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Writers, Authors, and People Who Write

Photo: Aliis Sinisalu

It’s not at all uncommon for my father to give me a volume of poetry from time to time, usually when I’m stopping by my parents’ house to say hello. A few weeks ago, he handed me a slim but dense collection called On Balance, by contemporary Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey. I keep coming back to a single poem called My Life According to You. I think it’s one of the best titles of all time.

We spend so much time trying to figure out our lives according to others, negotiating rules we didn’t create, and bumping up against systems that shape our very sense of self-worth, usually according to external, quantifiable factors.

“What do you do?” we ask each other, right after “What’s your name?” and perhaps “Where are you from?” If your name is unfamiliar or your skin color difficult to categorize, you might even get an extra special, “Where are you really from?”

If “writer” is your lucky answer to the question of doing, you might be familiar with subsequent questions, such as: “What do you write?” “Have you written any books?” “Do you make a living doing that?” Depending on how you respond, you might be met with a blank look, something like pity, or just a polite smile.

I hear from so many people who write but hesitate to call themselves a “writer.” Why is this?

Maybe we’ve grown attached to the idea that a real writer rises before dawn and writes until noon, then enjoys a simple lunch and takes a walk around the acres surrounding their 1800s farmhouse. Maybe we think real writers must down half a bottle of whiskey every night, collapsing in a post-cathartic heap in the wee hours.

What if ALL writers are –gasp! – regular people?

People who have to read the laundry instructions and remember to defrost the chicken for dinner. People whose day jobs are demanding and draining, fulfilling and anchoring, or some combination thereof. People who are navigating family dynamics with siblings and spouses and aging parents. People who are raising children or looking around an empty nest wondering how it went by so fast and now what. People with bills to pay and health issues to contend with and a stack of unread books on the night table.

Many of us who are writers simply love writing and cannot imagine life for long without the blank page, without the solitude of the writing process, without the journal or the iPhone notes or the pen and back of the envelope snatched from the glove compartment to grab a fly-by poem at a rest stop on the interstate.

There are as many ways to be a writer as there are ways to be a person.

When it comes to life according to someone else, be that “someone” an authority figure from your past, society at large, or a vicious inner critic, what rules have you come to believe, consciously or not, about being a writer and who gets to claim such an identity? Ironically, the very word “authority” contains “author.” What if you could be the authority about your own writing?

It’s not a new conversation, but it’s evergreen in its relevance to the creative process. Why? Because a rigid definition of what constitutes “real” writing keeps you from exploring what could be possible in your writing if you allowed yourself room to be totally imperfect.

Permission to suck is as close to a magic bullet as I’ve ever encountered — and I don’t really believe in magic bullets. What I do believe in is showing up, day after day or at least some of the time, to play with words. Sometimes this feels awful and cringe-y. It’s tempting to select all and delete without saving, or rip the page out of the notebook and toss it in the recycling bin.

I get it.

When I think of friends and colleagues who are authors – commercially successful, published authors, with advances and publishing contracts and agents and the whole megillah – I know they weren’t born that way. Well, they may have been born to write. But the “success” part of the equation is the part of the iceberg visible to the naked eye. Beneath the books is a mountain of uncelebrated hours, shitty drafts, abandoned ideas, unfinished projects, questions, conversations, doubts, and uncertainties.

There may also be something else at work: Commitment. And not allowing society’s prescription for success to define what gets written, what gets tossed, and what ultimately gets shared with the wider world. Believing in your voice isn’t a one-time thing. It happens gradually, as a result of working alongside whatever tells you to give it up already.

Often, when you hear about that best-selling debut novel, what you don’t hear about are the 15 unpublished novels that came before it. If publishing is a priority for you, you will plug away at it and it will happen. I really believe this. And if it’s not, or if it’s simply lower on the list of things that matter most, that doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Something begins to shift the moment we loosen the reigns and declare, “I am a person who writes. I am a writer.” And this is the crux of the matter: A writer is a person who writes, and not all writers must be authors.

Writing can infuse other fields of work. It can be oriented towards personal growth, political commentary, or a prolific imagination that imagines entirely different realities and brings them to life. It can be a practice that reminds you who you are. It can be a form of communication with yourself and with the people you love most or relate to least. It can be something you work at or something you do for pure pleasure.

Your writing life can change over time. It can ebb and flow. Sometimes, it might feel Sisyphean in its effort. Other times, the words might pour out of you, like rain from the sky through the vessel of you.

What it doesn’t have to be is torture.

And if writing is torture for you, consider what rules you’re agreeing to. Whose are they? Where did they come from? What would be possible without them?

When it comes to creativity, a little permission can go a long way. Once you relax the expectations of what being a writer must look like, what the results should be, and what counts as “real,” you might start to find that it’s actually not so torturous after all. It might even be… fun.

Imagine that.

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Want to end the year revisiting what it means to be a writer? Celebrate the return of the light during my 2-week online writing group, What If You Knew, December 11-22. As a holiday gift and gesture of my appreciation for this writing life, I’m offering a 25% discount! Register here.

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First Sentence Interview Series with Vanessa Mártir: “You have to make time”

My guest this month is Vanessa Mártir, a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles her journey on her blog. Vanessa’s essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.

Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010). She’s the founder of the wildly successful #52essays2017 project. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and a two-time Tin House fellow.

When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first time you called yourself “a writer”?

I started telling myself stories when I was just five or six years old. I would climb up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and there I would imagine a different life.

When I told my mother I was a writer, she told me a story of when I was in kindergarten. The teachers complained that I was distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting on the rug in a circle with all my classmates, I would walk around, dig into the bookshelves, do everything but sit and listen to the story. When she scolded me, I told her: “But mommy, I already know how the story goes. I get bored.” “Oh, really,” she said. “So how does the story go?” She said I got really excited. I stood up and started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell a story of my own making.

My mother was telling me that I’ve always been a writer. Still, it took me a long time to name myself that. I used to say it out of the side of my mouth when I was in my teens and twenties, but I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to, I wasn’t taking workshops or classes. I wasn’t invested in it as much as I wanted to be. After the elite education I received via boarding school and Columbia University, coupled with the immigrant ideals that were instilled in me by my family, I felt like I couldn’t go into the arts. I had to go into corporate America where I’d get a steady paycheck, have health insurance, and could save for retirement. The arts was too unreliable to go into. I had to keep in mind that my family came from the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. Taking such huge risks like pursuing my writing was in many ways a dishonor to them and the sacrifices they made that in turn made my blessings so possible.

I wrote here and there. Was even published a few times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter that I assessed my life and realized that I needed to make some big changes. I was miserable in corporate America, and I knew firsthand what misery could do to a family. I didn’t want that for myself, my child or my family. I asked myself: “Where is your heart?” The answer was clear: in my writing. So I followed it. I filled six journals while I was pregnant, and wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry, while I was nursing my little girl. I left corporate America and never looked back. I was also finally able to call myself a writer and believe it. 🙂

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular reader or audience in mind when you’re writing?

When I write, I write for Loba Pack. They are a select group of folks with whom I can be my full, vulnerable, soft-but-unfuckwithable self. I can laugh and cry and rage and dance. I imagine we are in my kitchen. We have just eaten a meal I just cooked–pollo al horno, a caldero of arroz con fideo, a salad. We are sipping on bourbon and I am telling them my stories.

Where does fear show up for you — and how do you deal with it?

Fear shows up often for me. I write about trauma, mine and my families. I am revealing secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for generations. I write about my life, who I am, what I’ve learned, how I exist in this world as a queer woman of color. I have spent much of my life being told directly and subliminally that I don’t matter, my people don’t matter, our stories don’t matter, so when I dare to write them, to publish them and get them out into the world, fear leans in hard. I more often than not push back at it.

I think fear is natural. It’s how we react to fear that matters: we can let it catalyze us or paralyze us. I have been both catalyzed and paralyzed. When I’m paralyzed, I read a lot, go to therapy, and I spend time in my body hiking and biking and rollerblading and working out. Trauma exists in the body so moving it helps me work with it to get these stories down. It’s a journey. I’m still working on it. But this is my journey and what works for me may not work for others. It’s important you find what works for you.

What do you tell folks who say they “don’t have time” to write?

The only people who have time to write are in prison. You have to make time. Make time in the morning. Or make time at night. Write in the cracks: on your commute to work, while waiting on line at the market or elsewhere, while waiting for your dinner to be done. Write a page. Write a few sentences. Write for ten minutes or write for an hour. Give your art the time it requires and you want. You can’t want this life and not be willing to put in the time and effort it requires. It just doesn’t work like that.

One essay a week is a lot to show up for. How do you decide what to write? Do you have any “rules” about this process?

I don’t usually know what I’m writing until I actually sit down and write, but I do pay attention to what’s coming up all week. What stories have been circling. What energies are in the air. Then when I sit, I write. I’ve written on the train, in my writing room, in the park while sitting on a bench under a tree. My one rule is: show up and write. Don’t try to control the process. Just write. Get out of your own way.

How long have you been working on “A Dim Capacity for Wings” and when will you know it’s done?

I’ve been working on this book for ten years. When will I know it’s done? I’ll let you know. 🙂

Do you have any favorite words or expressions?

The only way out is in.

Be relentless.

First Sentence is a series featuring interviews with writers — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each conversation is intended to offer readers and fellow writers a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

More about the First Sentence series, including links to previous author interviews