A Twitter pal asked me this question: When can I call myself a writer? My answer was pretty simple, though I qualified it as one man’s opinion.

You are what you say you are when you make a living at it.

We traded a few more tweets which were mostly me clarifying my point of view as nothing more than a personal preference. There was no rule that said one couldn’t claim to be a writer though not having earned any coin at it. It was just that before I made a living as a word jockey, I was pretty circumspect about declaring I was something I wasn’t. For one reason, it was self-humbling. I wasn’t going to call myself a writer until I’d earned it. The other side of the coin was a bit of vanity. I knew the universe was full of back-biting begrudgers. Especially the world of showbiz wannabes. I simply didn’t care for anybody thinking I was some kind of pretender. Thus, when asked, I was pretty straight. I told people that I worked odd jobs while trying to break into the movie game.

I reminded my Twitter friend there was no shame in aspiring.

That said, the query rang a tuning fork in me, stirring a memory from back in my single days. I was never much for pickup bars. But I briefly hung with a crew that used to refer to trolling for girls in bars as “Blonde Patrol.” I’d only just begun making my rent as a screenwriter. Yet when I’d get into a dialogue with some available honey, there came the moment she’d ask that salient question:

“So what do you do?”

“I’m a screenwriter,” was my honest reply.

It was as if a bullshit sensor had tripped and the girl would turn cold. Eventually, I confessed the problem to one of my Blonde Patrol crew, who hipped me to this little tidbit:

“Around here?” he began. “Everybody’s a Goddamn screenwriter. Or at least says he is.”

“Which means nobody is,” I concluded, pretty much overstating the obvious.

“Exactly.”

Lesson learned, I began doing way better at the Hollywood pickup scene when I returned to my former truth.

I do odd jobs while trying to break into showbiz.

Was I naïve not to recognize that few in or around showbiz were as they claimed to be? Well, I had to learn sometime that taking everybody at his initial word led to much misinformation.

“I’m a movie still photographer,” said the clerk in the cigar shop. “I’m just doing this until my roommate gets the money to make his movie.”

“I have a band,” said the musician-slash-dry-cleaner attendant. “Just doing this while we finish overdubs on our first record.”

Then there’s this classic bit of dialogue of which even I’ve mistakenly been engaged.

“I’m an actress,” said the stunner at the party.

“You said you’re a waitress?” said I, pretending not to have heard her say she was an actress. Rude? Yes? Deserving of having a drink tossed in my face? Sure. Why not? I surely wouldn’t have been the first or last. I might only defend myself by expressing the frustration that comes with so few people in Lala Land willing to admit their actual occupation.

I used to commonly lament it seemed that nobody in the 213, 310, or 818 area codes was content with his current status. Everybody wanted to be somebody else.

Then came this doozy of a conversation.

The War Department and I had just finished sitting through a one-act play that had been directed by the wife of a friend. The woman–let’s call her Compli-Kate– was quite accomplished as an actress and choreographer, with a growing list of credits on her resume. After the show, the four of us found a bar and drank wine. I ran into an agent pal and introduced him to the couple.

“And this is Kate,” I said, introducing Compli-Kate. “We just saw the one-act she directed.”

“Are you a director?” asked the agent.

“Oh, she’s way more than that,” I bragged, not allowing her to answer for herself. “Kate’s a gifted actor and choreographer.”

“You are?” said the agent, impressed. “Do I know your work?”

Our social chat carried on for a bit. We drank a little more, congratulated Compli-Kate and her husband on the stellar evening, and I searched for my valet ticket.

The following morning I received a disturbing phone call.

“I’m really hurt,” said Compli-Kate via hardline.

“Did you say ‘hurt?’” I asked, unsure of the quality of the phone connection.

“Last night!” she said. “When you introduced me to your agent friend.”

“Sorry,” I instantly assumed. “I hate when friends do that to me. I was just bragging on you.”

“Not that,” she said.

“Oh. Then what?”

“You told him I was an actress and choreographer.”

“Right,” I said, thinking maybe she hadn’t quite put together the bragging part with the actress-slash-choreographer part. “And I’m really sorry. I just wanted him to be impressed with you. My bad. Like I said, I hate when people do that to–“

“No,” she interrupted. “You know how hard I’ve been working on my writing.”

“Your writing? What does that have to do with anything?”

“You told him I was an actress/choreographer.”

“Which you are.”

“I know. But I’m working really really hard on my writing.”

“And?”

“It hurts me that you didn’t validate that.”

“In front of the agent?”

“Or anybody else. I’m not just an actress or a choreographer.”

“A working actress and choreographer.”

“Yes.”

“Do you know how rare that is? An actual working actor and choreographer?”

“I don’t get you.”

“You are a working actress and choreographer. Be proud of it.”

“I am. But I’m also proud of my writing.”

“And good for you. But I’m not going to introduce you as a writer.”

“See? That’s what really hurts.”

“That you’re not a writer?”

“But I am a writer.”

“But you make your living as an actress and choreographer.”

“You think that’s all I am?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“But you did to that agent.”

“I was bragging on you.”

“You said that.”

“The agent meets wannabes every damn day—actors and choreographers. Not very often he bumps into the real deal. And you’re the real deal.”

“Just not a real writer.”

“Wow,” I think I finally said. “How’s this? I apologize and we forget that I was trying to do you a favor.”

“By leaving out that I’m a writer.”

“You’re not a writer. You’re someone who writes. But not a writer. Not yet.”

“My husband’s a film producer. He says I’m a writer. And he would know.”

“He loves you.”

“But you’re a writer. And coming from you…”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, trying like hell to sound like I meant it.

For the life of me, I recall this conversation like it was yesterday. Or maybe the day before yesterday. Except for the part where or how it ended or who hung up first. I do remember that not long after, Compli-Kate filed for divorce from her producer husband. I suppose he wasn’t supportive enough.

Still, after all that, I haven’t changed my opinion. We are what we are. Confirmed by a tile mason I once hired who confessed to me that he was a former aeronautical engineer.

“That’s so cool,” I said, impressed as hell. “You’re an aeronautical engineer.”

“No I’m not,” he corrected. “I’m a tile mason. And damned proud of it.”

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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Steven Axelrod

    I used to annoy the hell of people in my MFA workshops. When we went around the table identifying ourselves on the first day I always said “I’m a hobbyist.” But it was true, and remains true. The fact that I have two publishing deals, one on a series of mystery novels, doesn’t change things much. It’ll take more than a $1000 advance for me to say anything but “Painting contractor” when people ask about my job. Faulkner used to say “By profession I’m a farmer.” If it was good enough for him …

    • Doug Richardson

      Good on you, Steven. And it sounds like we’re in decent company.

  • Manny P

    Very nice entertaining blog, boss. Loved it. I guess by profession I am a photographer, and on my free time I work on becoming a Writer. Thanks for the advice.

    • Doug Richardson

      Anytime, Manny. Thanks for the spark.

  • clive

    Weve all got our own issues with self image, self esteem. Someone fat might not like ihaving it pointed out, and if i had to attack writers for being writers? Well i read that sixth sense took twenty writes, and only on write ten did he figure out that Bruce was dead all the time. And that was with a really good writer, imagine how many it would have took a duffer.

    • Doug Richardson

      Sometimes you get the take in one. Sometimes in fifty. And for the record. I am fat.

      • clive

        Thinking further my symapthy is probably with the woman strident or not. Saying this woman was not a writer (okay you didn’t say exactly that), but could this have cost you work with hubby? Also recall the word dilletante causing trouble, and remarking a certain actor likes to swear.These things might be true, but sometimes they offend and your name comes off the list.- but no ones ever going to tell you. Just a thought.

        • Doug Richardson

          Thanks for looking out for me, Clive. But I’m good with the way things are.

  • I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a “writer” because, like you, I don’t feel like I’ve earned that right until I get paid. I DO say that “I write screenplays.” A subtle distinction but it doesn’t make me cringe when I say it 🙂

    • Doug Richardson

      Whatever feels comfortable, Monique. Some times I’ll get people who come up to me and say “So you’re a writer, huh?” And I’ll say, “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

  • wonder

    That was great. Reality doesn’t have to be demeaning. We can aspire, and be proud of who we are along the journey.

    • Doug Richardson

      Perfectly put, Wonder. And you said it wayyyyyyy fewer words than I did.

  • Eric Anderson

    So what do you call someone who has written an independent film but hasn’t made enough from it to say they’re making a living at it? I’m not comfortable calling myself a “hobbyist,” because independent filmmaking is like a second full-time job, but it’s not paying the bills (yet).

    • Doug Richardson

      See your point, Eric. Perhaps you could say you put in long hours at the Charity of You?

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    Sorry Doug, you can’t call yourself fat…you’re not making money at it. Or is there a side career we don’t know about? 😉

    • Doug Richardson

      Kaboom. Mind blown. Theory on melt.

  • Steve Sasaki

    Thanks for the blog, it was helpful…I once heard Steve Zaillian say something to the effect, it took him about ten years working as a professional before he believed he was for real… It was a relief. It allowed me to tell myself, see, just do the work don’t worry about any titles.

    • Doug Richardson

      You’re welcome Steve. In truth, considering some of my film titles, one might not even call me a writer.

      • Steve Sasaki

        It is unfair, a Plumber’s title is unquestioned, regardless of the neighborhood he works in…

  • fbluhm

    Very thought-provoking piece, Doug. For nearly thirty years I was a “paid” writer. But, I don’t do that anymore. Sure, I still write, but it’s for myself now. That said, I wonder… am I still a writer, or am I back to square one until I’m getting paid to do it again – or sell a screenplay? I’m with Monique: when people ask the obvious question, I just tell them I’m writing screenplays in the hopes of selling one someday. It may take a while, though; I just started on a western 🙂 Anyway, thanks for the honesty lesson, Doug. Fred

    • Doug Richardson

      Can’t really call the piece a lesson. Just my view on that existential question.

  • Lloyd Vance

    I dunno.

    By this logic, Chekhov was just a doctor.

    I get paid to write, but I can’t pay my mortgage by only writing. Does that mean I’m a writer or not…? I’m a second degree black belt and don’t get paid for that, but that lack of payment doesn’t take the identification away.

    Who you are, what you are and what you’re paid for are very different in my book. However, if someone asks me what I do, it is in context. I would say in a bar, I would take your approach, Doug, say what you’re paid to do. If I’m with people who create, I tell them what I create. If I’m with my friends, I lie and brag like a motherfucker.

    • Doug Richardson

      Chekhov might not have been just a doctor. But had somebody asked him what was his occupation, what might he have answered? Considering the time and place, my guess is that he’d answer that he was a doctor and save his passionate pastime for sharing with his peers. Again, Lloyd. I’m arguing nothing. Just how I view things.

  • paul

    I would just say I decline to answer that question. But would you want to tell girls you’re a writer anyway? That’s like saying I’m a grip. Its hilarious that your friend was fighting to be recognized as a writer….. I just let people assume I’m a Rockefeller….

    And what about people who have had their material optioned or have big time representation? Do they just say I’m a former waiter who’s repped by wme?

    • Doug Richardson

      They say whatever pleases them, Paul.

  • Tim O’Connell

    I agree Doug. She isn’t getting paid to write so she shouldn’t expect you to declare her a writer to an agent. She could have piped in and said ” I’m an aspiring screenwriter also” and that would have been fine.

    I’ve written some screenplays but I would never call myself a writer unless I was getting paid for my work, and supporting myself on that writing. I mow my lawn every now an again. That doesn’t make me a landscaper. I’ve done my own taxes a few times(thanks for the assist TurboTax), but that doesn’t make me an accountant.

    There is nothing at all wrong with being an “aspiring” anything, as many have said. If nothing else it keeps you humble and hungry.

    • Doug Richardson

      Like the way you think, Tim.

      • Tim O’Connell

        likewise 🙂