The Writer's Notebook: I'm a writer, you're not

Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Max Radwin, Deputy Magazine Editor
Published January 6, 2014

I’m a writer. You’re not. At least, that’s what I’d like to think, or used to think.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland

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I’ve always held the belief that artists are born that way. They’re born writers, painters, sculptors, composers, whatever.

Sure, you can practice an art. But if you weren’t born with some kind of condition — a persuasion that allows you to see the world in a way that others can’t — then you’re just an other dabbling in a world not meant for your art.

Of course, you can write and not be a writer. A news reporter writes but isn’t necessarily one. E.L. James certainly writes, but isn’t one. The only way to define a writer … is as a writer. But is that definition sufficient? Are there specific characteristics to be attributed to the profession? Or is it just a vague, inherited birthright?

I didn’t come up with this concept. My insight is inherited from other artists: Edward Hirsch (“The Demon and the Angel,” which explores this topic in great length), Lorca, Mill, Milton or any other writer who gives credit to the muse or duende. Even the shitty ones like Stephanie Meyer credit supernatural sources like dreams — which presumably come to those individuals who have the tools to turn the metaphysical into works of art.

After Frank O’Hara died, scraps of paper were found stuffed into his desk drawers. They were poems that he had written “spontaneously” as he walked around New York City, and which were published with little to no secondary editing. He was a poet — a true poet — so why would they have to be edited?

I got this way of thinking into my head early. It made me believe that I was artistically superior to pretty much everyone. And while I act like a prick because of it, I also think that you kind of need that mindset if you want to be good, and so I’m almost thankful for it. I take big risks creatively because I hold on to that sense of artistic authority.

And I have the artistic authority that I have because I’m a born artist — a born writer, which I could, until late, only define tautologically.

And it’s that circular logic that gave me problems, often without even knowing it. When a short story of mine was recently workshopped, there were major experimental sections that people responded to negatively. My initial response was, “It’s not my fault if you don’t get the premise. This is exactly how it’s supposed to be written.” I even went so far as to think, “Perhaps this will be appreciated when I’m gone. It’s too ahead of its time.” In reality, I had failed to accept something that needs to happen in first drafts. My conceitedness had led to some artistic bravado, but had stunted the advancement of my project.

I started a lifetime habit of voracious reading when I was young not only because it was immersive, but also because I knew I was honing a skill that was rare and valuable.

But I wasn’t actually writing during that period of my life. Despite not actively partaking in the practice, I associated myself with the profession. And retrospectively, I recognize that that way of thinking was detrimental to my development as a creative writer.

I was a thinker and a philosopher — maybe — but not a writer. And who wants to be those useless things? I needed to put those thoughts and philosophies into action, into application. Into my art.

That application is the sole defining factor: What is a writer? It’s simple. A writer is someone who writes.

Now, I write almost everyday, though reading and philosophizing are still important. My profession finally is my practice. Maybe you’re a writer too. And if you want to join the club, all you have to do is pick up a pencil.