When can you call yourself a “writer?”
My purely objective answer is, “Whenever you damn well want to.”
If I’m answering regarding myself, the answer isn’t so easy.
I have no problem thinking of any of my fellow bloggers as “real writers,” but I have never dared to think of myself as one.
A few years ago, I read Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. In one chapter, she asks the reader to examine his or her preconceived notions about writers. The exercise was illuminating. It reminded me of another exercise I’d done where I examined the negative assumptions contributing to my anxiety and depression. When I forced myself to articulate those assumptions, I could tell how irrational they were, and I was able to refute them. After that, I continually reminded myself that my thoughts aren’t necessarily “the truth.”
What did I believe about writers?
First, I’ve always believed that writers are people who have traveled or had a wide range of cultural experiences. I can’t count how many times I’ve told myself, “You’re not interesting enough to be a writer.” One of my ex-boyfriends thought so too, so maybe I internalized a little of his contempt, but the truth is I believed that even before I dated him. No one wants to hear from a sheltered, neurotic, suburban white girl. It’s the same reason I tend to be tight-lipped during discussions on politics and world events. I read. I’m probably more aware than the average citizen. But I can’t convince myself that I know a damn thing, so I stay quiet.
In If You Want To Write, author Brenda Ueland offers this insight: You are incomparable. In other words, no matter what your background, you have a unique voice and a unique set of experiences. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, all you have to do is make it to the age of 18 and you’ll to have enough material to write for a lifetime, no matter who you are. Eudora Welty has said that “sheltered” can also be “daring,” for “all serious daring starts within.” I read her autobiography back in high school, and her words bolstered me when my friends accused me of being boring and having resting bitchface (although it wasn’t called that back then). I was constantly goaded into having “experiences” that would make me a more “fun” and “interesting” person. Let me just change my tone here a minute: Hey, fuckfaces. That’s not the way it works. You know why I don’t get drunk and hang out on railroad tracks like your sorry asses? Because I don’t have to. I got shit going on in my brain.
If the myth of experience and worldliness were true, how do you explain a reclusive genius like Emily Dickinson? The area in which she moved was small, but she dwelled in possibility.
I did eventually do some traveling—to Europe, to the Caribbean, across the States. And even though I have some pieces that are based on those experiences, you know what I mostly write about? The time I forgot my plasticware in the lunch line in third grade and was forever traumatized by buying lunch. The first time I was really touched by a boy, when a classmate put his hands on my shoulders because he was frantically looking for magazine cutouts he could paste on the carbohydrate portion of his food pyramid. The time I was obsessed with the alarmist articles in my mother’s Family Circle magazines and convinced my best friend we had a drug crisis in our fourth grade class. Even the pieces I’ve written about my “geographically daring” experiences wouldn’t have their character without the perspective of my childhood self, who dreamed big in a fenced yard.
We have this picture of writers as tortured artists living unconventional lives. Their personal relationships are a mess. They abuse drugs and alcohol. They’re tattooed and pierced and colored and spiked and…well, they look like artists. OK, everyone. I’m going to reiterate what I said after going to Burning Man. Say it with me now: Riding around on a bicycle naked with a painted cock does not an artist make. Did Robert Frost ride around on a bicycle with a painted cock? (If he did, I don’t want to know about it. No. We’re just going with no.) He lived a very traditional life, with his family, on a farm. So did Wendell Berry, another of my favorite writers. Did Wallace Stevens and Ted Kooser haul a two-ton motorized art installation in the shape of Snuffleupagus out into a desert and ride along eating hallucinogenic chocolates and grousing about the establishment? Nope. They both sold insurance. (Also, they weren’t contemporaries; Stevens was 60 when Kooser was born, so it would have been even weirder for a 60-year-old man to take an infant into the desert on a giant, not-yet-conceived-of Snuffleupagus, feed it ‘shrooms and expect it to be able to converse intelligently. In order for this to work, Kooser would have to be an adult and time-travel back to Stevens’s youth. Or Stevens would have to time-travel into the future, after Snuffleupagus was invented. Good god, fetch me a filmmaker who can make that movie. This aside makes me wonder if anybody actually reads the stuff I put in parentheses.)
Don’t we all feel better now? Presenting yourself as “unconventional” means nothing. It might make you a pretentious douche, but it doesn’t make you a writer.
This same idea of writers as “special” gives rise to another myth—that writers are people from eminent families who have “connections.” Sure, some of them are, which is how they get heard more easily than writers from more humble circumstances. Yes, Stephen King’s son had a comfortable path laid out for him. The essayist Sloane Crosley got her start because a friend thought she wrote funny emails, and that friend happened to be an editor at The Village Voice. As I wrote in an earlier post, my only claim to eminence is having a grandfather who could piss all the way across the street in the town where I grew up. My other grandfather was a local drunk who once came home from a bar brawl covered in somebody’s footprints. Their failure to move among the literati obviously isn’t doing me any favors, but it’s not hurting me, either. Besides (and say this with me, now), I’m still a writer whether or not I attain a degree of fame or commercial success.
Finally, here’s a bizarre myth I still cling to: Real writers write fiction. I have never written fiction and I don’t plan to, mostly because A) I’m more intrigued by nonfiction and B) I am extremely bad at constructing a plot, which I hear is important. I think of my husband, who writes urban fantasy, as “creative” and a real writer, but I don’t think of myself that way. I know this isn’t accurate. I’ll retract what I said about my lack of creativity as soon as that Wallace Stevens and Ted Kooser acid trip on a giant Snuffleupagus takes the cinema by storm. In the meantime, a reality check: Whether they’re authors of fiction or nonfiction, writers draw from their own experiences and write about what they know best. Neither genre is superior to the other; they require different strengths.
What does a writer look like in your mind? Do you consider yourself a writer? Why or why not?
I’m definitely a writer. I probably will never identify myself as such in conversation, because teaching is how I spend most of my time and how I earn my living. “Writer” me is a quieter me, a me I might not show others right away. But it really doesn’t matter. Whatever you want to call it, I live as a writer lives, making sense of life through words, living for words.
If that’s the way you live, too, then you already know who you are. Don’t make excuses like “I’m boring” or “I don’t ride around naked on a bicycle” or “My grandfather was just a poor street-pisser.”
You’re a writer, love.
(If there are any mistakes in this, I apologize. I slept on my neck weird and I’m suuuuuper high on muscle relaxants and Snickers right now.)