I recently had the honor of writing this guest post on Beyond the Margins:

“Are you a writer?”

These were the first words uttered by our Advanced Fiction-Writing instructor at the Harvard Extension School one autumn evening several years ago. We students looked around at each other sheepishly. Shyly, we sized each other up. This was an advanced writing class, after all. Surely some of us must be bonafide writers. But no hands were raised. Finally, one of the men in the class spoke up.

“Well, I was on a plane once and the woman next to me asked, ‘What do you do?’”

He paused.

“I thought about saying, ‘I’m a writer.’”

He looked down at his lap.

“But I didn’t.”

Why are those words so hard to say? I am a writer. After all, I write. Daily. Hundreds of words at a sitting. I’ve been doing it for years. I’m in a writing group. Who joins a writing group if not a writer? My mailbox is filled with magazines on the craft—Poets & Writers, The Writer, Writer’s Digest—not to mention the weekly rejection letters from various literary journals. Surely the mailman thinks I’m a writer.

Maybe it’s our culture. In other cultures, first questions asked after introductions are about family. Who are your parents? Where are they from? Here in America, we place greater importance on our work lives, our careers. When people ask, “What do you do?” it’s understood that they mean “What do you do for work?” “How do you make your living?” Not “What do you think about every waking moment of your life?” (Though that may be the easier question to answer.)

The truth is I didn’t raise my hand in class that day either. For me, it would have felt fraudulent somehow at that point. Sure, I wrote. But I couldn’t be a writer. It’s not how I made my living. I hadn’t even been published yet.

It wasn’t until some months later that I got my first real validation that perhaps what I was spending so much of my time (and money) on was in fact more than just a glorified hobby. I entered a writing contest for short fiction and placed third out of a field of almost 8000 entries. It wasn’t publication, but it was evidence that someone else thought I had some talent. Someone whose job it was to recognize it. Someone who wrote for a living.

I began sending my work out to literary journals and slowly the acceptances trickled in. An essay here. A short story there. Winning the contest had given me the self-assurance I needed to at least think of myself as a writer (even if I couldn’t yet say those words out loud: I am a writer).

My resume grew, but I still hadn’t been paid for my work. Here in America, didn’t that still disqualify me from calling myself a writer in public?

With the confidence that contest gave me, I began sending my work out to higher-paying venues and surprised myself by actually getting paid for my work. With an expanded platform, I secured an agent and landed a book deal. Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude will be published by Globe Pequot Press in September. Now I will finally be able to call myself not just a writer but an author.

Attitude is important. We may be what we do for a living, but we’re so much more than that. We are our goals. We are what we think about every waking moment of our days. That one writing contest just confirmed for me what I perhaps should have known all along: I am a writer.