Remember the comedian known for his Here's Your Sign routine? Bill Engvall described people who asked questions with obvious answers and then said, "Here's your sign," handing them a metaphorical I'm Stupid sign to declare their status to the general public.
It's easier to identify when to pick up the stupid sign than the writer sign.
In my college days, I became a grocery checker the day I passed the test, sat in front of the register, and began keying grocery prices as I slid items from my counter back into a cart.
After college, I became a welfare eligibility worker the day I walked on terrified legs to the lobby of the Old Courthouse in Abilene and called my first client, a sweet little old man who probably received only ten dollars per month in food stamps, but appreciated the annual conversation with his caseworker.
Years later, as a newly single mom returning to the workforce, I became a customer service rep, at least in name, weeks before I perched a headset over my ears and pressed the call button for the first time to help a purchasing agent order supplies for ophthalmic surgery. And probably long before I learned the correct spelling for ophthalmic.
But when I started writing, I wasn't sure when I could officially give that answer to people who asked:
"What do you do?"
In our uncertain economy, anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself or herself a writer. Literary agents bemoan how query numbers have increased exponentially in 2009. Apparently, when the economy's bad, everyone decides they have a book in them. It's a get-rich-quick scheme, right? Uh huh. Refer back to Pamela's post.
But, seriously, when are you officially a writer?
Is it when you pick up the pen or pull the keyboard snug against your wrists, realizing two decades after college that you really did want to be a writer after all, cringing at all the years you've wasted, but accepting that you probably gained some great material in the interim?
Or when you're sending query letters to literary agents for your First Novel, though you have two or three trunk novels quivering in shame beneath your bed, too embarrassed to emerge ever again?
Maybe it's when you begin calling the novels you're writing by strange acronyms, like LOTH. Or B/O, the Manuscript Formerly Known as LOTH. Or acronyms that make nice nicknames, like St. Woy (my current work in progress).
Maybe the true signs are more subtle.
Maybe it's when your husband pulls the naked checkbook from your handbag to tear off carbons and record your purchases, and he asks, "What's this?" and proceeds to read aloud the first two paragraphs of your current manuscript because you wrote them on the manila backing while you were out and inspiration struck and you had nowhere else to write and thank goodness you only had two checks left.
Or it's when you're in street clothes at the pool in 101 degrees of Texas heat, scribbling in a notebook while the kids swim. You look up at your 11-year-old, bobbing by the side of the pool when you hear her friend ask, "What's your mom doing?"
"She's thinking of phrases she can use for her book and writing them down. Like . . . I can hear the slap of the water against the side of the pool like I've never heard it before . . ." She flings her arms dramatically on slap and never.
"No," you say. "That was last time. This time I'm thinking about Austin."
"Okay, then . . . I can smell the pollution . . . I can hear the traffic . . . I can see the college students as they drink and party . . . oh, wait . . . I can hear the college students blasting my eardrums with the sounds of . . . no, wait . . ." She wrinkles her forehead, and her gaze drifts to the side.
"Pretty close, actually," you say, and her friend regards you like she might regard a new insect species, but they shrug and swim away.
It's likely the moment you see an email from a prospective agent pop up in your inbox. You open it and feel a momentary, painful clenching of your stomach muscles as you read the phrase "Not right for me." Then, you tap the keys to file it away in a remote folder and immediately create another query.
It's definitely the day someone asks, "What do you do?" and you reply:
"I'm a writer."
No dry throat, no flushed cheeks, and no sweaty palms saying you might need an I'm Stupid sign for calling yourself a writer.