Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you know you're a writer? (04/15/12)

Featured writer: Joy Lazendorfer

Contributors this month:
Ann Carranza
Bill Baker
Catherine Crawford
Claire Holcomb- Drapkin
Claudia Larson
Don Edgers
G. M. Monks
Harriet Gleeson
Heather L. Seggel
Kay Butzin
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders
T’Mara Goodsell

How do you know you’re a writer?

by Joy Lazendorfer

For me, it was when I started to publish. I began as a writer at the age of 21 when I published my first short story in a now-defunct journal for something like $100. It wasn't much money, but it shifted how I saw myself, taking me out of the realm of a hobbyist and into the realm of a professional. That was a vital shift to make.

In a field where everyone who has taken English 101 can believe they have the skills to be a "writer," these kinds of distinctions are important. I'm a pretty good cook, but I would never call myself a chef.

Likewise, if I just wrote for fun or personal enlightenment—which of course, I do--but never published, I wouldn't call myself a writer. The word connotes a level of professionalism that is tied to people seeing your work in print.

And you know, I like the idea that "writer" is a label that you have to earn through the hard-scrabble reality of the submission/rejection cycle of publishing. It reminds me of another word, "author." Even though I am technically the author of many articles and works of fiction, I don't call myself by that word because it is usually associated with someone who has published a book. I haven't published a book, so the word "author" is not for me—yet. But I'm sure someday, it will be.

Joy Lanzendorfer is a writer living in Petaluma, CA. Her articles and fiction have appeared in the Black Warrior Review, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, North Bay Bohemian, and many others. She's also co-founder of the local writing group, Word Pirates. She has just completed her first novel.

Starting Young

  by Ann Carranza

I knew I was a writer the first time I read Little Women and understood Jo was living my life in another place and time. "Scribbling" is as important to me as it was to this fictional, yet quite real, character. I wrote my way through childhood and adolescence. Then, though I was a paid journalist for a newspaper through my last two years of high school, pressure by teachers, by parents, by "wise" adults, who all said that writing was not a decent profession, I left my scribbles to look for "real work."

I continued to write, yet not be a "real" writer, until I was 50 and went back to college. The first day in Journalism 1A, August 2004, I clenched my title—writer and photographer—fiercely in my arms and thought, this is my dance.

I know I'm a writer when I cannot breathe for all that is stuffed, unexpressed, imprisoned, and my fingers ache to embrace a pen in a sweep of blue ink or my fingertips long to salsa across the keyboard. With pen in hand or keyboard underhand, words might rejoice in a spritely jig or slow in a minuet, heat up with rhythmic rumbas or pause for a deathly dirge, but dance my words do.

I know I'm a writer when words rock their way into my mind and burst into a cancan chorus line on paper or its electronic equivalent.

I know I'm a writer, so I write.

Ann Carranza is a writer, freelance journalist and photographer. She lives in Healdsburg, CA with her husband, son and exuberant Border collie. When she’s not writing, Ann can be found chasing things that flit, fly, crawl, and swim with her camera.

You Know You're a Writer

  by Bill Baker

Your heart has a yearning
And a burning desire
To share what your learning
Like voices of a choir

Small pieces of paper
With the things you have thought
A con or a caper
How the villain was caught

No time is a wrong time
If you wake up at night
With a thought of a rhyme
Then you know you must write

Watching movies with you
Your friends do not enjoy
For you catch every clue
And discern every ploy

And time seems to fly by
When you sit down to write
With that glint in your eye
There is no end in sight

You longed for the teacher
To ask each for a story
You wrote down your feature
Of our flag called, "Old Glory"

Friends with the dictionary
Filled with word after word
To some it seemed scary
When the big words they heard

But not to the writer
You knew you'd become
A reader delighter
You knew you'd please some

So write on forever
As your stories you tell
A writer so clever
In your inside did dwell

Bill Baker knows what he knows.

Speaking of Salvation

  by Catherine Crawford

Lately, I've read several quotes by people who always planned to be writers. I don't understand this at all, as my road to writing was more indirect. In grade school, I read the book Microbe Hunters about Louis Pasteur and other medical pioneers. The glory of science hooked me then: I would save lives: I would earn money and social regard. Aside from dreadful pre-teen poems, writing wasn't on my radar.

One day, I sat in the car on the way to the vet's, cradling the body of my dying whippet. Always slender, he was now a wraith burning with the fever of leptospirosis, a disease of pigs. He'd had his shots, but they weren't enough. We were on our way to put him to sleep. Numb with misery, I silently vowed to become a veterinarian.

Then came college, after which I limped home, having found out too late my lameness in math. Veterinary science was out of the question; I felt scalded by shame. My A's in English meant nothing to me. The ego identity I'd chosen for myself had gone up in smoke. The moment was so dark I wondered if I could save even myself.

Writing was my response to this mute suffering. It brought me an identity more apt for who I am. Call it a rite of passage or the miracle of words. When I picked up my pen, I lost that sense that my vulnerable self had been choked off at its source. Today, I know I'm a writer because words still redeem me.

Catherine’s manna is writing daily in a beautiful place. Email her at


  by Claire Holcomb- Drapkin

I've been writing over sixty years. I've published some,
not published more. At about forty , I began calling myself
a writer, instead of hiding behind euphemisms , because I realized how writing
held my life together, identified it, gave me hope.
I had not yet corralled my craft enough to be
published as much as I wanted. So what.
Writing had saved me from
panic attacks, got me through bad times, and
given me a way to stamp my view of the world on
countless sheets of paper. Having a voice and a way to speak it, is a
mighty good feeling.
If all my journals, diaries, files of short stories,
half finished novels, and a few things published
doesn't convince me I'm a writer, I'm pretty
I write a lot, every day. Therefore
I am a writer.
Thank God I am a writer. Along with being able
to love books and lose myself in them , loving
my work as a therapist, loving my husband, and loving life,
what else is there. I am indeed a writer. Words my way
to weed my way through life, ambiguity, and pain. And also to
express joy, triumph, and the ability to say, those most important
words, "I love you."

Claire Holcomb- Drapkin is a clinical social worker and writer. Published in Boston
Globe and Boston Phoenix Newspaper; personal essays and fiction.Lives in Washington, DC., works PT as a psychotherapist, the other half on collections of short stories.

Walls and Fences

  by Claudia Larson

There weren't a lot of fences on the prairies where I was raised. If farmers raised cattle, wood posts and barbed wire fences kept the cattle enclosed and out of the wheat fields.
When we had pigs, Dad enclosed them with wooden boards and electric fences. A barn-red wooden corral fence separated the barnyard from the cattle yard next to the barn. A white rail fence outlined the yard by the house.

We kids spent hours climbing through, climbing under, climbing on the fences. If we were daring, one of us grabbed the electric fence, feeling the mild jolt of electricity move through the line of our joined hands. Then we'd run off to the pasture and climb on Grampa's old threshing machine.

I need to feel that writing is like being a kid on the farm, free to roam and climb. To call or think of myself a writer invokes a cement-block, mile high wall of claustrophobia. Yet I love the words, the way they describe and evoke and bring shape to formerly unknown parts of myself.

I didn't think of myself as a farm kid, but I sure did like being one.

Just the other day, Claudia Larson watched a bluebird fly to the top of a peach tree she'd recently planted in Sebastopol, CA.

Proof Positive

  by Don Edgers

The deadline for the topic ‘How do I know I'm a writer?' falls on the same deadline-day Income Taxes are due.

Because my historical-bent books sell year round and never go out of date, I am reminded by the IRS I have to declare royalty payments from my publishers as business income on my 1040 on line 12 and Schedule C.

Don writes and files his taxes from Port Orchard, WA. His

Defining Myself

  by G. M. Monks

Does a tree falling in the woods make noise when there is no one around to hear it? Is a person a writer when no publisher has published their stories?

I know I love to write. I know I'm barely published. I know I get kudos from other writers. Sometimes I find some solace from the beautiful rejections letters, sometimes hand written, addressed to my actual name, and mentioning the title of my actual submission saying how wonderful my story was, and ending with the encouragement to send more.

Half of a healthy life is defining yourself. The other half is accepting feedback from others. Edison said 1% of genius is inspiration; the other 99% is perspiration. I would substitute the word talent for genius as I don't think I'm a genius but I do think I have talent. And I don't mind being a sweaty writer. But this sweat doesn't smell and requires no deodorant.

G. M. Monks has been published in Alehouse Press, Bathtub Gin, and Todd Point Review. She is a member of the California Writers Club. In addition to little essays, she writes flash fiction, poems, short stories, and is working on a novel. She lives with her husband in California near San Francisco.

Seeing Things

  by Harriet Gleeson

One thing a writer does: sees and translates a view/vision into words on paper:

At the Turning

embers glow
in the branches of alien maples
spun ropes and nets glitter
on piñon and manzanita

geese screech south
head to tail
strung across a fourth of the sky
reshape to bow vee bow

light shafts
from meadows of ice flowers
each blossom a cluster
of crystal buddha fingers

scarlet and pink buds
appear where berries have not long gone
the center of roads burn
with fallen redwood feathers

the years turn
dragged by grey whale
pursued by orca

Harriet Gleeson is a writer who sees things her way and writes about them.


  by Heather L. Seggel

How do you know you're a writer? Some days it feels like the proof lies in how deep the doubts about it run. All publication means is that someone else thinks someone else again might read your work; it's flattering, but also a distraction. A tendency to fall in love with words indiscriminately helps, though it won't keep the lights on in a lean month, and making time with your dictionary cuts into hours you could use for proper human socialization.

Getting paid to write? A marvelous thing; my words can't convey the glow that comes with being asked and then expected to do the thing you love most and are best at, even when it's on a ridiculous deadline and there's a mere $20 hanging in the balance. It's a form of pleasure that blooms twice, to be chosen like that, but it doesn't fix an identity in place. I was pretty excited when I was called to work as janitor in a post office and flung Brasso everywhere in my eagerness to please, but once completed, the job was left behind, along with the title. So it is with many a freelance gig as well.

It's a matter of faith. The knowing, I mean. You never really know. There's not a day when you're crowned, or sent something in the mail that gives you permission. You just believe it, and do the work, even when there's nothing in it for you but more work, even when writing means deleting ninety percent of what you get down in the first place. Because when you're in the right place, doing the thing you are meant to do, it sometimes feels wrong to the point of insanity. But you do it anyway, because what else can you do? You're a writer. That's how you know.

Heather L. Seggel is a writer, or so she says, currently living in Ukiah but dreaming of an Airstream trailer in a Sonoma County back yard somewhere. She only deleted 70% of this piece while writing.


  by Kay Butzin

My happiest discovery when I retired early and took up creative writing was that reading everything—-books, magazines, newspapers, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction—-is a requirement of the writer's job description. The finding convinced me, a woman who lags behind the group in museums reading every sign and has markers in four volumes at once, that I am a writer because I'm a reader.

Over the years I've been chided for burying my nose in a book, cooped up reading about life rather than going out and living it. But the habit developed early, when my mother potty trained me by handing me my favorite book, Miss Sniff, and sitting me on the chair where I'd stay, petting its Fuzzy Wuzzy illustrations, until an indention ringed my two-year-old derriere.

I do heed my tendency to allow reading to substitute for writing, especially if the work isn't going well. Reading someone else's masterpiece may provide inspiration, but it can also exacerbate the problem.

"I could never do anything this good," I say, giving myself license not even to try.
However, my need to try is the other reason I know I'm a writer. I'm able to ignore my sunny yellow college-ruled notebook for two days at most before I'm compelled by desire to open it and put pen to paper.

A transplant from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Gulf Coast of Texas, Kay Butzin considers writing both her work and her play.

I Know Because . . .

  by Sara Baker

When I began writing two years ago, I'd lay awake at night wondering, Do I have the right stuff to be a writer? During those two years, I managed to resurrect my inner writer and develop some of that right stuff. Unknowingly, I also cultivated my writing personality as well as some eccentric behaviors—supporting evidence not only that I am a writer but also that I can't be anything but a writer. I know I'm a writer because . . .

. . . I love words—they are like keys that unlock my soul.

. . . I have an affinity for research.

. . . the Oxford English Dictionary is on both my Christmas and birthday wish lists every year. Surely, someone will buy it for me this year!

. . . my non-writing friends and immediate family won't watch television shows or movies with me because I'm compelled to predict plot twists or movie endings—out loud.

. . . I carry a notebook and multiple pens— always—everywhere.

. . . I often lose track of time while using a thesaurus/dictionary—fascinated with words, their origins, and their meanings.

. . . I just know when I've chosen the right word, written the correct sentence, created the perfect character, placed him in an appropriate setting, and generated an intriguing plot.

. . . my purse and pants pockets are filled with ideas written on scrap pieces of paper.

. . . I suffer from "writer's insomnia," for my ideas and characters don't sleep.

. . . I take a book with me everywhere I go just in case I have a few minutes to read while on break, standing in the grocery store line, or waiting on a doctor's appointment.

. . . I can write regardless of the weather, personal injury, head cold, hunger, screaming children, and cell phone ringing.

. . . I don't write as much as I need to or want to.

. . . I've let dinner burn as I jot down "just one more idea."

. . . I prefer chocolate and caffeine over sleep and water.

Sara Baker’s writing career began with an unexpected whisper from a teacher who said, “You’ve got writing talent.” Although she ignored that whisper and chose a career in business and teaching, she retired, resurrecting that inner writer. As a contented retiree she now writes memoirs, short stories, and personal narratives.

Seeing is Believing

  by Susan Bono

A writer is someone who writes. Is it that simple? Perhaps it is--or should be. I just watched a YouTube video featuring Ray Bradbury and in it he said, "If you aren't having fun writing, I have no time for you." For him, the act of joyously accumulating words is what made him a writer. Being published made him a famous writer, but that's not what this question is asking.

But a writer is someone with a focus. Words alone won't do. Almost everyone I know writes all the time, but don't call themselves writers, even if they deserve to.

Deserve. Where did that word come from? Is the title of "writer" an honorary one, bestowed upon individuals who serve the written word? Yes, I think so. Even though it sounds pretentious, on a good day, I kneel and proclaim my allegiance to story.

But to really answer the question, I only have to look at this page of writing. I began to explore this question with a few vague ideas, but didn't know what I really thought until I wrote them down. I'm a writer because writing is the best tool I have for understanding anything.

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (E.M. Forster)

Susan Bono tries to see what she says in Petaluma, CA.

Proclamation Hesitation

  by Theresa Sanders

Years ago, on a cold weekend in early April, I attended my first writer's conference. It was held in a lovely old hotel in rural West Virginia, and as heat sputtered through the ancient pipes inside, outside, cherry blossoms clung to tree branches, shivering and snow-kissed. I'd come to the conference alone and therefore knew no one, and as I stood sipping wine at the Friday night meet-and-greet, I couldn't help wondering what had ever possessed me to do this. I'm a fairly shy person, so jumping in with both feet and working a room presents its own kind of pain. Nevertheless, I turned to the woman next to me and introduced myself. "Is this your first conference?" I asked her.

She smiled graciously and told me she was an agent.

Embarrassed, I froze, feeling a bit like those cherry blossoms. My big ‘I am a writer' moment trembled in my throat, refusing to be voiced. "Oh," I stammered, "I'm sorry! I…am a…er…this is my first conference!"


Several years later, at yet another conference, a workshop speaker advised, "You have to believe you're a writer to succeed at writing. If you don't believe it, how will anyone else? Tell everyone you meet, ‘Hey, I'm a writer.' Say it like you mean it. Say it in all caps. Sometimes you've just got to claim it."

But "claiming it" was precisely my problem. Like most writers, I began putting pencil to paper at a very young age, yet writing was something I did in secret. Just the idea of writing, of writers and their craft, awed me. There was miracle in the written word, but to pronounce myself a writer seemed somehow fraudulent. Even now, after writing professionally for over twenty years, I still sometimes have trouble with the job title.

As is often the case, I learned an important lesson about my writer's identity from one of my children, this time from my older son. Shortly after graduating with his Master's in economics, he accepted a position at a local firm, but it soon became apparent that the job didn't feel quite right. He had taught classes at the college level all through his degree program, and at the high school level before that. He had a passion for teaching, and was struggling with the decision to return to it. "I think I was born to teach," he told me one day. "I think teaching is simply in my blood."

And maybe that's valuable commentary for writers too. Maybe writing is simply in our blood. Maybe we know we are writers when nothing else makes sense, when "being a writer" and "being a person" are interchangeable. Maybe the recognition of that knowledge on a soul level is more important than the proclamation itself.

Recently, I asked my son what his students called him. He answered without hesitation, as if he meant it, as if he believed it. He answered in all caps. "Professor. Obviously."


Sometimes you've just gotta claim it.

Theresa Sanders lives and writes…um, WRITES…in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. She admires all of the fine WRITERS here at Tiny Lights. Email Theresa

Two Out of Three

  by T’Mara Goodsell

Many years ago, some wonderful teachers told me that I was a writer. I didn't really believe them. I wrote, yes, but I figured I couldn't be a writer until I was published.

My first non-school-published work was about an attempted suicide. I chose the topic because I was a teenager, and I thought it was romantic and dramatic. The piece won an award.

I was thrilled until my father asked me if I was…okay. My boyfriend told me it was weird and that he didn't get it. My mother gave me her disappointed look and asked me why couldn't my story have been about something nice? I decided I wouldn't be a writer until everyone loved what I wrote.

Later, my husband hovered so much that I took to writing in secret. Was I writing about him? I became a closet writer, scribbling on scraps of paper in the bathroom with the door locked while the children lay on the floor outside and wiggled their little fingers under the door. I decided I would be a writer when I could write out in the open.

And then one day I really did wake up not knowing who I was anymore. I wrote and wrote and wrote myself back into existence, right out in the open, and it felt absolutely wonderful. I no longer wanted to be around anyone who wasn't able to be supportive of who I really am, writing and all, so I made some changes and declared some ground rules.

I am a writer at last. And I know it—-not because I write, or because I am successful at it. I know it simply because I've failed—over and over—-at not writing.

T’Mara Goodsell writes right out in the open in Saint Charles, Missouri. She sometimes gets published, and not everyone loves what she writes. She happily settles for two out of three.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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