And your last line, as well, is also absolutely classic!

  7. When I was a kid, I loved to write. I wrote poems, little stories, even tried my hand at longer works. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I was just someone who loved the writing process. It was a way of relaxing. Then, ten years ago when I began writing King’s Envoy, I realised I was on to something special. Special to me, that is. I became obsessed – for want of a better word – and had no real choice in whether I wrote or didn’t write. I HAD to write. Once the first ‘book’ was finished (it later turned into a trilogy but that’s another story) I realised I wanted to show it to someone else. I loved it, I thought it was good, but I needed someone else’s viewpoint just in case I was too close to my own work to see its flaws. It did have flaws, of course, but the responses in general were good. That was the moment when I knew I was a writer. Not an author – a writer. And now, ten years later, someone in the writing industry has shown faith in my work. Not just with encouraging words – I had those many times over from agents and publishers but none of them made a commitment – but with their hard-earned cash and also their reputation. That’s HUGE for me. And THAT was the moment I thought of myself as an author.
    So I guess it’s all down to how we each see ourselves. For me it was a process, a progression through learning a skill. I hope I have learned it well enough that others can enjoy what I have created. But even if they don’t – if no one else does – I am still what I am: both writer and author. And I love it!
    And you’re so right, JS – Rhemalda is awesomely awesome!

  8. Loved your post. There are so many roles in my life, but a few really define who I am (to me). Author, artist, mother, friend and earth-lover are the ones that come to mind first… But always, I am me. Even when I don’t necessarily enjoy the role I am playing at the time. Generally I don’t qualify myself with a tag to identify who I am because its just too complicated to pick just one.

  9. A writer is someone who writes. Period. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there think you’re not a writer until you’re published, so it’s easier to keep the writing to yourself rather than get the “are you published” questions. (Usually followed by a lot of really unhelpful advice based on false premises and out of date information.)

    It takes a lot of chutzpa to be able to say you’re a writer if you’re not published. Which seems unfair. Lots of people can say they’re golfers even though they’re not on the Pro Tour.

    • Yeah, I was in that “closet writer” phase for a while. There are moments that find me wishing in no small way that I was still there. And I’d say that there are times when it takes a certain amount of chutzpa (one of my favorite words, BTW) to say you’re a writer even when you are published, because then people always ask you questions about how many books you’ve sold, etc. As if it’s any of their business.

      LOVE the golf analogy. Reminds me of something my mother-in-law said at Thanksgiving once (pre-publication for me): She asked me why I was bothering to put so much energy and effort into something that was never going to get published. I asked her why she bothered to play tennis every week when she was never going to be a professional. You’d have to know her to know that she genuinely didn’t mean it the way it came out, but still … the analogy stands. Why shouldn’t we be able to call ourselves writers/authors regardless of our credentials?

      And yes, absolutely about the advice. I’ve gotten my fair share of that from lots of well-meaning people. Always entertaining. And annoying.

  10. I’ve often had that feeling. The one where I feel a bit like I’m not a writer because I have nothing to prove it. I suppose it’s more of a point of what society deems is a writer, for it’s society that makes us hesitate to declare ourselves writers if we’re not published.

    But it is a crappy hole to get stuck in. The bottom line, if you write, you are a writer.

  11. Brilliant post, JS. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. “Author”, I thought, was exclusively the domain of people with published novels. Whenever someone referred to me as an author, I gently corrected them.

    Thanks for this post. I have shared it on my Facebook page.

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