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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