You may have heard this old joke about the man who’d done many good deeds in his life but was defined by one terrible one. He bemoans his fate to a bartender:

You see that church over there? I built it with my bare hands but do they call me O’Reilly the Church builder? No!

You see that school over there? I taught there for 30 years but do they call me O’Reilly the Educator? No!

But you *$!# one goat….

I appreciate how this joke applies to us as writers, and I’m not just talking  egregious writerly offenses such as that of James Frey who screwed the goat when he fictionalizing his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces. Chances are he’ll be remembered for that rather than any other literary accomplishment.

Let O’Reilly serve as a reminder that there are many accomplishments we should celebrate, even in the face of failure. Instead of just criticizing our lapses in discipline, let’s also admire our lifelong devotion to craft. Let’s congratulate ourselves for the volumes we’ve written even if they haven’t been published. Let’s find the beauty in our descriptions as well as the flaws in the plot.

The joke also teaches another lesson: O’Reilly’s identity gives us permission to claim our own. After all, he molested only one goat, but how many times have we written?  Still, unless we’re claiming a paycheck for our words, we hesitate to announce to the world, “I am a writer.”

But what is the page if not a goat where we have passionately relieved ourselves?  Gross, I know, but I think it’s apt.

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2 thoughts on “What defines a writer?

  1. I think this is very apt, and comes with age. I’m not speaking about chronological age, maybe experience, really. For instance, in high school all of us were writers, in college the kids who wrote moodily in groups and never shared their work were writers, and now it’s just come down to the hanging on, the dedication to writing that defines us as writers.

    I hold the presumption that a writer is only a writer while they are writing, it’s a definition that works for me, and keeps me motivated to write.

    I am very aware of the feeling to make money off of writing in order to claim the title, and I didn’t for a very long time until, like you mentioned, I was given a check for my words. To be honest, I’ve been riding that claim for a long time now (nobody’s caught on, lucky me).

    A lovely post and intelligent insight. Thanks.

So whaddya think?

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