How To Tell If You’re A Writer

Are you a writer? You’ve no good way to tell.

I mean, this isn’t THE THING. You can’t just cook up the end of a coat hanger and dip it into a petri dish full of your blood. This shit’s not in your DNA. It’s in your soul.

Where it lurks like a worm at the heart of an apple.

Even still, you might be saying, “Dear Charles Q. Penmonkey, please tell me — what are the signs that I’m actually a writer? What crass, profane augury will present my ink-spattered destiny like a horny alpaca revealing its blood-engorged alpaca cloaca?”

I can help. Even though my name isn’t “Charles Q. Penmonkey.” Oh, also, alpacas don’t have cloacas. Only birds have cloacas. And Lindsay Lohan.

But then again I’m pretty sure she’s some kind of coke-brained sea bird anyway.

What I’m trying to say is, you’re just not sure if you happen to be a really truly honestly pinky-swear cross-your-heart motherfucking bonafide writer? That’s okay. I can help.

Look for these signs. They should stand out like turgid, necrotic erections.

You Proofread Everything

I proofread anything that crosses in front of my eyes. Diner placemats. Menus. Cereal boxes. The letter your Mom wrote me after I banged her sideways outside the closed-down Jamesway just past town. I remember reading a Chinese food menu some years ago and I was like, “Ha ha ha! Bef! Crap cakes! Sting beans! Ohh, haha, stupid language barriers, your comedy knows no bounds.”

But it goes beyond that, too. I’ll judge anything on its merit as a written story.

I’ll read a fucking classified ad and be like, “They could’ve trimmed the language there.” “Awk-ward!” *rolls eyes* “Oooh, poor word choice.” “Where’s the conflict? I mean, seriously. What is this? Amateur karaoke?”

Your First Friend Was Imaginary

Writers and storytellers live inside their heads. Our mindscapes are equal parts “desert oasis,” “distant moon prison,” and “comfy recliner.” But where it begins is with imaginary friends. I didn’t have just one. I had a whole unruly cabinet of the babbling invisible bastards. My cousin and I would act out these stories where we were constantly in contact with non-corporeal made-up motherfuckers — mermaids and morbidly obese people and crazy farmers and the list goes on and on.

Sometimes I think writing isn’t so much the need to tell stories as it is the need to lance our brain-blisters over and over again so that the multiple personalities have a place to go.

Of course, it doesn’t end when you grow up…

You Hold Conversations Between People That Don’t Exist

I literally do this when I’m in the shower (no, calm down, it does not involve soapy Onanism): I talk to myself. But not in one voice. In two. Or three. Some folks sing. Me, I host entire stage productions of dialogue sessions there in the shower. And these are characters who are currently in — or who will one day find their way into — my work. This isn’t healthy. If I did this in public, I’d be stoned. And not the good kind of stoned where I’m like, “Dude, that cloud looks like Jimi Hendrix giving birth to a rabbit,” but rather, pelted with unpleasant pebbles by suspicious townsfolk.

Writers don’t just talk to themselves. They talk to a cast of characters invented out of straight-up nothing.

You Are An Ink-Stained Notebook Whore

Me, I was always leaving pens in my pockets. Pens that got washed. Pens that, when washed, would explode and splurch ink all over my pants, as if I urinated the stuff. Oh, I also chewed the unholy shit out of all my pens like a rabid terrier. (Ahem, still do.) And it’s not just pens. Notebooks! So many notebooks. Some blank. Many filled. Heaps and piles and pyramids of notebooks. Some day they will excavate my home and find me — and seven dead cats — beneath them.

And I don’t even have any cats.

Writers are collectors. It’s not just about the pens or notebooks. We collect other books. Or iPad apps. Or technology in general. Or ancient Balinese facial dildos.

What, just me?

Whatever.

You Suspect Non-Readers Of Treachery Against The Human Race

John Waters — director, writer, weirdo, and all-around human kitschmaschine — famously said, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em.”

Writers hate non-readers. You are our enemies in this world. We refuse to believe that information can be conveyed in any other way besides books (or movies, or comics). We see you, we think: “Is he a Reptilian? If I were to go over there and rake his face with this salad fork, would I see greasy scales waiting underneath?” It’s like in ingrained distrust. A deep, soul-born hatred.

“You don’t have books? Then you are dead to me.”

It’s nonsense, of course. But whoever said we had to be right about the crazy shit we believe?

Your Brain Is Tuned To Some Mad, Intrusive Frequency

Earlier today, I saw this tweet from Will Hindmarch, fellow penmonkey:

“Back from the doctor’s again, where inspiration struck in the waiting room, as it sometimes does.”

It does! It does. He’s totally right. You know how sometimes you end up getting accidentally subscribed to e-mails or snail mail that jacked you onto some invasive list? “Jesus, why am I getting e-mails from the Fainting Goat Association Of Slovenia? And I keep getting shoeboxes of anthrax from some unnamed source.” Writers have been accidentally subscribed to this constant stream of ideas. We are bombarded by them, like protons fired at our mind-cores. (Pyoo! Pyoo!) We can’t shut them out. No way to tune out the inspiration except to clobber ourselves over the head with a skull-crushing boat anchor.

I think it might be why writers secretly drink so much. To dim the frequency.

You Know How You Would Do It Differently

Watch a movie. Read a book. Page through a comic. If you do this regularly and say to yourself, “I would do this differently,” and then proceed to tell whoever is nearest — wife, child, dog, stranger on a train, Darkseid — exactly how you would do it “your way” (translation: the right way), then hey, guess what? You. Writer.

You Are Attracted To Mates With Health Care

Everybody has their own metric of attraction. “Nice eyes. Firm lips. Legs from here to heaven’s door. A set of breeding hips like the shoulders of a Brahmin bull. A vagina that looks like a majestic pink peony.” One’s own axis of attraction can go to more abstract lengths, too. “I like a guy who’s nice to puppies.” “I like a gal with a little rough-and-tumble in her.” “I LIKE TO BANG DRAGONS IN THEIR DRAGON BUTTHOLES.”

Writers, though, we can smell health insurance on a potential mate the way that other animals can smell pheromones. It’s like Drakkar Noir or bacon grease: in its presence, we cannot control ourselves. “Hot dang, Dave, this chick I’m dating? I think she’s the one. She’s got such a low, sexy… deductible.”

So, if you’re out wandering in a mall and you suddenly find yourself tumescent whenever you pass someone who is clearly fortunate enough to have health care, then you better check thyself forst you wreck thyself. Because you might have a long and unfortunate penmonkey career ahead of you.

Your Desk Drawer Contains The Following:

Flask full of alcohol. Altoids tin full of some kind of illicit-but-not-illegal pills. Fountain pen. Other pens. Mechanical pencil. Random notebook pages full of useless dream transcriptions. Highlighters. Permanent markers. A mix tape from 1996. Beer caps. Wine corks. iPhone charging cord to an iPhone you may or may not own. Lint that smells of flopsweat. Lip balm. A favorite paperback with a hundred dog-eared pages and a thousand underlined sentences. A Hemingway buttplug (the beard tickles!). Post-It notes containing terrible ideas. A handgun. A noose. A little satchel containing all your hopes and dreams as a writer.

You’re Drinking Right Now, Aren’t You?

It’s okay. I won’t tell anybody. As long as you pour me a glass.

You Fucking Jolly Well Write, That’s How

You know how you can tell if you’re a writer? You write. Maybe not every day, but often enough where it’s a dominant activity, a thing-you-do rather than a thing-you-really-want-to-do. You write not because you have to but rather because you want to so bad you feel like an asshole not doing it. You know you’re a writer because whenever you’re doing anything else, you’re thinking about writing the same way a guy thinks about sex or an addict thinks about whatever drug or monkey gland he’s hooked on. You’re a writer because, even now, the first thought going through your head is, “Holy shit, I should really be writing.”

Your turn, cunning linguists. What is it that makes the writer a writer?

* * *

Chuck Wendig’s book about writing and the writer’s life — CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.

99 comments

  • as the woman waaaaaay back said, you know you’re a writer when you think “I could use this” even at a deathbed and other … awkward moments. Also when you have yet another out of body experience during a real-life experience and think “Is this scene really writing itself right before my eyes?” and “how can i hit pause here and write it all down — and which of the three notebooks in my bag is my new ideas notebook? – before i forget where it began?”. And then having the clarity to strike through all but 90 per cent of what you’ve just scribbled in the probably right notebook in the bathroom stall while the rest of your actual friends are carrying on and having a real life. Oh and also you bark out loud with laughter at seven or eight other spots on this page

  • the post and the comments made my day!!!!!
    I get ideas in the middle of the shower and wonder if I have to run naked to a notebook and a pen to write them and traumatize my brother and sister for life or wait a little bit.
    I get and write ideas in the freeway driving at 60 to 80 miles a hour.
    I shun away from social gatherings because I think books are better companions and better read anyways. except when it comes to sex.
    I stop myself from fixing every grammatical error I see or hear.
    I turn preacher every single time I meet a non reader until I make him, her a convert.
    I don’t lie, I tell stories.
    I am clinically and socially crazy, but I know how to fake being normal.
    It feels great to be part of this secret society!!!

  • “I think it might be why writers secretly drink so much. To dim the frequency.”

    Absolutely. I went out and bought a bottle of rum a few weeks ago, when one of my imaginary characters couldn’t stop telling me her life story over and over again – changing it, while she went on.

  • You’ve been looking through my desk drawer, haven’t you?

    ::winks::

    Seriously, though, it’s like you described all of what I tend to do when writing. Such a delightful post. To see a writer dissected so beautifully through words, I like it.

    I have moments when I when I get ideas in the middle of shower, too. And when I sleep. God, sometimes I wish that I could remember most of the things that I think about when I’m sleeping. I really do.

    Ironically, I don’t drink. Unless you count the countless Dr. Pepper’s and Mountain Dew’s that have come across my desk when I sit down to write.

    ::chuckles::

  • Okay, aside from a few wierd mentions above, this is spot on. Thanks for reminding us about our insane infatuation with words, whether they be dialogues, ads, menus, books, etc. Those wonderful letter cannot escape from our very pores.
    BTW, I had 4 imaginary friends. We never had dinner guests because there was no where for these living, breathing humans to sit.

  • What about: reading over and again, sucking teeth and wishing like hell I could just do one more re-write of a piece of work that’s already been published and paid for – or is that just me?

    One day I’m going to be completely satisfied by something I’ve written. Then I’ll wake up.

  • My father once bragged, well, sort of bragged; maybe he mentioned it in a grand Look-At-Me fashion; whatever, he bragged (okay) that he had never finished reading through a book.

    For the sake of those with goldfish memory I will repeat myself. He bragged that he had never finished reading through a book. Yes, this was said. Sometimes I remember this and shudder like some sort of disease riddled Teletubby. Did I mention that he’s a politician?

  • The only one of these that does not apply to me is the imaginary friend. I did not have imaginary friends as a kid. Nor did I have real-life friends. I was a loner in my own head.

    I even judge potential dates not on whether or not they have books, but what kinds of books they own . . .

  • I’ve wondered about this since grade school- my hand just feels “right” with a pen in it, even when I’m typing on a keyboard. I have a pen in my hand now. It fits comfortably over my thumb and middle finger, and under my index finger.

    Maybe it’s just me.

  • Oh, heck yes. I have to watch myself when I’m thinking about a story, because I’ll randomly gesture or say a few words out loud or make a face that a character is supposed to be making, just to see how it feels.

  • A sure sign my mind is faithfully going in the right direction, even though I’ve been far too long from the good ol’ document. I’m not drinking, but I needed the kick in the pants.

    Holy flying fish, I’ve also been away from the wonders of the TM blog for too long. *dives into archives*

  • There are people who don’t read? Really? As in, voluntarily? They know how to read but don’t do it anyway? That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard of!

  • Everything! Everything here applies to me! lol. I look at guys now wondering if they have enough money to keep me alive so I can write. It’s so awful and hilarious how right this is lol.

  • Oh and I forgot to add, me and my younger brother got into a argument that grew more and more ugly…just because I was so pissed he wouldn’t read a book (or any book) I got for him lol.

    Non-readers really are the enemy.

  • Brilliant post, the majority of the things you posted here apply to me, especially about proof reading eveything. I also have a wealth of pens and notebooks which take over my room!

    I think that perhaps the most important trait in a writer is the compulsion to write (which I think grows depending on how regularly you write) so that after a while it seems like it’s not a choice, you just do it because it seems natural and you’re compelled to do so.

  • I knew my wife to be was the one when she told me she’d have left me if I hadn’t loved the Discworld books. She isn’t a writer, but she is such an avid reader it works out well between us.

  • Everything Chuck said is sooooo true. Except for the health care part. Well at least for me. I think about writing a lot. Sometimes I hate that we r always thinking, especially when trying to get my beauty sleep.
    I know I’m a writer because when I wake up in the morning I think abut nothing but writing first and I pretty suck at everything else.

  • Ok, so this is…cough…embarrassing. When I was just a wee lad, I didn’t exactly make imaginary people talk to each other (unless I was out of the house) I would make entire strange stories with my stuffed animals, as if they would gather in a forum to discuss the happenings in their world, and what to do about them, like dragon aspects in a palatial marble room with pillars. Making up stuff for imaginary people was like the mobile device version when my animals weren’t present, so as not to embarrass myself. I am (I think) every single one of these things on the list. Scary.

  • I’ve recently discovered that I know I’m a writer because, if I don’t write, then I probably DO have multiple personality disorder. A million people and scenarios (totally wacked out “skick in the head” scenarios, of course) have constantly streamed through my mind since I can remember. I even remember laying in my crib as a baby, thinking about Donald Duck with a waffle iron on his head in a cartoon I saw, and how it would have been better if he acted more like a scary monster to Chip n Dale, because it sure as hell would scare me to see a duck with a waffle iron on his head. Then I would imagine traveling the world with the Brown’s Chicken logo, who came to life just to assist me in bringing tasty fried chicken to hungry families around the world. All this before kindergarten. So I started writing before kindergarten too.

    In school I always got in trouble for daydreaming. I never did any homework unless it was a writing assignment, and then I would win awards for it. In high school I would write poetry literally 24-7. And now in adult life, after a handful of “mental health” hospitalizations and a boat load of therapy, and also recovering from a 15-year writers block, it’s hit me that there is nothing wrong with me at all. If I don’t write, all 12 billion of my ideas are trapped inside my head fighting to manifest. And when I don’t write, those sick in the head thoughts want to become reality. I need to write. It’s all I can possibly do. It’s all I have ever done all along.

    I love the notebook whore thing! I am so ridiculous! Every time I pack to move, at least 1/3 of the boxes are filled with notebooks and journals and folders of papers with vague obscure ideas or brilliant sentences and quick napkin-jots.

    I also have about 26 blogs floating around on the Internet. And I too chew my pens and pencils until they break. Or until they break my teeth.

    You know you’re a writer if you truly believe you would be perfectly content stranded on an island with only a pen and notebook. Or preferrably, 10 notebooks.

  • its 6:11 am and I have not slept! its probably the first time I have written anything on a web reply page, although I wished to do it often. I’m drunk of course (touche master), and thinking about the next time I will have a 48h drinking “journey” through this town (Adelaide, Australia) . Its true I get this urge to scribble something on a blank page, but am I a writer? I think many of you reading will doubt it too. Although for my defense, English is really my third language. I consider myself a kind of hybrid mildly introverted/extremely extroverted(when drunk) person and I really wonder if this urge is really only a way to express thoughts I ought to say out loud if I could. See the difference is, it wouldn’t interest anyone really, really, really, I say really a lot. Reader out.

  • Great article Here are ways I can tell:

    When you are or were your own imaginary friend.

    When you hit that mark and feel physically jacked up with every word you put down on paper as if those ink marks were actually lines of coke and you were snorting each and everyone of them running through the high you created through your imagination.

    When you stare at a blank page or struggle with a paragraph after coming down from said writer’s high hoping for your dear life that you can experience at least half of the euphoria of having everything click and flow on the page that happened the first time.

    • Ha ha I can relate to this as kid growing up me and my twin brother would
      Make up create these imaginary charactors and act them out its almost as if we both where acting out but then again when I think about it we where acting and thanking different charactor from cartoons that we loved and we became them as we came our own interpretation of what we thought they should say and do I guess those where I’m earliest sighs that I was a story teller and a future writter that came to pass one I began writting poetry and and song lyrics that displayed my story telling abilities and the rest was history

  • I’ve always spelled words with my fingers while listening to people. My brother hates it when I do it and has always made fun of me for “airspelling”, as he calls it. I was in a spelling bee’s and hated missing the word “except”, which should have been “accept”. I’ve told that miserable spelling bee losing story over a hundred times. I have a photographic memory which helps remind how to spell words, but if a word gets memorized wrong, I have a hard time correcting it back to the right way. I love all my notebooks and pens mean the world to me. I like watching the way I write with an extra fine point gel pen and typing on a laptop watching my thoughts being put into words. I have many half finished writing projects. I promise to listen to this grammar/sentence structure .mp3 so I can be more technical and knowledgeable when I write. I put that off too. I’m learning that writing is the voice in my head expressing itself in the best way it can. I simply want to write to write. Like someone said earlier, it keeps me sane. It’s not as if I care if anything gets printed, even though that would be super awesome, but more importantly it is my therapeutic outlet. Writing is my way to connect to people and feel a sense of community. Thank you for making me feel less crazy. PS…a little while ago I thought I had Multiple Personality Disorder, but thanks to the comments from like minded writers on this message board, I am coming to understand the “characters” aren’t anything other than future stories in the making.

  • A fun read, no doubt, but you are just describing yourself as a “self-appointed” writer, automatically assuming you are the be-all-end-all because you used a few 12-grade words interspersed like a date with the mistress, that fickle thesaurus slut.
    Nonetheless funny, but supports most every stereotype there is about writers (alcohol, drugs, crazy) — like if you have these symptoms you MUST be it! In other words, I have been coughing for a week, must be cancer!

    • Ahhh comment moderation, the sign of a neurotic. Jeez.
      Also, however, as to continue my thought — if an impressionable kid or teen came about this, who was interested in writing, could very well develop a nice booze or drug habit because of words like these. Be careful with words, as they are a great power, and thus, a great responsibility. Some cliches are true, even if they aren’t 100% original – nothing is.

  • You can tell you’re a writer when nothing can get the stains of ink from your fingers. Not soap, not white spirit, not even radioactive moose piss could remove the tell-tale stains of your craft from your pen stumps. And when you do eventually manage to it all off as you are attending a wedding for a vague foreign dignitary, you manage to stay 100 paces from any pen, newspaper or inkwell but the mysterious indigo marks return. It’s a disease, a goddamn beautiful disease.

  • All of the above plus, to others anyway, the incessant nosiness and random curiosity about… anything and everything.

    SOMEBODY ELSE: “What are you doing?” Horror, mixed with shock.
    ME: “Research.”

    or

    SOMEBODY ELSE: “Seriously, there are boundaries…”
    ME: “It was just a question! You don’t have to answer it… unless you want to. And if you do let me write that down…”

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