The other day I was sitting next to a couple of other writers (both published in non fiction/academic) at the coffee shop where I write most days, when I became aware that they were discussing the TV show Castle and specifically, Nathan Fillion's character, a mystery author. Being a fan of the show, I tuned in in time to hear one of them say "I do all of those things, it's almost as if it was written by actual writers!"
A bit of stammering later, it came to light that the chap speaking had meant to say 'Authors'. And that's a fine distinction as far as it goes. I won't embarrass him further or force him to defend his position by giving out his email address and Twitter handle, (Wait... do college professors Twitter? Maybe not.). It certainly begs that eternal question that troubles everyone who ever put words on a page: When are you a real writer? I mean really real. Willing to put it on a business card real.
The easy answer is when you're making a living at it, but that leaves out a whole slew of people who are avidly putting words on paper, including a lot of well-known authors who've kept their day jobs. You may recall that on the first day of National Novel Writing Month, the Office of Letters & Light reported 150,000 writers fed over 55 million words through their word-counting app on that one day alone. And their website was down and unavailable for a good part of the day!
This all ties into why I had such a problem with that Salon rant. Because it implies that the people who are already "in" are "in" and everyone else is "out" and needs to stay and consume what the hip kids darn well tell them to. I stand opposed to that sort of cool-kid clique mentality.
But that brings us back around to the question... Are those people allowed to self-identify as Writers?
You're darn tootin.
In my not-so-humble opinion, it's about devoting yourself to the art of storytelling, to feeding our culture and keeping it alive and kicking in the mind of readers and writers everywhere. At the end of the month, for good bad or indifferent, you wrote a novel. Does that make you an author? If not, then what does?
I've heard other attempts to cut this knot: professional memberships, critical reception, academic degrees... all of which are easily dispensed with by holding up significant contributions to the canon by people who don't fit those pigeon holes. The one thing they all had in common was dedication to the art of arranging words on a page to evoke an emotion in the mind.
Being a writer is more than a profession.
So, while writers exist on a continuum like every other calling, and there are certainly laymen aplenty, I hate to hear anyone say that one variety of writer is 'real' and another is... fake? I hardly think so. For decades, my teachers told me JRR Tolkien and Ray Bradbury weren't real writers and their books weren't real books. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now.
The guys in the cafe are walking the same path as Mark Bowden, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, JRR Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Helen Fielding, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker, Nora Roberts, Jonathan Franzen, the people who write Castle, the NaNoWriMoers and all the rest. Some of us will never earn a living or gain critical acclaim or even critical notice. That's the way it goes.
Some time ago, I was on the phone with my friend Joan. Joan lives in New York and has worked in various capacities for some of the big publishing houses and her husband still does. At some point in the conversation she asked what I was up to and I said "Oh, still trying to be a writer..."
As I recall, there was a moment of silence on the other end of the line and then "Stop saying it like that. You've put the time in, Scott. You are a writer." Then she offered to fly out to Seattle and kick my ass.
(Now that's a good friend.)
Our side trips may be different and we'll each get something different from the trip, but if we're willing to put our time in, then we are all pilgrims on the same road. Society's designated dreamers don't need a license, a degree or permission to dream. Never have, never will.
You've put enough time into this that you've asked yourself the question and this is one of those times when asking the question is the answer.
And if necessary, I can see if Joan is available to fly out and kick you in the ass.