When I first started teaching in 2000, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to do the very thing I was being paid to do: teach college-level writing. It was my first year of graduate school, and as part of my assistantship, I had to teach two classes a semester, for which I would be paid a small stipend—enough to keep me alive until next semester. Being ambitious and curious, I opted to teach two sections of non-native composition, meaning the students had all come from other countries (in this university, mostly South America and the Middle East) and had a fair command of the language. I vividly recall the first day of teaching...once I mustered up the strength to ascend the stairs to the third floor and actually enter the classroom, I met a sea of faces who stared back at me with equal trepidation. Somehow, I muddled through, reading the syllabus, taking roll, offering some insights for how to do well in the course. By the time it ended, I felt elated, relieved, confused, excited; after all, now I was a teacher! Or was I?
The university called me an “instructor” from the day I walked through the door; my students called me everything from instructor to professor to “Dr. Professor Sir.” When I corrected one of them, saying “oh, I’m just a graduate student,” she responded, “but you are getting paid for this, yes? Then you are a professor.” At the time, I said to myself, you know, you’re right—I’m getting paid, therefore I’m a professional instructor. Simple as that. To make things worse, I won a teaching award after my very first year of teaching, which really made me think I knew what was up. Fast forward seventeen years to 2017. Even today, as a full professor of English with tenure at a small regional university, I hesitate to call myself a “professor.” I know I am, and that I’ve earned the distinction over many long years of trial and error, but still...do I really know what I’m doing? And if I have reservations now, seventeen years later, what the hell did I know in 2000 that I dared to call myself an instructor?!
Of course, the simple truth is that yes, I was an instructor in 2000. An instructor and a beginner. I was still learning, even more of a student than my students. I took notes from them every single day, and passed a thousand self-administered quizzes on everything from classroom management to grading assignments. I clearly had a long way to go, even though I was being paid, even though I was by most people’s definition “a professional.” I think this analogy applies to writing as well, which is why I spent so much time setting it up. Anyone can pretty much write a book and publish it these days: there are programs to help you outline, invent plot, flesh out characters, even do research. And once you have the book written, it only takes a few mouse clicks and you’re published on Amazon KDP, or Smashwords, or whatever platform you prefer. And that makes you...what? An author? A writer? Both? Neither?
I’ve been writing even longer than I’ve been teaching, probably since 1991, though I pecked away at stories as early as the mid-80’s, when I was still in grade school. I wrote my first novel in 1993, and though it’s long since destroyed, it started a journey of writing that has continued, unbroken, to the present. So what do I call myself today? This is somewhat tricky, since I’ve never traditionally published a novel or short story and certainly don’t make my living at it. However, since 2007 I’ve been publishing academic articles—21 to date, from journal articles to book chapters—and many of them have paid me good money. So in that sense, I am a professional, though none of this impresses literary agents who consider me to have “zero writing cred.” So again, what the hell am I?
I think every would-be writer should consider the difference between the words “writer” and “author.” In a sense, the modern world has given everyone the ability to blink and become an author. After all, once you publish a book on-line and your best friend buys it, you’re an author—a professional, in a sense. But on the same hand, you can be a professional and have no earthly idea what you’re doing. That was certainly the case with me for my first 5 or 6 years as a professor. So what does it mean to be a “writer”? Can anyone do that, too? And if so, how long does it take? Six months? A year? A lifetime???
In a sense, yes, I think a writer is a life-long vocation. You can’t be a writer overnight, or in a year, or maybe even in two. It takes different times for different people, but you know you’ve become a writer when it’s an obsession. When everything you see and read and think becomes fodder for a future novel, or story, or poem. When you simply want to write things down to get a feel for the words, or even to hear a good sentence. Have you ever experienced that—the pure joy of writing a single perfectly-balanced, cleverly-worded sentence? Do you read with a pencil or pen in hand, looking for great descriptions, great phrases, or anything that will inspire you in years to come? I think you also become a writer when you write something better than what you initially imagined. I used to always be so disappointed when I had these great ideas that never really panned out. Nowadays, my ideas seem childish and stupid until the writing gets underway. Then I see how good it should have been all along.
However, I think you really become a writer when you don’t do it for the money at all. When you’re not trying to become an author or someone famous or to sell books or to see your name on some damn list or someone’s blog. You have to want to write for yourself, for your own enjoyment, for your own peace of mind. If writing makes you sane, and not writing makes you lose your mind, then you’ve probably become a writer. That kind of transformation takes time to achieve, since most of us start writing for all the wrong reasons. Even now, most of us still want to be famous, to be read by a million people whenever we publish a book. But even if that doesn’t happen—and hell, it’s probably not going to happen—we don’t stop writing. We keep going because we don’t know how to do anything else. It’s become like breathing and eating and watching our favorite movie; part of the beauty of life itself.
After my first semester of teaching, a student wrote on my class evaluation: “he’s very enthusiastic but a little disorganized. But that’s okay, he’s still young, so he can learn.” That’s the best advice I’ve ever been given about teaching—you can still learn. So even if you’re not a writer right now, or tomorrow, you can still learn to be one. Even if you’ve already become an author and don’t know how to write that second book. After all, it takes more than one book to make a writer...but hopefully not as many as Steven King. I think we need an entirely new name for whatever he is!