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Claim Yourself as a Writer
Until your call yourself a writer, you will never be a writer who writes--and keeps writing!

By Judy Reeves

The author of A Writer's Book of Days and Writing Alone, Writing Together, Judy Reeves is the co-founder of the nonprofit literary arts organization, The Writing Center. Based in San Diego, she teaches and leads creative writing workshops, and writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama.

Judy Reeves photo

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Gertrude Stein wrote, "To write is to write is to write is to write is to write." Who can say what she meant (she also wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose"), except perhaps exactly what she wrote: that writing is all and everything of it, the beginning and the end. That to write is to write. We just do it. How to get started writing? Write. How to keep going? Write.

Sadly, for many of us it just isn't that simple. We have trouble getting started, we have trouble keeping the pace and too often, we simply give up or our enthusiasm and determination trickle away, like a stream petering out. But because writing is in our hearts and souls and DNA, after a few weeks or months or even years, we're back at it again. More determined than ever that, this time, we'll stay with it. Maybe we do and maybe we don't. In my experience as a teacher, more often than not people don't stay with it. For some, the cycle repeats and repeats. Because we can't keep the thing going, we begin to judge ourselves failures at writing, our self-esteem goes the way of our tossed out pages, and after a while, it becomes more and more difficult to begin again.

This is heartbreaking. Because we are writers and when we aren't being fully and wholly ourselves--when a piece of ourselves is missing--we can never feel at home in the world or at peace within ourselves. Writing is who we are. Not all of who we are, but enough of who we are that when we're not writing, we're not whole.

Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing). Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say "I want to be a writer." Or "I'm a [fill in the blank] and I like to write." Or "I've always dreamed of being a writer." But they don't actually call themselves a writer. Think of all the other names you give yourself: man/woman, mother/father, wife/husband, friend, teacher, technician, masseuse, lawyer, gardener, chef. We take each of these names as a way of identifying ourselves, both to others and to ourselves. We are what we say we are. In some cultures, new names are assumed when character-evolving events take place. These names indicate the person has been transformed.

If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you'd like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, "I'm a writer." Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words. "But I haven't been published yet," you might say, as if this were the thing that would give you the right to call yourself writer. After all, when you tell people you're a writer, don't they always ask, "OK, and what have you published?" Listen to this: Being published doesn't have anything to do with being a writer! It has to do with earning money as a writer. Maybe. Getting some kind of validation and recognition, perhaps notoriety and fame. Though truth be told, the majority of published writers don't earn all that much money or notoriety or fame. We might say, to be published is to be published is to be published. To be sure, getting published is the aim of many of us. After all, we write to communicate, and having an audience is the flip side of the communication coin. But it is not the reason we write. We write because it is what we must do. Anne Sexton said, "When I am writing I am doing the thing I was meant to do."

Besides, once we are published, this doesn't mean we will stop writing. We will continue to write. This is what writers do. I have this vision of me at my writing table, a fat roll of butcher's paper at one end and a take-up reel with a crank at the other end. The paper just keeps passing beneath my pen and I just keep writing. As the old joke goes, "Old writers never die, they just keep revising the ending."

How do you claim yourself as writer? First, say it. "I'm a writer." Say it out loud. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it to your friends and family. Say it to the next person you meet at a party who asks, "What do you do?" Say it to a stranger in line at the grocery store. Say it to your mother. Mostly, say it to yourself: "I'm a writer."

Make a place for your writing, a sacred place where you go with joy as your companion, not dread or guilt or "shoulds" riding your shoulders like weights of sand. If you don't already have a room or specific place, make one. Take up a whole room or a section of a room. Before she created her own studio, my friend Wendy used a screen to separate her writing place from the rest of the living room. If the only place you can free up for your writing is part of a table, sometimes, when you're not eating on it, then make it a special place. When you go there for your writing, bring along a candle or lamp or some flowers, anything that transforms the space from the quotidian to the unique. Make it important and make it yours however you can. Claim the space.

Get the tools you need. Honor your writing with the kind of paper or notebook you like; buy your favorite pens by the box or spend a bundle on the Waterman or Mont Blanc you've always wanted. Have a computer that belongs to you--not one you have to share--and a good printer. It's amazing what just printing out your writing using a laser jet printer will do to make it look--and you feel--professional. Get a good dictionary, thesaurus, and stylebook. Find books on the craft and subscribe to writing journals.

Hang out with other writers. Go to readings and book signings, open mikes. Communicate with other writers. Drop a not to someone whose book you admire and tell them (not in a gushy, fan magazine kind of way, but as one writer to another). Sign up for workshops and conferences. Get in a group.

Read as a writer. Learn from the best. Study your favorite authors, and copy passages into your notebook to get the feel of their rhythm and style. Deconstruct their sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters to discover their techniques and their secrets. Read the work aloud and discuss the books with your writer friends. Next to the act of writing itself, reading good writing will be your best teacher.

This article was excerpted with permission from from Writing Alone, Writing Together copyright 2002 by Judy Reeves, published by New World Libary, Novato, California. Available in stores or at

For more information about Judy Reeves, please visit her website at


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