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By: Jeff Fearnside

Jeff Fearnside’s literary writing has won several national awards and appeared in more than three dozen journals and anthologies, including Potomac Review, The Pinch, Rosebud, Many Mountains Moving, New Madrid, Permafrost, and The Los Angeles Review. Fearnside has taught writing for many years at Washington State University, Western Kentucky University, and the Academy of Languages in Kazakhstan, among other institutions. He lived and worked in Central Asia for four years, and traveled widely along the Silk Road. He now lives with his Kazakhstani wife and two cats in Oregon. More information:

One question invariably comes up when on the writing path: “When can I call myself a writer?” The best answer is unsatisfyingly simple and straightforward: “Writers write.” If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

However, I believe what people really want to know is this: “When will I receive recognition for my efforts? When will people take me seriously as a writer?”

You become a serious writer when you begin to take yourself seriously. It doesn’t rely on outside confirmation. That helps—I won’t deny it—but ultimately we each must form our own definition of what literary success means.

There are no set parameters that determine this. Writing every day, meeting minimum monthly word counts, or meeting project deadlines are all good ways to feel successful, and yet scheduled days of writing will be missed, word quotas unmet, projects unfinished, even for “real” writers. What separates serious writers from wannabes is how they react to the setbacks.

One of the best lessons I learned in this regard came not from a writer but from my first tai chi teacher, John Cooke. Early in my training, I asked him when it wouldn’t be such a struggle to practice every day. He looked at me with genuine puzzlement.

“Never,” he said. “You have to commit to it each day. If you miss a day, forget about it. Commit to your practice the next day.”

It’s the same with writing. You can’t say to yourself, “From this day forward, I’m committed to writing a thousand words a day every day,” no matter how fervently you burn to do so, and expect that this passionate promise alone is enough to spontaneously birth a new, healthy habit in your life. The habit of writing develops over time, through the process of writing.

Through it all, go easy on yourself. Beating yourself up for missing a day (or week or month) of writing only adds to the pressure, making it even more likely that you’ll have difficulty overcoming whatever obstacles you face. It’s already hard enough being a writer in a world where this largely isn’t met with much support. There’s no need to make it even harder.

Don’t buy into the myth that the best writers are good because of talent alone. The best writers are good because they persist in writing. Oh, certainly there are a few freaks of nature out there who pour the most profound poetry onto a page as effortlessly as drinking their morning coffee, just as there are a handful people more than eight feet tall or who can bend spoons with their minds. Statistically, they are anomalies. The rest of us have to work at it.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that publishing or winning awards defines you as a writer, though if you persist in writing and editing (and editing and editing…), it increases the likelihood that those other things will occur. If they do, enjoy them—for a time. Then start your next project.

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