A Writer by Any Other Name

  • By Alexandra Grabbe
  • February 8, 2024

Why do we struggle to call ourselves what we are?

A Writer by Any Other Name

“Are you a writer?” my granddaughter asked one night at dinner.

I hemmed and hawed, unsure how to respond. “Well, yes, I write,” I finally said. “I’ve even published several dozen articles and stories.”

Why is it that after a lifetime of writing — newsletters, a blog, one memoir, two unpublished novels, and over a dozen short stories — I still find it hard to call myself a writer?

Apparently, my reluctance isn’t unusual.

At the 2023 Boston Book Festival, Anjali Mitter Duva and Henriette Lazaridis discovered many of the people who approached the Galiot Press booth didn’t call themselves writers, either, remarking in Galiot’s newsletter:

“Writers are sadly hesitant to admit that they write, like it’s a shameful habit that shouldn’t leave the confines of one’s room. We asked, ‘Are you a reader or a writer or both?’ and received so many squirrely ‘Oh, well, I guess sometimes I write, kind of…’ responses. If you choose to write when no one is asking you to do so, you are a writer.”

Perhaps the problem is that society makes us feel as if our writing should be rewarded, like receiving a blue ribbon in a baking contest. There needs to be compensation, it seems, beyond having someone say, “Hey, did you write that essay on (fill in the blank)? I really enjoyed it.”

Often, writers who chalk up rejections on Submittable believe they’re falling short. They aren’t. Writing is a time-consuming art. Freelance articles go through multiple drafts prior to submission. Once in the hands of an editor, a piece may be changed even more (like this one was). Writers of fiction face similar challenges, often having their work rejected or ignored for reasons that are never explained.

We writers also suffer from imposter syndrome.

“I have always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a long time to call myself one,” The Age of Light author Whitney Scharer told me. “Even though I wrote fiction in college, got an MFA, and worked in the creative-writing field after graduate school, I never once called myself a writer…I felt like if I said, ‘I’m a writer,’ then I’d have to actually produce things, and people would start judging me, and it was just so much easier to think of writing as a hobby.” 

Some people, like Ruth Pennebaker, a Texas journalist who proved she could write by hammering out an essay on the bar exam, stumble into the profession. After the Washington Post published her piece, Pennebaker quit her job and became a writer. “It’s not a smart move financially,” she remarked in the University of Texas’ alumni magazine, the Alcalde, “but I’m much happier.”

I remember the thrill of my first acceptance letter, from a trade magazine for a profile of French restaurateur Gaston Lenôtre. That piece led to more assignments on France, where I’d been living. One editor commissioned a feature on English-language bookstores in Paris, then promptly left the magazine. (Sigh.)

Still hesitant to call myself a writer, I joined a writers’ group, where my bookstore pitch attracted much acclaim. “Send it out again,” suggested our leader. With trepidation, I did. The very next day, I received an acceptance. There are now enough clips on my website to impress anyone seeking an experienced…what? Hobbyist? Wordsmith? Person who aspires to publication?

Writer, damn it. Writer. That’s what I am. Why is it still so hard to say that word?

In the hope of acquiring a better understanding of the industry, I once took a job as editorial assistant to Barbara Chase-Riboud, author of Sally Hemings. Three years later, I moved to Cape Cod and wrote a profile of my former boss, but it was impossible to find a home for it. Dark clouds of doubt set in again. Was I just not good enough?

This past October, Geralyn Broder Murray shared on Facebook that she had attended “An Evening with Ann Patchett and Kate DiCamillo” at the Library of Congress. Murray went to the microphone and asked for advice as an “un-agented, unpublished” writer. DiCamillo responded, “Write to fill the hole in your own heart. And be relentless.”

Good advice. We writers need more persistence and self-confidence than people in other professions because getting published is such a Sisyphean task. But perseverance pays off. Gumption, stamina, and a belief in yourself also help.

By the way, that Chase-Riboud profile? Updated, pitched, and sold. Even better: My debut short-story collection comes out later this year.

After decades of working on my craft without laying claim to my title, I finally feel comfortable telling my granddaughter, “Yes. I’m a writer.”

Alexandra Grabbe is a former talk-show host in Paris, a former innkeeper on Cape Cod, and a forever writer currently residing half the year in Sweden. Cherry Orchard Books will publish The Nansen Factor, a collection of her linked refugee stories, in June.

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