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?