The question “Are you a writer?” always makes me uncomfortable. Some days I don’t write. Does that mean I’m not a writer on those days? Where does the expectation of writing every day come from? Did I find it true for myself? Did I unconsciously assume it as part of some vague notion of what a writer is? What benefit have I derived from that expectation? From saying “I’m a writer?” At this point, I usually scoff in frustration at this black hole of semantics, philosophy, and identity and settle for the simplest answer that makes the most sense: I write. And I write, without worrying about what I am.
I have benefited from the expectation that I need to write every day. It makes me create more and holds me to a higher standard, even if I don’t always achieve it. Great, so the expectation helps, regardless of where it came from or how faithful I am to it. I don’t think “I’m not a writer” on the days I don’t write. Inactivity doesn’t define me. But if I didn’t write day after day, how long would it be until I couldn’t say “I’m still a writer?” Inactivity does seem to define me at some mysterious point. I don’t feel like any less of a writer on days that I don’t write, unless I consciously think about it. Then guilt sets in and I do question what I am. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel intuitive for me to believe “I’m not a writer” because I don’t write every day.
The expectation to write every day was useful even without worrying about what a writer is or whether I am one. The problems started when I took a useful expectation and got it tangled up with the concept of “writer.” The definition of “writer” can but doesn’t have to include the expectation. That definition probably includes plenty of other expectations and assumptions, based on who you ask. Are those useful to me? I’d have to evaluate each of them individually to know. Whose definition of “writer” am I? Why do I want to be anyone’s definition of “writer,” except my own? Does anyone share my definition? Is this identity crisis even worth having when people ask “Are you a writer?” or when you claim to be one?
Let’s try another approach. I write. I know that much. What else? But wait, why do I need anything else? Maybe that’s what a writer is! Maybe that’s my definition! If that’s true, then why bother saying “I’m a writer?” I can just say “I write.”
“I’m a writer” comes with all the expectations and assumptions of anything subjective. Why would I want to identify with all of them, especially when I don’t know what they all are? Ideally, I’d contrast my definition of writer with whoever I’m speaking so they’d have a better understanding of what I mean by “writer.” The phrase “I write” seems a lot less subjective.
Consider if the person I’m talking to asked me how often I write. If I originally said “I’m a writer,” their definition of “writer” included writing every day, and mine didn’t, then my answer would cheapen my claim that I’m a writer. But if I originally said “I write,” my answer to how often I write wouldn’t change anything about who I am or how I define myself. It certainly wouldn’t change the fact that I write.
In the “I’m a writer” case, we would probably get into a discussion about how our definitions differ. Our definitions didn’t help us at all. We still had to discuss a difference in expectations if we really wanted to understand each other. Saying “I write” doesn’t mask any difference in expectations behind different definitions. It assumes less and leaves plenty for further discussion.
I’d like to start talking less about who I am and more about what I do. My actions are more important than any labels I come up with.
Why do labels exist? Why do we attempt to define ourselves with simple words? It makes communication easier though more flawed. It’s more practical to say “I’m a writer” than to painstakingly describe how you and your work support and defy all the associated expectations. Do we choose faster and flawed communication over raw, detailed honesty, without considering if we have time to elaborate?
The tradeoff is worth it in dire situations. When a man collapses in a public place and a doctor rushes over to help, I’d imagine the doctor would rather know “he’s a diabetic” instead of the man’s exact glucose levels, when he was diagnosed, and his entire life story. Though the details are helpful, they may waste valuable time and cost a life.
Thankfully, I don’t find myself in such dire situations very often. I have the benefit of time and a penchant for honesty. I’d rather connect with one new person that has a better idea of who I am than barely scratch the surface with a dozen folks who all think I’m writer by their unique definitions. Maybe it’s an ego thing. Maybe I think people will have time for the details. I prefer deeper, more honest connections, even if they require an investment of energy and time. I don’t see much benefit to barely scratching the surface of a creative individual. I don’t see much benefit to being lumped into the category of “poet” or “writer” or other labels.
I’m finding it much more helpful to say “I write.” It comes with less assumptions and expectations and ego-strangling scenarios that make my notion of identity do cartwheels. I write. It’s simple and true. I breathe. I walk. I write. I wouldn’t call myself a breather. Or a walker. Or a writer.
This post is the beginning of an exercise in self-discovery. I want to start a discussion about identity, especially among other creative folks. How do you perceive yourself? What do you say to others? Have you tried saying less “I am”s and more “I do”s? Has it made a difference?
11 thoughts on “I’m Not a Writer, I Write”
E.B. White has an interesting take on this in ELEMENTS OF STYLE.
What was it?
This is a really interesting point you bring up, because I’ve thought about it myself throughout the years. For me, once I completed enough personal writing pieces – out of pure enjoyment – I began referring to myself as a writer. I feel that for something you think and do on such a regular basis, the title helps define you. I’ve always been proud to call myself a writer, because I feel that a certain type of recognition comes with it that I’ve earned. It’s similar to calling myself an entrepreneur. After working on so many different startup ideas, I felt comfortable referring to myself as such. And that’s the important element I think: feeling comfortable with the title.
I think being comfortable with yourself is more important than being comfortable with the title. My prevailing feeling is one of not wanting to be defined. I’m enjoying a flexible bliss in being little more than my actions, moment to moment.
This is going to be a god-awfully long comment…
This is a hard topic, since it not only delves deep into identity, but it puts it in the social context. How does one accurately define oneself in a label-hungry social context? Though the overall topic is huge (people major in identity relations, for goodness’s sake), I’ll try and keep my responses writing-specific. Of course trying is not doing.
For writing, on one hand, the most accurate thing to do for yourself is just think about what feels right (Do I consider myself a writer? Is it a large part of my life? Is it just a hobby?). This part of you might say: go for it! You’re a writer! It doesn’t matter if that other person has a different definition of ‘writer’ and thinks you “cheapened” it somehow, since they’re not you and aren’t the one writing. If you’re a writer then you’re a writer.
On the other hand, however, I could cite jokes about pretentious hipsters calling themselves ‘indie poets’ yet never actually producing anything. You could call yourself a writer, either produce stuff or not, and then a couple years later change tracks and look back on your ‘writer’ days with embarrassment, or, at best, a fond chuckle over your endearing naïveté. Though labels are critical to our identities, our society is awfully judgmental about how we apply them.
To begin with, I want to say that I think both the social factor and the personal factor contribute to the one’s overall definition of oneself, especially in the context of a passion. You say you felt “guilt” when you didn’t write; that’s an essentially socially-instilled feeling. Yet the circumstances for said feeling arose from a personal goal (an expectation to write every day); no one else was involved in your writing or not writing. Who, then, are you writing for? Who do you satiate by meeting your expectations or fulfilling the requirements to be a ‘writer’?
Before I try to answer that question I’m going to deviate a bit to address another aspect: accuracy and honesty in our responses. The social dilemma here is essentially equivalent to the issues surrounding the phrase ‘How are you?’ The common, expected response is ‘Fine’ (or some variation thereof), regardless of whether or not it’s true. Accuracy and honesty require a more complete explanation at times, but a long-winded response breaks the rules of social etiquette. The break down is thus: we are more truthful with those who care, i.e., our family and close friends. With strangers or acquaintances, we are more succinct.
Returning to the previous point, we are similarly sensitive to accuracy with labels and our identity when it comes to family and close relationships. With the general public I might say ‘I’m a writer’ so as to simplify the discussion with a general context (for an audience that wants no more than that), but with someone who knows and cares about me, I might say ‘I write’, and then provide a more detailed explanation of my relationship with the written word – not only to appear less like a pretentious hipster to people whose opinions matter to me, but also because my audience in this case actually wants to know (in most cases).
I can see how sticking to the more accurate ‘I write’ is an attempt at sincerity and, being a weaker claim, is less controversial. Considering you say you would rather spend more time with fewer people, this makes sense and I would agree.
Though there are pros to using the stronger claim ‘I’m a writer’. Like you said early on, for example, it’s an excellent motivator. Maybe Sara needs the label of ‘writer’ to keep her going, effectively producing the work that would, in the end, uphold her initial claim. Does that mean she wasn’t technically a writer at the beginning, but just lied to herself in order to create a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or was she a writer the whole time, and didn’t actually need to produce anything to support that label? (An interesting tangent along these lines is in the legal world regarding what defines a crime. If interested, check out this movie by one of my favorite directors, about a murderer who never kills anybody: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048037/.)
I also wanted to point out that not everyone’s opinion is weighed equally (though this could be debated): if you’re talking to someone who is a writer (or writes), presumably said person would understand the general writing process and that there are other facets to a person’s life. For this reason, a fellow writer’s understanding of the label might not diverge so much as you think. On the flipside, being a writer/person who writes and having a different definition from someone who has no knowledge of writing hardly requires that you justify your own interpretation of the label. This, of course, doesn’t mean they might not still judge, but I think we can agree their judgment will have less weight than that of a fellow writer/person who writes.
For that reason, and because the questions posed above are difficult (if not impossible) to objectively solve, I prefer a subjective approach to identity-making through labels. I look at it as: society has given me the tools to define myself, so I’m going to personally do it. The definition/identity that actually matters in the end is whatever you build for yourself. Don’t really consider yourself a writer? Then you just write. You are a writer, but sometimes people disagree with you? Oh well, you’re still a writer. This is especially true in my case, since I don’t currently write, but I *might* one day consider myself a writer, and I think that label is somewhat retroactive (similar to Sara’s case).
I especially detest judgment and our tendency as a society to scoff at people who use labels we object to – like me labeling that ‘indie poet’ a pretentious hipster, for instance (though inevitable given social interaction). Being on the judged end can be life-altering, or at best lead to embarrassment, guilt, and confusion. I’ve had numerous personal experiences with people claiming that I’m wrong about who I say I am, ranging from taste in music to sexual preference. Even if your past self were being foolish (perhaps by inaccurately calling yourself a writer like in the example I gave), why might you look back on those years with embarrassment? As long as you were being true to who you thought you were in the moment, there should be no shame. But this is getting back into that larger topic of personal identity, not to mention morality, and I could go on all day.
In answer to your question regarding “I am”s and “I do”s, I personally use a mixture of both. What I do clearly makes up a large part of who I am, but I am far more than my job, my blog, my friends, my daily activities, etc. Personal identity is not simply a summation of all our actions, but of how our “I am”s creatively translate into actions. Ultimately, we are the creative process.
There’s a lot more I could go into, but I’m fairly certain I’ve used up all the words in the English language. Cheers!
Thanks the for numerous interesting comments. I’ll reply in separate comments as it may be easier to discuss that way.
Why do you think “labels are critical to our identities?” I’m not sure I disagree, just curious.
> “Who, then, are you writing for?”
Myself, primarily. The world, ideally. But not reaching the world only takes away from the complex definition I weave when I say “I’m a writer” not the fact that “I write.”
> “Who do you satiate by meeting your expectations or fulfilling the requirements to be a ‘writer’?”
Just me and my own desire to express myself.
I agree with your points regarding “How are you?” but I want to suggest that by saying “I write” instead of “I’m a writer” we can be both honest and succinct with everyone by not claiming to be more than what we actually do.
The self-fulfilling prophecy approach is interesting. And though I want to compare and judge and say it’s not really the same as just writing and not worrying about labels, a path that gets someone who writes or wants to write, writing more is great.
I think this is an intensely subjective question of personal identity. I’m finding no comfort in thinking that I am far more than my actions. No matter how much potential, how many ideas, or how much energy breathes inside of me, if I don’t try to share it with the world through my actions, I feel no more claim to anything than your pretentious hipster who calls himself a writer.
Interesting… I used to struggle with it when people asked me the question. Nowadays, I throw in blogger/writer and talk about the blog. :-)