Who Am I to Call Myself a Writer?


I wonder how many of us are suffering because we didn’t write to encourage, caution or entertain.

I am writing to the high school and college students who dream of publishing their first novel, yet cringe at the idea of prematurely calling themselves “writers”.

I am writing to the dutiful professionals who finally make time to write that story in their heads, yet painfully stare at their blinking cursors. The last thing they want to do is spoil that pristine blank page by typing “writer’s block, writer’s block, I’m suffering from another case of writer’s block” all over it.

I am writing to those compelled to put aside writing for what they perceive are rightful duties until their dreams dwindle to mere talk and, sometimes, regret.

If you think you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer, I daresay I’m worse than you. I love literature but took up science instead, thinking I wouldn’t have to become another poor suffering writer, yet the urge to write remained. When my grades tanked in my third year of university, I took up writing again alongside getting my degree, and even with well-meaning advice, I still couldn’t give up the words I’d written.

I got published in not one but two books (a nonfiction essay and a horror short story), and I can now claim to be a mathematician because of an original piece of research I did. I also blogged, or at least I used to. I churned out words regularly on Scrivener but I kept hitting an invisible wall once I had 20k words, or around fifty pages, of any novel project done.

I landed the opportunity to write for Huffington Post, and I was elated. However, after at least one reader discovered a calculation mistake in one of my maths posts, all my other submitted posts never made it to publication. Never. I tried in vain to reach the editors in charge so that I could fix the typo, but I received no response at all. Since my master’s studies had just begun, I had no choice but to give up on HuffPost.

Halfway through my studies, I joined an online writing group at a critique forum. Back then I registered at the critique forum because I was convinced that a writers’ community could help me succeed as a writer. The writing group had been supportive throughout my studies and the I-didn’t-know-it-was-bad job at a tuition centre in my neighbourhood. I applied for the job because the data science skills picked up during my degree fell short of what employers were seeking. The writing group also publishes one or more anthologies annually, and I thought they would be a great place for me to refine my writing skills and pad my publication record.

After I left that tuition job, I tried to convey my story of how I survived it, but somehow I had lost the ability to express myself clearly, and the newly installed leader of the group, who was the anthology coordinator, appeared aloof and cold to me. I guess it’s hard not to have strong reactions when someone attacks your personal story. On top of that, some other group members voiced their displeasure of me. There was nothing of that sort before and during my time slaving away in the tuition centre. If I stayed, I would be kowtowing to their whims too.

In anger and disappointment, I left that group, even though that meant cutting off future publication opportunities with them. But I couldn’t stand the pain I had felt during my final weeks there. Had that tuition centre story made it through, I would have had it published this October (2018). Everyone would have known how horribly I had been treated in the workplace and would have become more careful with their career choices.

Then I languished, dragging my fingers to the keyboard and typing gibberish, in the months leading up to July’s CampNaNo, still unable to erase my muscle memory of typing the forum URL. I also missed giving feedback on others’ writing because that forum had special critique tools, and every valid critique I made allowed me to post my own works-in-progress. I still remember the stories they shared of their families and communities. Everyone’s posts and comments were also clearly organised in threads. Had I made a mistake leaving my former writing buddies behind?

But the dog days passed. I managed to organise a writing session for my July 2018 CampNaNo cabin, where everyone else was a stranger. That day, I asked everyone to introduce themselves with their name, followed by “I am a writer.” A cabin mate said she was a “wannabe writer?” I clarified that the sentence “I am a writer” is an affirmation to encourage us to write. My cabin had a friendly demeanour and a positive tone, the latter of which I missed ever since some of the writing group members began sharing unhappy stories.

Furthermore, thanks to several new books†, I’ve since found and joined several writing groups on social media – all for free. (The forum operated on a freemium basis, and I forfeited six months of paid subscription to avoid getting hurt again.) Though I miss not being able to give feedback using the forum’s tools, now I may be in a healthier place for creative work than in the past. I even got to post my thoughts on outlining for the NaNoWriMo blog‡. Had I looked for validation from others, had I stayed with the familiar, I wouldn’t have written this for you today.

I’ve since learned that I am either the path or the obstacle to my writing, and I gave myself permission to write. That’s why I call myself a writer.

† The books are listed below. I hope you’ll find them as helpful as I did 🙂

‡ A reader asked,

Can you clarify the nature of the ideas you plotted and then binned? Are they story ideas, story beats, etc?

My detailed reply: 

The ideas have to do with your story. They’re all What-ifs, random ideas, quotes, scenes, ideas for scenes, ridiculous notions, pretty much anything. If you’ve gone through some outlining prompts such as this one for worldbuilding and those in K. M. Weiland’s book mentioned above, you’ll have plenty of ideas. Even contradictory ideas are okay because you’re still in the planning stages, where no idea is too precious to have to stay.

The main point is, get your creative juices flowing and don’t censor yourself.

The bins are the story beats which other writers have covered, such as the hook, the inciting event and pinch points. Instead of looking at the beat and coming up with the ideas, I say, “Firstly, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can. Next, file them under whichever story beat it could be in. Finally, free-write.” That’s the essence of the “jot, bin, pants” method.