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amwritingFirst off, HAPY EMERGING WRITERS’ FESTIVAL, MELBOURNE! Seriously, the EWF is one of my favourite Melbourne things. It’s a bunch of writers sharing their experiences and figuring out how to make a life in letters. It’s interactive, breaking the fourth wall between presenters and audience, and it’s not cliquish and hierarchical the way many writers’ festivals are.

Last night I went along to a meet-and-greet, hosted by Mary with a bunch of other writers in what appeared to be a disused building (because Melbourne). Being a writer I prefer my laptop to people and suck horribly at networking, but it’s a necessary evil. So, armed with a plan to linger at the bar until I was sufficiently drunk enough not to care what people thought of me (thankfully I’m a cadbury and this is a quick, cheap exercise), along to the ‘icebreaker’ I went. It was actually wonderful. Upon arrival we were each given a wrist band with half a quote and had to find our other half and where the quote came from, which was a convenient excuse to grab strangers’ wrists and demand their life stories.

What I discovered is that almost everyone had the same story: they wrote stuff, but they didn’t consider themselves to be writers. Which begs the question: at what point do we become ‘writers’?

When I was younger and people asked what I did, I’d tell them with great confidence that I was a writer. And I was. Sure, I was still studying and I wasn’t a particularly good writer, but I was working on a novel (that first attempted novel that is inevitably relegated, half-finished to its untimely grave in the bottom desk drawer). I wrote angsty poetry and I read every book I could get my hands on. If I wasn’t a writer, then what was I?

But when I told people that was what I was, they’d respond with, ‘Oh, like J K Rowling?’ Which is kind of like telling someone that you’ve just started your own business and having them liken you to Richard Branson. Or they’d ask where they could buy my book. I felt like I was misleading people. It seemed the term ‘writer’ was something that had to be earned and I was being presumptuous.

I retreated back to my desk and stayed there for years. I graduated and went on to do a creative writing PhD, which I felt equally awkward admitting to people because I felt like a fraud (I get to write about my favourite books for four years and then I get to be a doctor? Really?). People assume that PhD candidates must be super smart. Every PhD candidate I’ve ever met has felt they are not smart enough to be doing what they are doing and are convinced that at some point someone from the administration will burst into their office and announce that there has been a mistake in letting them enrol. In our defence, we don’t all have super low self-esteem. That first year when your job is to READ ALL THE THINGS, you realise for the first time just how little you actually know. You are Plato’s cave people walking outside for the first time. It’s overwhelming and terrifying and you never forget it. Even now, when people call me Mrs Hender, I feel awkward and apologetic when I tell them that, actually, it’s Dr McGovern.

As well as the PhD, I’ve published a bunch of articles and reviews, worked as an associate editor for a magazine for over two years, finished one novel and written a good chunk of the first draft of the next. I write every day. And yet, it’s only recently that I’ve committed to the term ‘writer’. I still don’t feel entitled to it. But I’ve realised that maybe I never will. I used to think that once I saw my name in print I would be a writer. I still felt I wasn’t. Then I thought, when I make enough money from writing to support myself, that’s when it will happen. I do, and it didn’t. Then I thought when I get a novel published—I’ll definitely be a writer then. I haven’t made it there yet (to all my fellow first-time novelists who are trying to find a publisher, raise your glass with me and take a shot), but fuck it. There will be something else after that anyway.

What I’ve realised is that it’s not up to a publisher to gift me or anyone else that identity. In fact, if we can’t go to a publisher or an editor and declare ourselves writers, we don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’re not going to get better at our craft if we see it as some kind of embarrassing hobby, some remnant of a childhood dream we are yet to shake off.

When I call myself a writer, I stop feeling the need to apologise for the space I make in my life to write. When friends want to go out for coffee on one of my writing days, I don’t feel like I’m lying when I tell them I’m working. Owning the title of writer allows me to approach my work in a professional manner, even if my creative work isn’t bringing in a pay cheque. It forces me to be disciplined and rigorous and to prove myself worthy of that title. And that’s the most important thing, especially for novelists. Books take a really long time to write and during that time you are both your worst enemy and your only cheerleader. When you sit down to write, for each of those hundreds—thousands—of hours, you are alone. And if you can’t believe in yourself and your work, no one else is going to champion it for you.

So to all those bright young things I met last night: we don’t need to apologise for or deny what we are—there will be plenty of people to do that for us. To be a writer all we need to do is write.