If you’re like me you’ve had this problem. The old identity crises. Writers and artists in general, I think, are more susceptible to this than others. Especially if you’re not making a living on your art yet. Because that usually means you’re spending the bulk of your time doing something entirely disrelated so that you can eat and have a place to sleep at night. So, you come face to face with this question of identity. It’s a conflict of interest. I’ve struggled with this for a while in my writing life until recently when I made a breakthrough on the subject.
See, it’s easy to identify with the thing that gives you a steady paycheck. It’s only human, afterall one’s basic survival is caught up in it. There’s a strong reality there. I mean, you feel hunger pretty darn quick and rain is really wet when you’re sleeping on the street corner. So, the workaday-world-identity has value and the contemplation of undoing it sort of makes us queasy.
It tends to overshadow other things. It can get blown out of proportion.
So, if one is a computer programmer for 40+ hours a week, he goes around and when someone asks him what he does (which is another way of asking what he is–see, identity), he says “I’m a computer programmer.” And that is supposed to explain everything and the world turns accordingly. And safely.
Now, if he’s a good computer programmer, his friends and colleagues say, “There goes Joe, he’s a good computer programmer.” And if he’s a bad computer programmer, his friends and colleagues say, “Well, he’s not such a good computer programmer, but he’s a swell guy.”
Or something like that.
You see, no matter if he’s good or bad, he is still and always a computer programmer. Why, everyone says so all the time. He knows it. His wife knows. Pete down at the bar knows it. He’s a computer programmer!
Now, let’s say that Joe is not such a simple guy. Let’s say he’s got this burning desire deep down to touch the human soul, to tell stories to the world. Let’s say this desire, this need is so intense that it’s all he can think about. And he never really wanted to be a computer programmer forever anyways and well, shucks, he wants to be a writer.
So, he goes about his business and he wants to be a writer. Let’s say for Joe’s sake and ours, that he actually does write, he’s not just thinking about it, he’s doing it too. But every morning he gets up, he goes out to perform 8 hours or more of computer programming. Day in and day out he’s still got to be a computer programmer because his life is rigged that way. All hell would break loose if he just upped and quite. So, he kind of feels pressure from both ends on this thing.
We’re leading up to the point here. So, right about this time, maybe he has sort of admitted that he’s moonlighting as a writer, or something, but still he knows the right thing to be is a computer programmer because that’s what pays the bills, puts a smile on kids faces and keeps the wife in line. Good, wholesome drudgery that. Anyway, let’s say he’s even managed to get a few short stories into print, nothing major, made literally a couple of bucks. So, he goes to this party and is getting along fine when someone, perhaps with malice aforethought, perhaps not, pops the question: “What do you do?”
Well now, Joe has a choice to make. He could whip out the old standby, measure up with the Jones’s and keep everyone smiling by simply saying, “I’m a computer programmer.” Why not? He’s been doing it for years. It’s true enough. And he’s damn good at it, too.
Or, or he could put his neck and reputation on the line, expose himself to social ostracism and ridicule and say, “I’m a writer.”
Now, what does he do? What do you do? Do you puff that chest out, square up your jaw and say with no apologies, quantifiers, qualifiers, or reservations, ”I’m a writer”? Or do you say something socially acceptable like “Well, I’m an insurance broker, but I write on the side.” Or “I’m trying to break into print” or with a nervous chuckle, ”Not published yet, but it’s coming” or, or, or. Anything that does not fully commit? Something to explain why you’re not a millionaire or why your name isn’t residing on the shelves at Borders?
Because the truth is that until you can look at yourself in the mirror and without laughing or crying or dropping into abject terror, just say, “I’m a writer”, you won’t fully arrive. Not because I say so, or because someone won’t let you, but because you won’t allow it. You are holding yourself back to that degree. You don’t want to fully commit, you don’t want to have to answer a load of questions or feel the rumbling of your stomach.
It would be so much easier, safer and simpler to just avoid all that and say (with a sigh), “I’m a vacuum cleaner salesman.”
Oh, they think, yes, that makes sense. That’s a good safe thing to be. No threats here. Nothing here to challenge what I’ve done with my life. After all, I’m an insurance salesman so this man here, he’s good people.
See, it’s just a matter of physics, in a way. Everyday, day after day, the affirmation is made. Again and again, I’m a mechanic, I’m a salesman, I’m a broker. Fill in the blank with anything. After awhile you begin to believe it. So, why not just say it, just admit, “I’m a writer.” No, “I’m a writer, but…” No “…and I also write.” Just, plain old, “I’m a writer.” Poor, rich, happy, sad. Any old way, just a writer. Always a writer. It won’t kill you.
See, when you say, I’m a baker or I’m a candlestick maker, you don’t say, “…and I make fifty grand a year.” You don’t add on a little modifier that apologizes for it. You say, “I’m a business owner.” And everyone gets a nice, neat idea of what you are and what you do and no one has to feel uncomfortable.
Why then do we have to hide our true vocation inside of socially acceptable jargon? It just makes us soft. But worst of all, it reminds us that we aren’t a real writer, we’re a carpet cleaner, a cat furniture builder, a coffee bean roaster.
So, simply say: “I’m a writer.” Then you’ll be affirming the right thing, granting life to it, making it legit. You don’t need to apologize for why you’re a writer. Heck, it’s not some illness.
The only reason I’m up on my soap box about this is because I’m totally guilty of this infraction. I’ve been making up little socially acceptable things to append to my “I’m a writer” mantra that I might as well just say, I’m a vacuum cleaner salesman. And I think a lot of people probably are wound up on this point, a bit. I mean, it takes some courage to come out and stand by your claim. Instantly, you’re putting yourself out there with Stephen King and J K Rowling because in the public mind, those people are real writers.
But you know what, you’re not Stephen King or J K Rowling or anyone else and you never will be. But you are you, and you don’t have to make excuses for it. You’re not supposed to be anyone else but you anyhow. The world doesn’t need two Stephen Kings. But the world does need one.
You’re one. And the world needs you.
I’m a writer.