Periscope Depth

if the world could sit tight for one night

Three years ago I took a writing class at Grub Street on “Building a Writing Career.” Ethan Gilsdorf kicked off the class by having us go ’round the room and introduce ourselves by saying, “Hi, my name is [$name_here], and I’m a writer.”

“This is an important part of growing as a writer – identifying as one,” he said. “So no matter what you think of your work, whether you’re published or sold or not, introduce yourself as a writer.”

It was a full room, just shy of twenty folks around a table. The introductions started at the far end and rotated away from me, so I was no earlier than #11. Yet I was the first person to introduce myself as a writer without qualifying it first. Not “I’m trying to be a writer” or “I want to be a writer” or “I’m a writer, I think,” followed by nervous giggles. Just saying it and owning it.

And this was in a room full of peers! All people in the same spot: uncertain about their craft, looking for guidance, ready to learn. And the instructor gave us permission to call ourselves writers, even if we didn’t feel that we were. Even if we thought it was aspirational, not indicative.

It’s hard to call yourself a writer. I still struggle with it, my burst of “courage” three years ago notwithstanding. And I’m far more qualified to call myself a writer today than I was then. If someone congratulates me on my success or asks how I’m doing, my first instinct is always to duck my head, give a shy smile and make that weird “ennhhh” sound that we associate with Jewish grandfathers. I’m getting better at nodding and saying, “Thank you” or giving a sincere answer, but it’s a conscious choice. It’s like improving your posture or watching what you eat: you commit yourself daily anew.

Why are we so scared to identify ourselves as writers? I’d guess for three reasons.

First, identifying yourself as anything creative often prompts odd responses from other people. “Oh, you did improv in college? Do something funny.” While no one will ask you to produce a poem on short notice, calling yourself a writer can lead to a variety of unpredictable questions. This isn’t a reason to stop identifying yourself, as such, but it can make you self-conscious.

Second, we have a hard time owning labels that other people don’t assign us. I have no problem identifying myself as a marketer, since someone’s paying me to fill that role. Fathers don’t have difficulty calling themselves parents. But there’s no license or exam or certification process to become a writer (MFAs don’t count).

Third, as much as we have to commit ourselves to calling ourselves writers, we have to commit ourselves even more frequently to actually writing. Writing takes constant work and there’s little immediate reward. It’s easy to fall off and miss a few days. And if you don’t feel like a writer, identifying as a writer can make you feel like a fraud.

But what about you? Do you have a hard time identifying yourself as a writer? Or as whichever art form you’re passionate about (a singer, a sculptor, etc)? If not, what have you done to get over that hurdle?

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