How to Tell If You’re a Writer


There are two voices, and the first says, “Write!”
And the second voice says, “For Whom?” . . .
And the first voice says, “For the dead whom thou didst love.”

-John Berryman, 1968, quoting Kierkegaard, who in turn is quoting Hamann.

            Just to be on the up-and-up, I too am quoting someone here-Peter Davidson from the Atlantic Monthly.  The great irony of this is that all these people are writers.  What is it about writers?  We are storytellers and lovers of language-the manner in which words can be used not only to express any circumstance and situation, but also gradations of truth and radiations of perception.  Somehow we never consider the backdoor that old saw, “a picture is worth a thousand words”: the thousand or ten thousand words we spend unpacking a picture create a reality, a new and actual dimension that pixels and even the atomic substructure of creation cannot express.  Writers are re-creators, people for whom possible realities are all “variations on common themes.”

            At some point somebody is going to figure out what makes a writer need to write.  It may be a geneticist who discovers some funky mutation of a certain chromosome; they’ll “fix” us with gene therapy in order to give us back our lives-and then wonder three months later why all the joy and mystery went out of the world.  Or maybe it isn’t genetic.  Maybe it’s behavioral.  Maybe a human organism, exposed to the extremes of emotional experience in infancy before verbal ability is acquired, seizes the creative initiative over the course of a lifetime to put into words an experiential cataclysm that is no longer consciously remembered.  Third choice-and this is my favorite: it’s an addiction.  Here’s my definition of writing: compulsive creative behavior combined with an obsessive mental state of storytelling resulting in the inability to function without ever increasing doses of literary acting out.  Of course, as William Glasser pointed out, there are both positive and negative addictions. . . .  So, which is writing?  Depends on how tolerant one’s family and friends are, I suspect.

            Anyway, whatever the source of the condition that afflicts us, the important thing is to determine whether or not you are indeed a writer.  Here is a simple list of ten characteristics in the form of questions.  If you answer “yes” to three or more of these . . . well, I really don’t have to tell you, do I?  [By the way, wherever the word “story” appears below, feel free to substitute the words “poem” or “essay.”]


  1. Do you have the ability to tell what a character in a book, play, movie or TV program is going to say long before it’s actually said; or the ability to tell what’s going to happen to each character before the story is half-over; or the desire to rewrite the ending of the story before it’s over?
  2. Does it irritate you that professional critics often don’t understand the most basic elements of the books, movies, plays or stories they are critiquing?  [I’m still waiting for any critic to notice and figure out Spielberg’s use of the colors red and blue in the remake of War of the Worlds.]
  3. When you sit down to write a story or to describe a character, does he or she take on a totally unexpected life or “say” something you never consciously intended?
  4. Have you ever had difficulty “killing off” a character in your story because she or he was so intriguing and full of possibility for you, his or her creator? [This is why I’ll never be a great crime writer; what use is a dead character?]
  5. Have you ever been unable to sleep because a character or story was creating itself in your mind; or awakened from sleep because a character or story needed your consciousness to develop itself; or stayed awake and focused for hours while you were driving, walking, run or pretending to work as a story wrote itself in your mind?
  6. Did you ever write or create a story and afterwards discover that it fit a genre you had never written in before; or created a character who was totally unlike anyone you had ever known, and yet was totally believable?
  7. Do you consider the finished stories you have written to be creations you value somewhere between children and friends; yet do you yearn with each new story to “get it right this time?” [So, does this mean that best selling authors who basically recycle their stories with ever diminishing creativity are no longer writers?]
  8. Do you have mental list or a computer file or a spiral notebook with the ideas for or outlines of stories that you have not written but intend to one day?
  9. Have you ever had the experienced of a family member, acquaintance or friend being totally amazed at the world you created in a story you wrote and then regarding you differently; and then did you feel as if you had “exposed” yourself?
  10. When you consider Berryman’s command to write for the dead whom thou didst love, do you know immediately for whom you write?


If you did not answer yes to three of more of these questions, good for you.  If you did, then you know.  Go back now and try to put it into words.

-Laz Barnhill


Filed under Lazarus Barnhill

7 responses to “How to Tell If You’re a Writer

  1. I don’t fit into your definition of a writer. Nor do I fit into the common definition of a writer — that a writer writes, always. Hmm. What does that make me? Is there a definition for who has written and who will probably write again?

    Wonderful article, by the way.

  2. Well, I can answer “yes” to every bullet, so either I am a writer or I have a mental illness. And since a therapist already ruled the latter out, I guess that means I’m a writer! Great post, Laz. Oh, got to go. Dante’s calling me. 😉

  3. ceylanthewriter

    I answered yes to eight of those things. Wow.


  4. Tooty

    Oh dear – all ten I’m afraid. You must have met me sometime. So I’m not a nut-case after all!


  5. Niki

    Hiya Laz,
    I am an 11 year old and my dream is to become an author. I answered yes to every question!
    Do you have any tips for a futre career of an author?
    Niki (short for Nicola, my name)

  6. Just found this article and yes, I’m a writer, and a published author who has yet to find “fortune or fame” or a paying JOB!

    Only writers understand other writers and the wanna bes only want to know how much $$ you make. Now that anyone with a computer and internet access and the POD “publishers” multiplying like weeds, EVERYONE thinks they’re writers, but I doubt even half would be able to answer more than one or two of these questions.

  7. Andrew

    Excellent article Laz. I answered yes to every question. Your definition of writing was spot on, you hit the nail on the head. It’s an addictive craving to express yourself and your characters through words and only other people who believe they have truly been called to write have felt it and can even try to describe it. My father believes I’m wasting my time on my “stories” as he puts it, nice to know that someone understands me.

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