The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

Before I embarked upon my detailed explanation I wanted to be sure that I had my terms right, so I looked them up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. According to the primary definitions in this source, an author is “the writer of a literary work (such as a book),” whereas a writer is “one that writes.” Note that an author is someone who has written something in the past. A person can call themselves an author if they write and publish one thing and never write again. A writer, on the other hand, is someone who writes in the present; in a broad sense, a writer is someone whose occupation, career, calling, or pursuit is writing, and this is not an activity that was only performed in the past, but it is ongoing.

Many people are satisfied to be authors, and sometimes their stories or books are very successful. They might write one important work that attracts attention, wins awards, and makes them famous, and then they are content to rest on their laurels and allow themselves to be referred to using the “A” word. A famous example of this is Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then for the rest of her life never published another work. In contrast, my old Clarion West teacher, the famous speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison often pointed out that he was a writer and not an author. He made it clear that authors are people who have written something, but writers write because that is their occupation, their function, their reason for existence.

I fall definitively into the camp of the writers. I can’t not write. I have to write. I don’t mean that I do it all day to the exclusion of everything else, but I schedule time for it every day, seven days a week, and I set myself a goal during that time of writing at least five hundred original words. If I am in the midst of proofreading a story or book I excuse myself from the work count, but otherwise I do my best to accomplish it. Most of the time I manage easily, especially if I am working on a long project. It is more difficult if I’m writing short stories, because then I have to have a fresh idea and start again from scratch every week or so. I’m not overly hard on myself; I allow myself the grace of a day or two if I have to gather my wits and launch them again in a new direction.

However, I finished the first draft of my latest novelette on Wednesday, and it is now Saturday. I have been mulling a new story over in my mind, but it has not germinated sufficiently for me to begin writing it. I don’t have to know the whole thing in advance; even the first scene is enough to get started, but I don’t even have that. I have an idea, and I have some characters. I have written extensive notes on the ideas and characters. I have taken walks during which I turn over the ideas that I have in my mind and explore alternatives of viewpoints, settings, and so on. I look at what I have from various angles attempting to get some sort of tenuous grip on the material. So far, nothing.

And this brings me to the point of this essay. It is painful to be not writing. It hurts. It depresses me. I can’t stand it. For me, it is the most excruciating pain I can experience in the pursuit of my art. That includes rejections. Those are painful too. I should know; I have received thousands of them, and every one of them hurts. It pains me that I put my heart and soul into composing the best stories I can, the stories I feel that no one else out there is writing, and then have them be summarily dismissed by editor after editor, or to write and publish twenty-six books and over one hundred stories and yet still not have them earn enough to support me financially. This pain, though, severe as it is, is not nearly as acute as the pain of not being able to write.

After all, you can’t make people like your work. Different people have different tastes and that’s just the way it is. When it comes to selling stories to magazines and anthologies and selling books through marketplaces such as Amazon, the creative act is over. We are talking about selling, and selling is business, and business has nothing to do with the creation of artistic works. Writing, on the other hand, if done purely, is an act of creation. You are all alone with your thoughts and your inspiration and you use words to sculpt these into expressions that others can understand.

To me, sometimes writing seems like bricklaying; I build one word upon another because I know that’s how they are supposed to go. Other times, I am scarcely conscious of what I am doing; I am in a state of emotional ecstasy. This often happens when I get near the end of a story. The sensation of bricklaying often takes place in the midpoint of a work when I inevitably question my own abilities. It can simply be a matter of getting too caught up in the details and losing sight of the larger perspective. It’s good to keep in mind under these circumstances the viewpoints expressed by Medieval bricklayers: they were not laying bricks; they were building cathedrals.

In conclusion, I realize that there is no cure for the malady I have just described. At least for me, it is terminal. Right now, I work eight or ten hours a day researching and writing essays that I ghostwrite for other people. This pays my rent and bills, but none of it counts towards my daily word count. That’s what I accomplish late at night when I am done with the rest. When I think of retirement, I never consider it in terms of cessation of effort. Instead, I think in terms of being able to do my stint of creative writing first thing every day instead of having to put it off until last. Even if I had sufficient income to comfortably provide for my physical needs, I would still write seven days a week. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do.

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2 Responses to The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

  1. I too write every day, though I don’t feel as bad for not writing. Thanks for sharing this important distinction. I guess I’m very much a writer still.

  2. Lawrence Reh says:

    Writers are engaged in their calling even when they’re not actually putting words on paper (or into the computer). Writing goes on very much in the head, during many other activities, but it can’t stay there, or it becomes only dreaming. The end step is putting the words together, as you say, brick by brick. And sometimes you have to tear down a section and rebuild it.

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