November 17, 2007

A Letter to One Who is Reluctant to Call Herself a Writer

Dear Friend of Mine,

It’s National Novel Writing Month and I’ve been using this year’s 50,000-word challenge to kick around some ideas. (And they dearly needed some kicking...) Hopefully, most of the writing will go into the mix of my next novel. Regardless, I love the whole idea of NaNoWriMo and abandoning myself to the practice of just lettin’ it rip. It brings the process back to bare bones - to the part I love the most, to a place where I'm all writer.

When did you know you were a writer?

When did you first call yourself a writer?

These questions always leave me stammering and reaching for a memory or moment that might serve as a touchstone for my decision to live the writing life. Alas, I have no tattered construction paper book made by my youthful hands, or an angsty-artsy photograph of my eighteen-year-old self looking bespectacled and literary, to prove that I was destined to be a writer.

My six-year-old son has a red beret he likes to wear from time to time. The minute he places it on his head, he runs around the house quizzing the rest of us, “You know what I am? – Guess what I am…go ahead, guess…”

Although his answer is always the same, I choose to play dumb. Knowing his intense, exuberant answer is too wonderful to resist, I gladly give him a puzzled look and ask, “I don’t know, what are you?”

Dancing and pointing to the beret he exclaims, “I am an artist!”

I nod and give a goofy grin while knocking my hand to my head - as if the answer should have been clear all along - “Of course you are. You’re an artist.”

Later on, when the paintbrushes have been put away and new masterpieces are left on the fridge to dry, he abandons the beret. This hat of wonders is most often left crumpled between the cushions of the couch, waiting for another day’s discovery and the boy's declaration that he is indeed, (at least while the hat is on) an artist.

Do you remember those days? At the age of six, I was a singer, a writer, a princess, a nurse, a witch, a librarian, a farmer, an entomologist specializing in the study of ladybugs… What were you?

O to run on pure confidence, the hurdles of self-doubt still far-off and down the track…

Please know that you're not alone. A lot of us hesitate to publicly call ourselves writers, and for good reason. Once it’s out there, it’s never left alone. Once the statement “I’m a writer” has been made, you find you’ve backed yourself into a hellish, Socratic corner.

IF Person A says “I’m a writer.” THEN person B must ask, “So what have you written? Have you been published? THEN, if Person A hasn’t been published, Person A must sheepishly mumble some excuse about seeing someone she needs to talk to across the room, thereby escaping certain humiliation. OR, If Person A has been published, Person B (after asking Person A to repeat the title of her novel at least three times) must respond with something like, “Hmm, never heard of it.” Person A then points out to Person B that someone across the room appears to want to talk to them, thereby escaping certain humiliation.

I used to think that publication would cure my writing angst. I thought if I could just get published, I wouldn’t feel like I was wasting everyone’s time, I'd stop feeling like I was a fraud. After I was published, I could finally stand tall and proclaim, “I am a writer!”

Guess what? Publication didn’t do it (at least not for me, anyway.) I know, you’re sitting there thinking, Bull Sh*$! I’d be on cloud nine if I could hold my novel, all published and bound and pretty in my hands. I’d be shouting from the rooftops. I’d be - (insert your choice of any number of clich├ęs indicating great, life-changing joy, here.)

Holding my finished book was a beautiful thing. It was lovely. I’ll never forget it. But the only fear that moment obliterated for me was the nagging thought that someone at the publishing house was going to wake up one morning and say, “That’s it – we’re not going through with it, pull the plug on that girl’s book, she’s a fraud.”

Months after publication, I found that I couldn’t stop questioning myself over whether or not I could rightfully call myself a writer. New, but equally destructive thoughts jumped in, taking the place of my pre-publication self-loathing.

“OK, I can check the “writer” box when filling out government forms. So what? Am I really a writer? Will I ever be a writer with a capitol W? Who am I kidding? I’ll never be a Welty, Wharton, or Woolf.”

What's in a name?

There’s a space on the Indiana State Department of Health’s Certificate of Death that says: “Decedent’s usual occupation. (Give kind of work done during most of working life. Do not use retired.)” On my mother’s death certificate she’s listed as a “Dog Groomer.” Sure, that’s the work she did when she was younger, and when my brothers were off in university, and whenever the family dog looked pretty shaggy – but what about the time she spent kissing scraped knees, or keeping watch over a pot of her amazing spaghetti sauce, or reading bedtime stories, or worrying about how close I’d come to missing curfew on a Saturday night? Even if “Mother” was allowed in that space, “working life” and “life’s work” are two very different things.

If writing is part of your life’s work, then you’re a writer.

Whether you choose to call yourself a writer or not, writing has chosen you. Let it. Let yourself run to it, breathless and ready.

You will never feel more like a writer (or be more of a writer) aside from when you are putting words in order, one after another, creating a story that only you can write.


Well, six-year-old boy has come to me (without the beret this time.) He’s making faces and rubbing his belly. “Guess what I am?”

“Hmm, what’s that?” I ask.

“Hungry.”

“Me too.”

Gotta Run. Pizza is calling. Happy Writing!

xo

A.