Who do you say you are?
Last month, I had a Twitter exchange that made me giddy with recognition. Here's the conversation:
First, let's talk about how remarkable it still feels to connect with strangers online in ways that bolster each other's work and lives. It makes the world feel slightly smaller, in the best way. Frida Kahlo -- before the advent of the internet -- explained community like this:
"I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you."
Second, let's talk about why we're at times hesitant to tell others that we're writers.
- They'll ask what I've published, and I haven't been published.
- They'll ask to read my work, and I'm not ready to share it.
- They'll assume I write novels, and when I say I'm a blogger, they'll dismiss that work as lesser-than.
Listen, the list goes on. There are fears at every turn in the creative life -- fears about identity, money, recognition, misunderstanding. Fears that we're doing it wrong, and others are doing it better. But at what point are you going to embrace the fact that you're a writer, you're established because you say so?
(By the way: Aren't you, like me, just living for the fact that you're finally old enough to stamp your foot and say "because I said so"?)
Sometimes I'm able to take a step back for some perspective to see that it's so totally weird I get to make up stories every day as my vocation. Yet coupled with that artistic and creative endeavor must be a gentle kindness we offer to ourselves.
In her beautiful book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro writes:
"We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we're doing isn't easy. We have chosen to spend the better part of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns. We unleash the beast of memory; we peer into Pandora's box. We do all this in the spirit of faith and exploration, with no guarantee that what we produce will be worthwhile. We don't call in sick. We don' take mental health days. We don't get two weeks paid vacation, or summer Fridays, or holiday weekends. Often, we are out of step with the tempo of those around us. It can feel isolating and weird. And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she's a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she'll say. Darling. Honey. That's all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You'll try again tomorrow."
My feeling is that part of that kindness we offer ourselves is in self-recognizing our identities. Are you a writer, now? Is that how you think of yourself privately? Or do you think you're trying to be a writer?
If you think you're still in the process of trying, what has you stuck advancing from "trying" to fully being one?
I dislike yet identify with the idea that outside recognition sometimes defines us. We let others jump inside our minds, poke around and declare, "Not yet. She isn't there yet, fellas."
When will you be there? Say it out loud, write it down, be honest: When will you be a writer, finally, and able to introduce yourself as such at parties? If the answer is "when I'm published," my dearheart, that may never be. Writers write because they have to, are compelled to, they have something to say and will absolutely implode without recording it, future readers be damned.
Imposter syndrome is real and alive, and in our shared writing community (yes, you're a part of it; own it at last), let's divulge our familiarity with it in an attempt to overcome it. Helen Oyeymi wrote the beautiful book Boy, Snow, Bird, along with four other published novels, two plays and a short story collection. If ever there were a "writer" by our misplaced standards of publishing, Oyeymi would be it.
Yet she told Broadly in March that she still struggles with feeling like an imposter:
"I'm not convinced that I know how to write. ... When it comes to writing, I'm still very much learning on the job, which is OK."
There's nothing wrong with still learning on the job, in my opinion, though I'd love to hear your thoughts on continued education, too. Accepting that you know your stuff after years writing books that stay on your laptop and short stories that line your desk's drawers doesn't mean you're feigning being a writer; you already are one. Why do we give others the power to define our own interior lives?
Here's what it comes down to, what the biggest game-changer has been in my own writing life: the day I started defining myself outwardly as a writer. I told people that's who I was, what I did, what moved me. At holiday parties meeting co-workers' partners for the first time, I said, "Hi, I'm Katie, and I'm a writer, but I also work with your wife NAME GOES HERE as an online community manager."
I did that for years until the second part no longer mattered; I left my day job to write full-time.
Your path doesn't have to end like this to make you a writer. Are you writing daily? Do you have a writing process and writing life you can describe to yourself? You already are a writer, sweets. Start reminding yourself, and then tell everyone you meet.