What is writing?

I give myself a hard time sometimes because when  I look in the mirror, I am forced to realize: I call myself a writer–and yet I don’t write. It’s Christmastime, so I’ll go ahead and make the comparison: I’m a misfit from the Island of Misfit Toys who has a supposed purpose she is unable to fulfill. Should be writer. Instead is grad student.

But then: what is writing? Perhaps my problem is that I’ve often defined it so narrowly. Does it count as writing if I produce 25,000+ words of critical analysis each semester? If I write a 1,000 word newspaper column weekly? If I journal 500 words a day?

Sometimes I forget that, based on word count alone, my production rate is at the very least, moderate. While none of these things I’m writing are the novel I want to write, part of me has to realize: I’m not ready to write that novel. I was annoyed when a professor encouraged me, at the age of 21, not to apply to MFA programs. While I didn’t follow his advice, and I’m glad I didn’t, I can sort of see his point. While some writers are ready to pump out a stellar story collection or novel at 21, I wasn’t. Not even close. Five years later, I’m still honing my craft, and I’m learning to accept that writing is a process–and one which involves developing a core of what I want to say, not just skill in drafting sentences.

Could I write 500 – 1,000 words a day of fiction? Yes, I could, if I had a different job, or a different lifestyle. But I have to remember that I actively chose the life of a graduate student because reading literature and being forced to analyze it helps me, personally, with my craft–and with my conception of story and character. I’m not only interested in the alchemy of how words end up on the page but in deconstructing the myriad of influences that make a writer pick up a pen–and then write the words he/she chooses to write. Other writers are staunchly opposed to the academic world, and I can understand why. It is all-consuming, leaving little time to write fiction. It pays poorly. And while I disagree that engaging critically with literature in the specific way that MA/PhD programs require somehow misinterprets writer-ly intention or tarnishes a story, I can see that literary theory too often leaves the practice of writing behind.

Perhaps I’m just uncomfortable with my identity as a writer who is in graduate school. How much must you write, and what type of writing must you compose, to be able to introduce yourself as a writer? How many of us use that as our tag line in real conversations–and not just in our minds?

I suppose, in the end, the identity I’m most comfortable with is “student of writing.” I read often enough, and write consistently enough, albeit in non-fiction genres, to at least call myself that.

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