Are you a writer? Or a person who writes?
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
February 2015
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
February 2015

A writer friend of mine says that when she begins a writing project, she has no idea whatsoever where she’s headed. All she’s about is her love of language. She doodles and she noodles. She delights in words, their sounds and their senses.

Out of that playful, trancelike state, a way forward emerges. Before long, she latches on to an idea, a structure. She then makes her way toward something she urgently needs to say.

Another friend proceeds in an entirely different fashion. When he sits down to write, it’s because he’s become aware of something he wants to say. He explores that something by setting down his thoughts, without worrying too much about how he’s expresses them. 

Once he has a draft, he hones and refines, laboring to make his idea or ideas as clear and appealing as possible. When he’s done everything he can do, the work goes out into the world. 

As for me, I fall into both camps. Some days, I’m like my first friend. On those days I’m likely to define myself as a writer.  Other days, I’m more like my second friend. On those days I’m apt to think of myself as a person who writes.

On the days when I’m a writer, what matters most is my love of language. I adore messing around with words. What on this earth is more important than spelling, usage, punctuation, word origins, syntax, diction, all the nooks and crannies of our beloved English language? I like cryptograms, crosswords, translating from other languages. Rhymes, rhythms, alphabets, assonance. Tongue twisters, riddles, meters. Images, moods, scenes.

On these days, I’m not a cyclist; I’m a traveler. Writing is an end in itself, not a vehicle. Writing is the journey, the destination.

On the days when I’m a person who writes, however, what matters most are my ideas. Writing is a tool, and I’m a craftsman. My book, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, is the center of a communications campaign, through which I explore, in public, how we can use our understanding of history--even the horrific history of genocide--to create a more tolerant future.

On these days, what’s important is not only the words between covers, but also the talks I give, my e-newsletter, the articles I contribute to magazines and blogs, the conferences I attend, the interviews and meetings I seek out with others who are involved with history, Jewish genealogy, ethics.

For some of us, perhaps, the writing process simply can’t be divided into two distinct phases. It’s more like a piece of music: the notes can’t be separated from the song.


What about you? Is writing a means, an end, or some of both? Is it a craft? A calling? Are you a writer or a person who writes?



Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. It’s now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and e-book. Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Pamela Olson

    My first book, a memoir, had a clear purpose from the beginning: Educate ordinary Americans -- in an engaging, novel-like, but totally true and often devastating way -- about the realities on the ground in Israel/Palestine, both personal and political. Everything was bent to that. But it still left me with a lot of freedom, and because I was passionate about the subject, writing in a compelling way came natural.

    My second book is a novel, and it started with a rather wacky idea that grabbed hold of me for some reason. But as I kept writing, new things emerged, and now it's become a quite serious exploration of something very fundamental in the human condition: Whether and how to really have faith in your inner voice, even in the face of failure, defeat, and injustice (and just plain stupidity). How did the great artists who died poor keep going? How can we do so today in a world so obsessed with materialism and (instant) "success"?

    If I'm writing about something I feel strongly about, something I find compelling and beautiful -- if it comes from deep within, from a deeply honest place -- I feel like a writer. If I'm, e.g., being paid to write something I don't really enjoy or feel deeply, I feel like a person who writes.

  • Calliope Lappas

    Enjoyed your blog post!  I think that I, too, fall into both camps.  Though, more often than not, I think I write because I've become aware of something I need to say.  But am I a writer or a person who writes?  This is quite a question to contemplate.  Perhaps a bit of both? Perhaps this is something I can explore and unravel further with a bit of writing!  :)