The Only 3 Things You Need to Be a Writer

Considering a move to the full-time writer life? Wondering whether you’re actually a writer, or just someone who plays with words (aren’t they the same thing)? Even though it’s Black Friday here in the US, and everybody apparently is trampling everyone else to get the new Vizio 46″ flatscreen on sale at Walmart, you don’t need to buy things to be a writer. You don’t need anything, actually, except these three things.

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Photo: Roo Reynolds,

A Backstory

You’ve got to know your own history. Your past is the foxhole from which you write. Sometimes you might climb out of it and look around, but that’s home base, where you’ll always return. That perspective will influence how you see your subject. Make sure you understand what’s made you who you are.

This doesn’t mean you have to make peace with it all. It just means you have to know it, accept all the parts that really happened (as well as some that never happened even when you hoped they would). Know thyself. (I think I read that somewhere.)

An Obsession

What’s the thing your stories are always really about? What’s the common theme of all your essays? What are you searching for when you write poem after poem? For a writer, your obsession is that one thing that frustrates you, that you don’t have, that you lost and have never found or that you always wished was true.

For me, the theme of home is central to my work. Even in essays about completely unrelated subjects, stories of childhood, of the sandy soil of the Jersey Shore, make unexpected appearances. I left my childhood home as a junior in high school, and moved to another state. Apparently, that left me with some unfinished business. That’s my obsession—finding my home again, regaining that feeling, coming to terms with never feeling that lift-up-and-sigh sensation of home ever again. What’s yours?

A Reader

No, I don’t mean your ranking on the Amazon Marketplace. I mean that you always need someone to whom you’re writing. Someone you’re talking to. One specific person you’re trying to make understand you and the words you’re saying. Picture that person sitting next to you on the couch as you write, or listening to you on the phone as you speak. Aiming all your words at one person helps you relate, and helps your readers (all of them) feel like you’re talking just to them. It’s a little like magic, really.

What do you think? Does a writer need anything else to be a writer? Share your thoughts in the comments.