Are You a Real Writer?

April 17, 2014 | By | 26 Replies More

mary rowenWhen I was in my twenties, I considered myself a writer. After all, I’d been the editor of my college literary magazine, and had won several writing contests while in school.

It didn’t matter to me that the only writing I’d done since graduation was in notebooks kept under the bed, or that it was all very haphazard: a few paragraphs one day, a bit of poetry another, an idea for a story hastily scribbled in the margin after coming home way too late at night. I felt like a writer at heart, and that was enough for me.

Then, one evening at a cocktail party, I found myself talking to a young novelist. He’d just published his first book with a reputable small press, and was quite full of himself. “I’m a writer too,” I informed him, expecting some chummy conversation to follow. But no. He didn’t even smile. He asked where I’d been published.

I laughed and told him I was still in the notebook phase. “Oh,” he replied, “so you’re not a real writer.”

Huh? No one had ever said such a thing to me.

“I’m sorry,” he continued, obviously seeing the hurt in my eyes, “but if you want to call yourself a writer, you’ve got to get your work out there for other people to read.”

Now despite the fact that I excused myself and got away from the author as quickly as possible, I also feared that he might be onto something. Because nothing I’d written in those notebooks was developed in any way, and I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it with anyone. But how would I get back on track?

I could start working on a new poem or story, but how would I know if it was any good? And what would I do with it? Who would read it? I didn’t know a thing about the publishing industry.

 So I did a bunch of research. This was back in the mid-90s, when the Internet wasn’t nearly as extensive as it is today, but one thing I learned was that a writing group can be very helpful. I also learned that there are many ways to find such groups: online, on bulletin boards in coffee shops, at writing conferences.

124_0.036824001390495169_beach_cover-bpfbtIn my case, I went on my town’s listserv and asked if anyone out there might be interested in starting one. The response was pretty great. Within a few days, about twenty people had replied, and I was pleased to see that most of them mentioned that they hadn’t yet published anything either. I was a little scared, but mostly excited.

We held our first meeting in a coffee shop, and it was wild. All of us crowded around a couple of tables, talking about what we wrote, or wanted to write. One very kind woman offered to host the next meeting at her home, and we all agreed to bring a short example of our writing with us. I barely slept all night.

Well, as you might imagine, the group dwindled a bit. But about ten of us continued to meet on a monthly basis for almost two years, and the experience changed my life. Not only did I decide to write a women’s novel, but I completed one! The other women encouraged me and I encouraged them.

After just a few meetings, we established a real bond, sharing our words and thoughts with each other. I also learned a ton about traditional publishing, as some of the women had ventured into that world. By the time the group disbanded, I was ready to start querying literary agents.

But yes, you heard that right. We did eventually disband. One person moved away; a couple of others got too busy with work; others decided they wanted to use their spare time pursuing different interests. For me, the breakup was devastating, but I stayed close to a couple of members, and we continued to critique each other’s work from time to time.

That was OK, but I missed the group dynamic, so when—a year or two later—someone posted a note on the email list at my kids’ elementary school, asking if any parents might be interested in starting a writing group, I couldn’t get in fast enough. This second group was smaller and more intimate than the first, but equally wonderful and helpful.

I’m sure not all writing groups are as great as the ones I’ve been involved with, but it seems to me that most writers who take the time to join groups don’t do it to destroy anyone’s self-confidence. In my experience, even when strong criticism gets doled out, it’s done in a constructive way.

Recently, I’ve joined a third writing group. This one is a foursome of old and new friends, all of whom are experienced writers, but are moving into new genres. I was initially concerned about not having sufficient time for two groups, but, on the contrary, I feel like having so much support is a huge blessing and I can only hope my peers feel the same way about me.

Why does this structure work so well for so many writers? I think it’s the give and take. It’s an opportunity to sit face-to-face with people you trust, having your work critiqued by them, and then providing them with your honest feedback. And when someone completes a project or gets something published, it’s wonderful to celebrate together. And Mr. Published Novelist, if by any chance you’re reading this—and I’m sure you’re not—we’re all real writers.

Mary Rowen is a Boston area mom with a wonderful family that allows her time to write almost every day.
She grew up in the Massachusetts Merrimack Valley and graduated from Providence College. She has worked as a writer, teacher, salesperson, and political canvasser. Find out more about her on her website
Visit her facebook page  Mary-Rowen-Author
and follow her on twitter @maryjrowen
Buy her novel ‘Leaving the Beach”  here 


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (26)

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  1. Sarah Banham says:

    Putting others down is a nasty trait in some. That kind of confidence-killing is not acceptable in any of the writing-related groups I’m attached to.

    A few years ago, I met up with another author who challenged my work. She suggested my (then) 28 years’ experience and (then) 7 books was not enough to write a book helping others write a book and, thus, stripped my confidence.

    Of course I told her I felt it was enough and we parted ways. I did discover she had adopted this attitude with others too.

    Comfidence takes time to achieve so anyone stripping you of it should be stopped instantly.

    Great article btw. ♡

  2. A.D. Norton says:

    I always try to be encouraging to fellow writers and fellow aspiring writers it’s who I am, I’ve taught writing to undergrads & it’s just part of my nature. I’ve run into situations where someone aspiring to be a writer I helped and they turned around and every chance they got they would try to knock me down or get me to give them editors names etc. This is another woman too which was really kind of shocking to me but I helped as much as I could and then just moved on… but it’s funny because dhe brought up that question about she considered herself a “real” writer (she had no credits) and another woman that she knew who wrote for TV she said was NOT a real writer! I just think this is a really touchy issue. Because my opinion is that if you’re serious about writing you’re a real writer and by serious I mean that you seriously work at it and then you try to get your work published. Lots of successful writers and screenwriters spend years or they go through phases where they don’t create. I’ve also had very good and very bad experiences in writers groups. Including graduate school. I’d love to find a quality online writers group. I am always trying to see the best in people, some people are the opposite (& I wonder why they all seem to live in LA!)

    • A.D. Norton says:

      Excuse the typos this was typed on my iPhone

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you for the comment, A.D. I agree with what you say about serious writers. They come in many varieties. As for writing groups, I’ve been super lucky with the ones I’ve joined. However, I understand the frustration of a group that doesn’t click. At one point in my post-college life, I took an evening writing class in a continuing ed. program, and the people in the class decided to form a writing group. We met twice, I think, but did it in a restaurant/bar, and it was a large group, and nothing ever really got accomplished. After those two meetings, I didn’t go back, and I sort of forgot about the whole thing until now. I wonder if you could find a good online writing group through SheWrites? There are lots of people on there, writing at many different levels and on different topics. Best of luck. I do think a good group is really, really helpful

    • Excellent point A.D! I have only started to feel like a “real writer” when I began to take it seriously, like a part time job. And yes, I’m unpublished. At this moment.

  3. I’ve belonged to a writers forum for over a year. They’ve been wonderful! It’s not all about telling me my work is good – they will also tell me when it needs work. Although I don’t always agree with recommended changes, I take every suggestion to heart and think about it carefully, then it’s ultimately up to me what to do.

    • Mary Rowen says:

      That’s one of the best things about writing groups, I think. There’s that delicate balance between encouraging each other but also letting someone know when something isn’t working. And like you say, you, as the writer, don’t need to agree with the comments, but it gives you something to think about. Since one of my writing groups has five members, I’m usually more likely to change something I really like if two or three people say it’s not working. But every case is different. I’m just so thankful for all of them. Thank you for your comment, Linda!

  4. Julie Brown says:

    I received a great deal of encouragement and help from my writing/critique group. They helped me to view myself as a writer and to treat writing as my job, not just a hobby. Many people came and went over the years, but about 8 of us regulars are still together. It was somebody in my writing group that led me to a publisher who took my manuscript and helped me accomplish one of my biggest dreams – to become a (fairy princess – oh wait, that’s not it…) published author!
    As for when you can call yourself a write, I say it’s when you have a confident answer to the inevitable question, “What do you write?” Does not matter what the answer is as long as you are proud to announce it!
    Best of luck to you all!

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Wow, Julie, I think you’re right on the money with that last point. When you can confidently tell people what you write, then you’re a writer. Perfect.

      Congratulations on your writing career as well. And how cool is it that someone in your writing group helped you find a publisher? This is a wonderful story and I wish you much continued success!

  5. I loved this article. You are so right about us all being REAL writers. I run a Creative Writing group for local 6 – 11 year olds and I am always telling them that if they write ANYTHING that makes them REAL writers. If a bunch of proud children can grasp it, the so should most adults. We are called WRITERS because we write. NOT because we are published. Great read!

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Amen, Jilly! And how cool of you to run this group for kids. IMO, there’s no better time to get people in touch with their creative side than when they’re young. Thank you for your comment and best of luck with the writing group and your writing as well.

  6. Ina Zajac says:

    Hi Mary,

    Your unfortunate cocktail party conversation reminds me of how often we let others define us. I’m thrilled you decided to just walk away. To me, a writer is one who writes. The act of writing (not the act of being read) is what makes a writer. The two words “I am” are so important because they can set us up for success or heartache. We are who we think we are. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard other women say something along the lines of, “I want to be a writer, but for now I’m just a…” Fill in the blank.

    I love what you shared about your experience with writing groups. I love being around other women writers because we tend to have certain things in common. We are keen observers. We are free spirits. We are visionaries. We are often insecure and guilt-ridden about something. Writing groups afford us the chance to compare notes and support each other.

    Great post Mary.

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thanks, Ina! I can’t agree with you more about the “I am…” It makes such a huge difference in our actions. And when you join a writing group, you’re saying, “I am a writer.” It seems like a small step when you sit down with the group for the first time and talk about yourself and your goals, but it’s such an important one.

      What you say about women writers being free spirits and also guilt-ridden is also spot on. The guilt thing can be huge, and sticking together helps us carry on and do what we love to do, even when we question its validity.

  7. Arleen Williams says:

    Great post, Mary. I agree with about the importance of some kind of writing group, whether it be a critique or simply a practice group, the fact of working and sharing is what matters.

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Definitely, Arleen. When writers get too isolated, it’s almost always a bad thing. Sure there are exceptions (Emily Dickinson?) but for most of us, sharing and getting feedback is critical. Thank you for joining the discussion!

  8. Anne Strauss says:

    Great article, Diane. I know that “I’m an author” type. And plenty of the published work I read caa’t touch the skills of some of my writers’ group members.

    I’ve always thought of myself as a “writer” but could bring myself to use the “author” word until my first book was published. I can’t say “author” in a snobbish way, though; it’s an honor and a privilege and something I’m not sure I’ll ever fully assimilate.

    Best of luck, and keep on writing and authoring.

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you, Anne! I have trouble with the word “author” too! I think it started when I read one of John Irving’s books a long time ago, and one of the characters talked about how he/she preferred being called a writer, rather than an author. Up until that point, I’d sort of thought of “writer” and “author” as synonyms, but now I see a huge distinction.

      In any case, I hope you keep on writing and authoring too!

  9. I was a member of two writing groups and learned so much!I’ve since relocated and am ready to start a group in my new town. I had a great experience and glad you did, too. Great post, Mary!

  10. Jan says:

    I’ve run into a few “Mr. Published Writers” as well. My writers’ group was small but very loyal. They were also mighty fine editors. I was lucky. Great post.

    • Mary Rowen says:

      That’s great to hear, Jan! I really do believe that most writers who join writing groups can help each other immensely. Sometimes by being editors or mentors, and sometimes by being good, honest readers. So glad you had a good experience.

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