What Makes a Writer
I wrote my first stories when I was about 5 or 6. I had a three ring binder full of them. I don’t know if I thought of myself as a writer then, but I know I’ve been leery of calling myself a writer since then, even though writing is what I do for pay and has been the most consistent thread in the fabric of my life for a long time.
One of my first published pieces, in high school, was an op-ed essay against sodomy laws and in favor of gay marriage. I didn’t think of myself as a writer then, either. Then I was an activist.
In fact, the last time I was sure I was a writer was when I was studying writing in college. Then, nobody was paying me; in fact, I had to pay others to read my writing.
After that I went to work writing copy for video catalogs and direct mail marketing. That did not make me a writer.
Then I went to grad school, where I was a very earnest academic. I wrote all the time. I published some of my writing. I won an award for some of my writing. I wrote more than ever, and felt like I had given up writing.
Then I left grad school and worked as a freelance writer, writing for small magazines and educational publications. At the request of my clients, I wrote about the potential for hemp as a cash crop and the kinds of trees used to make harps. What was the operative verb? “Freelancing,” not writing.
Twenty years after my first paid writing gig, more paid publications than I can even remember, and I am still embarrassed to call myself a writer. I stumble over the word and go vague: “I work in publishing.” Sometimes I use one of my current job titles, “Project Manager,” which is even more unclear. Why?
For one thing, there’s an awful lot of embarrassing drama around writing. I was in high school when I first heard the quotation “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Apparently that is by someone named Gene Fowler.
Yeah, I haven’t heard of him either. (But, most awesomely, he apparently wrote a book called “The Demi-Wang.” Make of that what you will.) In any case, my goth phase is over.
And sometimes there is not quite enough drama around writing. One PhD and twenty years into plying my trade later, and I still wonder what it means when I tell a non-writer what I do and they say, “Oh yeah, I was an English major too.”
A silly thing: If you introduce yourself to someone as a writer, they assume you are a novelist. Heck, for a long time I accepted the notion that the novel was the pinnacle of literary expression, the point at which a would-be writer knows she has arrived.
All of that is to say that I was surprised when, last week, I found myself being a writer.
Of all the losses I mentioned in an earlier post, by far the sharpest was the death of a father and two children, leaving his widow and two other children behind. This tragedy cut through the heart of our community of friends, leaving all of us gasping for breath, struggling for words.
When you are struggling for words, who do you call?
And so, among other things, I found myself helping a father and son prepare words of tribute to share at a funeral that should not have been happening. It seemed an obvious thing to do. There are limited ways of truly helping in a tragedy of this magnitude, but I had a part I could play, because I am a writer.
It’s a small part. Only in books and plays are authors the secret stars: for spectators the wizard Prospero (Shakespeare’s stand-in) is the hero of The Tempest, but in the lives of the lovers, the leaders, even the fools and the villains, Prospero is mostly behind the scenes. He sets the stage, but he does not play the major roles.
So I spent time encouraging, making connections, and helping to find words that would express some portion of what my friends wanted to say. When a shy 14-year-old boy stood up before hundreds of mourners with words directed toward a family still raw with grief, I felt proud of him, not proud of myself. With simple language that was mostly his, he provoked laughter in a morning full of tears and expressed a sincere friendship that I have to believe brought some comfort.
I hesitate even to tell that story because I take no credit for his job, well done. But as I watched what his words could accomplish I felt honored to have had any role in bringing them to life, and satisfied that in this smallest, most humble of actions I was doing whatever it is that writers do. Someone needed words and turned to me to help find them.
That doesn’t mean I won’t cringe and bite my tongue to stop a long string of qualifiers if I need to tell someone I’m a writer again. I’m not a novelist, I’m not a drama queen, and I’m only a wizard when I’m reading fantasy books. (Though come to think of it, I might like to go a week telling people I’m a wizard by trade.) But if 20 years of doing something earns you anything, maybe it ought to be dropping that angst-y stuff and walking through the next 20 a little more lightly.
I was a writer back then, of course, even if I was writing about aftermarket bike accessories or neoclassical prose style. What I’m not anymore is a novice. (Caveat lector: You may not always get my most polished stylings here on the blog.) It’s not so much that I’ve “arrived” as that I noticed there wasn’t anywhere else I had to go.
You may not share my hang-ups about writerly-ness, but what about you? What—or who—makes you feel like you’ve arrived? Have you ever surveyed the landscape of your life and thought, “I’ve come a long way” or even “This old place is better than I thought”?