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.


104 responses to “How To Tell If You’re A Writer”

  1. Excellent stuff, though from the complaints I heard this weekend in the company of my elders, the health care bit may not apply if you are aged 40 or over. Hell, maybe even 30 these days.

    Another sign of potential writerhood: You read. A lot. By the standards of people who read a lot. You keep books in every room of the house, including the bathroom. You read during meals. Sometimes it’s the book you keep in the bathroom. You keep a book in the car, and if traffic gets bad you might scan a few paragraphs – fuck the guy behind you with the horn, he can wait. If you watch TV, you go straight for the book if your interest wanes, and your wife asks why the hell are we even watching Tosh.0 if you’re not going to pay attention? And you just stare at her, because you don’t want to explain that it’s because you’ve had to listen twenty-plus episodes of Glee! and you have to take some sort of revenge for that, and when she looks away your nose is back in the book…

    …which is ALWAYS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE. You know this, because you are a writer.

    Also, a Darkseid mention? Congratulations. You win.

  2. So much of this (well, the normal parts, anyway) sounded like me, I’ll be inspecting my house for hidden cameras. 😉

    One of the hardest things for non-writers to understand is that YOU CANNOT TURN IT OFF. Ideas keep coming. They form unions and picket your brain. They fight turf wars over your attention. They butt in on each other when it’s not their turn to be written.

    A writer will come to a point of choice and pick a direction, but the possibility of that other choice will spawn an entirely new idea. Then your ten grade English teacher’s voice pops into your head, reciting “The Road Less Traveled” and suddenly that other idea now stars a guy named Frost because there’s no other possible name for him.

    Schrodinger and his cyanide-huffing cat had nothing on the infinite possibilities that live inside a writer’s mind. To a writer, there’s no question that multiple universes exist because we see them all, simultaneously, running side-by-side with their infinite branches splitting each possible storyline.

    And it NEVER STOPS.

    It’s the only profession in the world where you can get paid for quoting the voices in your head, rather than paying out money to make them stop. Writers live in the Martian Chronicles, where their hallucinations are seen and shared by all.

    And… writers can’t help themselves when someone asks what it is that makes a writer a “real” writer. The words just come.

  3. Wait… there are people who don’t read? That makes me want to cross myself and I’m not even Catholic. Probably I’d poke an eye out.

    I’m a writer because I Said So. And I am in charge of All The Words. So therefore It Is True. (You forgot to mention that tendency we have to believe in our own god-like power.)

    And hey, many of my current friends are Imaginary. I don’t know why you mention this as if it’s an unusual thing. In fact, I recently called the police because one of my Imaginary Internet Friends went missing. And then I WROTE ABOUT IT on my blog. Because I am a WRITER.

    You think I jest? Well, yes, sometimes I do. But not about this. I take my Imaginary Internet Friend status very seriously. Especially if it makes people laugh.

    I am a writer because there are readers.

  4. Writers are to mad for any other job, just sane enough to stay free, hungry enough to be motivated, full enough to think, jaded enough to see the dark side of the world, hopeful enough to see the better alternative.
    Hooray, we are a bundle of contradictions. Also insanely masochistic.

  5. I wish the health care thing wasn’t true. I lately needed some medical attention and found out I am not yet eligible for Spanish health care, so I had to mooch of my GF. :/

  6. Writers find out there’s a film/TV series of a novel then buy the book (if its not on their bookcase/pile next to them already) before watching it (well, maybe not watch it cos its probably shit).

  7. I think the clearest way of knowing you’re a writer is finding that you write without even meaning to. I’ve opened Word documents and suddenly found pages of accidentical text. Like my fingers are on autopilot.

    Or possessed.

  8. Another sign: You stake turf in your house. Even spots away from your desk, office or studio; when the family sits down to watch a movie together, you have a corner of the couch with an assgrove that is all yours, because it’s close to the lamp and the laptop charger reaches the outlet, and there are probably three pens and a post-it pad stashed in the cushions. Your spouse will roll eyes when you squawk, “Don’t sit there!” but your child will nod patiently, and dig out the junkmail envelope -with the character notes you thought you’d lost a week ago- from underneath, smiling like they’ve found you the holy grail.

  9. There is only one writer’s motto that matters. “I can use that.” If you find yourself sitting at the deathbed of a dear friend, there is one part of your mind that is recording the pallor, the way he twists in pain, the color of the vomit.
    You’re ashamed of yourself, but you do it anyway.

  10. Another sign: Neurotic self-editing.
    “assgrove?!”
    Funny how the loss of an “o” can turn the cheek imprint on the sofa into a forest growing from aft region.
    Taking the “r” from “your friend’s shirt” is fun, too.

  11. This is awesome. I proofread EVERYTHING. I have even been known to take pictures of glaring errors in menus. The best one ever was when I was in college. A sign read, “Pardon our appearance. We’re making improvments.” IMPROVMENTS. It was amusing.

    I always keep three pens (at least) in my purse and a tiny notepad. If I get a story idea while I’m doing something else, I scribble it down. I once wrote an entire poem on a paper towel.

    Great post, as usual. Made me laugh — and made me feel a little bit less crazy about my quirks. *grin*

  12. I’m with Josin. It’s the fact you just can’t shut it off. I’ve had someone tell me I don’t have to act like a writer all the time, I can relax and just be normal. I laughed and laughed at that. You think I’m this way for a lark?? I tell people my brain does not work the same way theirs does and they think I’m kidding. I’m really, really not. I get twitchy like I’m going into some sort of withdrawal if I’m not working on something in some way. Even if I try to take a “break” from the actual opening-up-Word stuff, there’s the plot bunnies and the brainstorming. So I second: You can’t shut it off.

  13. After over a year of being one of the blessed legion of TMeeps, I’m now convinced you’re spying on me, Chuckles. You always seem to know when my confidence is waning and now just what to say to pick me up out of the spiral of “Am I a hack?” writer neurosis.

    Thank you.

    Also, that neurosis? Sure sign you’re a writer.

  14. I proofread everything as well. And I second-guess myself. I talk to myself and answer myself, sometimes in different tones. I have to watch this around other people; it’s not considered normal.

    My mind flies, and things come out of my mouth or out of my fingertips before I can stop them. Sometimes I’m amazed/horrified at what shows up.

    Good to see you’re having pretty mornings with the baby and dog.

  15. An inbox full of emails of people telling me politely, but unequivocally, the’d rather give Jesus a blinky than be responsible for letting anyone else in the world read my “work”.

    • I always knew that one day this would turn into a writer’s dating site.

      Also, this shall inform my next novel: “Seven Brides With Seven Deductibles For Seven Wayward Writers: Book One Of Seven.”

      — c.

  16. You’ve been following me! I knew it!

    I proofread billboards. And I’ve had story ideas while I was IN THE HOSPITAL and used my cell phone to email them to myself. The only reason I didn’t write them down in one of my notebooks is that my husband wouldn’t let me pack them.

    Yep, I’m hopeless.

  17. Oh, and I meant to say, yes, notebooks. I have three on me right now, for no good reason other than I have to have a different one for each project and I need them with me at all times, just in case I have a brain fart.

    I also have a folder containing larger pieces of paper because sometimes only A4 will do. And my netbook. All of which is extra daft because I’m currently at the day job and I have no actual time for notemaking… honest. *sly face*

  18. “You suspect non-readers of treachery to the human race”

    OMG! So, my 5 year old goes to a Montessori school. (Best place for her.) A few months ago, I went on a field trip with them and had to sit in a car full of crazy bitches (ie Mormon moms who don’t “support” Santa and have zero sense of humor…one of whom was convinced that Magic School Bus books belong in “non-fiction”… don’t get me started on that bitchfest). So, we’re talking about the school library (and my utter disdain for whomever put Magic School Bus in non-fiction) and this same mouth-breather says right to my face, “We got rid of so many books last year.”

    I had no response other than a dropped jaw. Seriously?

    “oh, no,” she says, “it’s a good thing. Montessori doesn’t need fiction.”

    She may as well have slapped me in the face. No place for fiction? Are you high? Are you fucking kidding me? Are you trying to kill me? It’s like saying to Tinkerbell you don’t believe in fairies. No place for fiction? I had so many responses to offer….most of them questioning her parentage or where she kept her tentacles. All of them were laced with the fuck-word. Finally, I stopped gaping like a dying fish and said, “That is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

    I saw her once after that and pointed her out to my husband as “the freak”. No place for fiction…*grumbles*…Magic School Bus in non-fiction…*mumble* bitch.

    Yeah, this is something you have to look forward to when B-dub starts school. OTHER KIDS’ PARENTS. Enjoy fucking with their heads. It’s the best way to deal with idiocy like this.

  19. Oh so tragically true on the non-readers. A cleaner once came to my flat, pointed to my books and said, “Look at all them videos.”

    I swear it was like she grew an extra head right there in front of me.

  20. Hello!!!!
    Wow!! You are such a writer! Here’s how I know: the 27 respondents above agree with you, and I laughed my way first through your article, then their comments!
    At least I know I’ not sick or weird when I am frustrated (a little disgusted too) at people who don’t know/are not interested in blogs.
    Another way to tell you’re a writer (especially if you’ve dabbled into script writing before); when you watch a movie you know how it will end. It’s sad for the people who watch with you because you feel the need to tell them from the 6th scene and so you spoil it for them. If they are your dad or best friend it won’t hurt that much cos they’ll be more awed that you were right than upset!
    Another way to tell you’re a writer is, sometimes against your better judgement, you will read anything! I saw a link to this post on Facebook and she warned about the language. I wouldn’t have read it (lie) because I’m trying to reduce the swearing. But guess what? I read it, and I definitely will be back for more!

  21. YES! I drive my friends crazy with “this film would have been much better if they’d only done this…” I’m still contemplating writing my ending for the Matrix trilogy and putting it on the web. Way better then the actual ending. But then a turd in a bag would have been better than that.

    The notebooks… I have so many and yet I’m always surprised when I “find” one (in a drawer, in a bag, under the sofa, on top of the kitty litter box). And don’t even get me started on the proofreading thing. It’s why I can’t read the free newspapers anymore – all the errors frustrate me too much!

    I am at once reassured, and concerned, that my behaviour is so predictable. Thanks for a great read.

  22. Uh, wow. So much of that seems to apply to me that it’s really kinda scary. I knew I was in trouble when I realized that I was subconsciously proof reading the section on proof reading.
    :0
    The only things that didn’t were the attraction to a mate’s health care and the drinking. But then again, I live in Canada so the health care’s covered (ah-ha, I win!) and the only reason I’m not drinking right now is that I’m at work.
    Wait, that’s not a good reason. Why the hell am I not drunk right now?

  23. Reading all the above posts, I realize this is actually a verifialble, recognizable syndrome. I don’t feel so weird anymore.
    I scored on all but bottle in the drawer (I’d love some, but we generally don’t) and HealthCare pheromones ( I M Canadian; we got it).
    So I guess I’m a writer.
    I resent all the interruptions that take me away from the keyboard.
    I think of stories all the time, no matter what I’m doing.
    i am bored by most TV or movies. Sometimes the most entertainment I get out of them is saying the next line out loud before the character speaking does.
    This does not endear me to fellow watchers.
    There is always a running commentary going on in my head. I’m just listening in on whoever it is that’s yakking.
    And I’m constantly proofreading/rewriting everything. Even other people’s tweets.
    I got the best laugh in a long time from this article, Chuck. You are my fave pen monkey so far.
    There are a million other things I should be doing, but I’m going to pop over to my friend Word’s place and have a little. : )

  24. Talk to myself all the fuckin’ time. My kids are like, “Mom – who are you talking to?” “No one, kids…it’s my characters having a moment.” LMAO!

    And don’t get me started on the imaginary friends. They still follow me around until I tell their story…

  25. Oh my yes! I do have spots around the house that are mine. Mine. MINE! The kids don’t even argue…they just get up and move when they see me looking. LOL. It’s difficult to control myself when guests come over and sit in my spot on the couch. My polite-hostess-self wages all out war with my territorial-writer-self.

    I have idea-moments that closely resemble some kind of absence seizure. “Honey?” “Mama?” “Sonia?” “Shh! I’m having an idea!” And then I get all excited but won’t tell them what the idea was because I don’t want to taint it. LOL

  26. The walk from my office to the train station takes about 15 minutes. I spend most of that walk figuring out scenes and conversations. Usually they play themselves out in my head, but I’m pretty sure facial expressions slip through sometimes, even if words don’t. I feel sort of bad glowering at other pedestrians when my characters are arguing with one another.

  27. My husband used to stop and ask “what are you doing” in the middle of the night when I’d be awake and talking in different character voices. I know people in cars think I’m completely mental when I’m making hand gestures and everything.

    And the “assgrove?” Oh, God, I spit tea out of my nose when I read that comment for I, too, have a Mom’s side of the couch with laptop desk, couple of books in case the kids want to watch “I Carly” again, pens, chargers, and, of course, lots and lots of candy. Runts preferrably with all the green & orange removed.

  28. EVERY single ONE of these statements is ME! I have been known to red-pen the local papers, and I stopped my subscription to one because of the crappy editing. Yes, that stuff bugs the hell out of me. I also have a spot in my living room that the kids are required to ignore and they aren’t allowed to complain about it. I thought I was weird for having conversations with myself all the time and I do walk around glowering at people, not because of a bad mood, but because I’m observing the on-goings in my head. It just looks like I’m angry. The alcohol? Could be drinking now, but can’t… It’ll wait until later. Thank you SO much for the laugh!! Wow… Belly hurts…

  29. When watching TV, a movie, reading a book or playing a video game or wanking it to some porn, you know exactly when your suspension of disbelief broke. “Come on, a loving, caring mother with her 30lbs four year old unrestrained in the front seat when she should be in a booster seat in the back until she’s eighty pounds? Yeah right.” “Someone that whiny would never get someone that hot, I don’t care what kind of fantasy this is.” “She had sex with how many people in three hours?!” (last one not a porn, I swear to God)

  30. @Lauren. I’m so there with you. I catch myself when my face gets tired from holding one of my character’s expressions. Last year, at a Nanowrimo write-in, I had people asking me every few minutes if I was okay.

  31. Exactly with the can’t help it can’t stop gods help me but I can’t bits… and doode. Stay the hell outta my desk drawer. My pens… MY PRECIOUSSESS!!

    *lickseyebrows*

    *returnstofuckingact2*

  32. Thank you! I seriously thought I was the only one who had conversations while in the shower. This makes me feel much better.

    You put this in the perfect words.

  33. My first imaginary friend was named Bellam, who was a boy my age, but had 3 arms. He wore a horizontal shirt like Ernie. Actually, I think he was real because half the kids in my neighborhood either had polio, asthma or were deaf.

    Yes, I am a writer. I bellowed my claim when I finished my first book, then broke some shit. You should have added that most writers would like to re-script episodes from their lives. I wish the Jocks would mess with me now, because I’ve got taunts and comebacks that would’ve killed. I’d die anyway, but at least my last words were funny.

  34. The part about the imaginary friends and a couple of the other items (not confessing which ones) scared me. Except I clearly don’t drink enough. And I’m the one with health care. Damn it. Never could be 100% one thing or the other. But maybe that means there’s hope. Writer’s Anonymous?

  35. *stares at wine glass, then at computer, then back at wine glass*

    Yup. Sounds about right.

    Seriously, though, save the noose and hanggun, this could be my “About Me”.

  36. You’re a writer if ….

    Your day starts and ends with writing or thinking about writing.

    You drive every business and newspaper in your community nuts with your editing, which you share freely…until they want it, then you charge them $1 a page.

    Your children write better than their teachers and are better read, as well.

    Book shelves line your home.

    Your to-read list is as long as your to-write list.

    You feel lost without a method to ‘get it down’ within arm’s reach.

    You can discuss story with a geekitude that would give Joss Whedon a run for his money.

    You know the cheapest place in town to get alcohol.

    You read Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds blog.

    You don’t suffer from insanity, you enjoy every minute of it.

  37. God help people when I can drink. Oh sweet Jesus… *evil little chuckle*

    Also: When you freak out because you can take ‘creative writing’ courses this year at school. Life. Is. Gooooood.

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