Thinking back on it, it’s hard to determine at what moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. I remember checking out baseball bats from the playground monitor in elementary school, then using them as guns as I either role played being a soldier lost behind enemy lines or a big game hunter/paleontologist/archeologist being tracked by dinosaurs in some lost world.
In fifth grade, my teacher told me that I would be a great freelance writer, and I ponder what exactly a freelance writer was or did. But it sounded exotic, and I was intrigued.
When I got to high school, I wrote poetry, then short stories, then music. I had a friend who promptly labeled me “poet laureate” of Mountain View Academy. When I got to college and told a communication professor that I wanted more than anything to write, he tried to discourage me by stating I would never make it as a writer, because I had never read “the Classics.”
I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1975, opting for a communication degree rather than an English degree because of my desire to write rather than read other people’s writing. All during my college years, I was enamored with the new, edgy youth magazine in the Seventh-day Adventist Church entitled Insight. I came up with one idea after another, usually half baked or steeped in cliché. And in return, Insight sent me rejection slip after rejection slip. In my own mind, I was in that category of writers who was a misunderstood genius, decades ahead of the world in innovative concepts. In reality, I was still early in the learning curve.
Two personal traits I held kept me going: patience and tenacity. I kept writing, kept submitting and kept getting rejections. One bright light came in my senior year when I received another rejection slip from Insight with the pencil-scrawled note attached: Please. Try again. That brief note told me two crucial things. First, that at least one of the editors had read my article. Second, that they saw at least an inkling of promise in my writing.
I went through many more years of trial and rejection on my way to getting published. Around 1980, I came up with the idea of a book that would feature an activity for each week of the year, directed at Adventist families. I queried all three Adventist publishing houses about it, and all three were interested in it. Two years later, I still hadn’t written it. One editor, however, took the time to write me every few months and ask how I was doing in pursuing that idea. I will always be indebted to Richard Coffen, first at Southern Publishing Association, then at Review and Herald, for encouraging me enough to get that project done.
Traditional advice told me that unless I wrote every day, I couldn’t consider myself a writer. And living with a young family while working a full-time job made that next to impossible. Instead, prompted by Mr. Coffen’s letters, I took a Memorial Day weekend to draft up almost all of the book manuscript, aptly entitled “52 Things to Do on Sabbath.” I completed the book manuscript in 1983, put it in an envelope, labeled it and stamped it, then promptly left it on my desk for two weeks. I knew that if I sent it off, there was the chance that they would reject it. On the other hand, if I didn’t send it, I wouldn’t have to face rejection.
But I did get it into the mail. About two months later, I got a phone call from Richard Coffen, telling me that Review and Herald would be publishing my book. I remember getting off the phone and sighing, “Now I can die in peace!”
In 1988 I accepted an editor’s position at Pacific Press Publishing Association. My contacts with other editors there led me to opportunities to write in-house. And in 1993, writing for therapy while dealing with a dying father, I was finally published by Insight magazine. Now they are happy to have me write for them, just as I am always thrilled to grace their pages.
So back to the original question. When is a writer a writer? Was I a writer when I dreamed of becoming one in elementary school or academy? Did it happen when I started inking my short stories and poetry? Did my first rejection slip make me a writer? Or my first publication? Or maybe, as I read several times, I can’t seriously consider myself a writer because I don’t write every day?
Identity is a major reward of putting words on paper. Some writers do it simply to be able to call themselves writers. My first and only rule about writing is this: Put words on paper. Everybody has to find their own motivation. Everyone has to find their own technique, both to write effectively and to keep on writing. But the essence of it is this: calling yourself a writer doesn’t make you one. Only by writing can you pin the special name on your chest and claim your just reward.