Although I went to school for writing, ran a literary magazine at my college, and graduated with a BFA and a collection of short stories under my belt, I have always been hesitant to call myself a “writer.” If I ever did mention that I write, it was along with many qualifications… “I’m an executive assistant, but also I like to write, in my spare time,” or, “I have a writing degree, I don’t know if I’d call myself a writer…” et cetera.
My worry sprouted from the fact that there were very few times in my life that I was actually paid for my writing, despite doing it almost constantly. My biggest fear was to introduce myself to someone new, have them ask what I do (the ultimate NYC question!), and respond “I’m a writer,” only to get called out—
“Oh, you make a living that way?”
No, I make a living managing the front desk at a fertility clinic.
“Oh, where have you been published?”
Nowhere that’s going to impress you by name alone (yet!).
So even though I never stopped writing—through college, while I was finishing my thesis; after school, when I kept up a blog about moving to NYC; and even later, after I was disillusioned with New York, when I was working on personal essay projects—I avoided that self-identifying phrase. I was afraid of allowing myself to be vulnerable in that way; it was better to keep that part of me hidden than to risk eye rolling and judgment.
The dissonance between “what I’m paid to do” and “what I love to do” causes this type of anxiety and internal conflict for many creatives. When I first started dating my now-fiancé, we had many, many conversations revolving around the “identity” of ourselves as artists. He works primarily with photography (digital and film), video, and graphic/web design, and was struggling with the idea of calling himself a “photographer” or an “artist.” He was actually the first person to introduce me as “his girlfriend, the writer,” which initially made me so uncomfortable. I’m not a real writer! I’d insist, to which he’d respond, “Why not? Stop underselling yourself.”
And, of course, he was right. The only person telling me that I wasn’t a writer was myself—and the way I used qualifications to soften my statements was a lot like the way students and young people call themselves “aspiring ____.” If you’re already doing whatever it is you want to be doing—writing, photography, fashion design, whatever—then you’re no longer aspiring. The difference between aspiring and practicing is simply the practice.
Somewhere in the midst of my identity struggle, I quit my NYC desk job, moved to the Catskills, and started spending a lot more of my time in creative pursuits. I started writing for Luna Luna, editing for an online magazine, and being much more active in the writer-ly sphere in general. My first Luna Luna article, “Stop Saying ‘I Have a Boyfriend’,” made waves and was reposted on xoJane and spread across social media. Then, an article I posted a few weeks back, “I Am Not My Job: Why I Left New York City,” was reposted on Huffington Post and got a ton of feedback here on Luna Luna and via social media.
It was weird—suddenly, people I didn’t know were e-mailing me and tweeting at me about my role as a writer. Although the article was about being a young creative, there was still a block in my mind against identifying myself that way. However, the thousands of people that read the piece had no idea about my personal hang-ups. To them, I was a writer because I had written something and now they were reading it… simple as that. Despite all of my previous fears, no one questioned my identity or asked me to prove myself or show “credentials.”
My fiancé jokingly told me that I was “one of them” now, a real creative. (I was told there would be a Sopranos-esque bloodletting ritual to cement my group membership, but I’ve yet to undergo it.)
Following the success of my article about New York City, I got some amazing new opportunities, including paid (!) writing gigs, as well as a ton of support from the lovely denizens of the Internet. I also got some new problems to deal with—another writer accused me of plagiarizing her piece on AlJazeera.com. It was completely untrue (while the articles had similar focuses and used some of the same quotations, my piece was originally posted to Medium in late November, before hers was published in December), but it reminded me that there are risks associated with broadcasting my opinions and thoughts. Ironically enough, it was this experience—someone questioning my creativity and originality—that really prompted me to embrace identifying myself as a writer, as a “creative,” almost as if in self-defense.
On New Year’s Eve, the day after my piece was published on HuffPo and the day I found out Tom and I were going to be working on a (paid) magazine article together, we attended a party thrown by a new friend, who was the only person there that we knew. I was preparing myself for a lot of getting-to-know-you conversation, and I was both excited and hesitant to introduce myself as a writer. I felt the old fear creeping up—What if they question me? What if they judge me?
Standing around the kitchen, drinking whiskey from red Solo cups, the party guests made small talk and introduced themselves.
“What do you do?”
I’m… I’m a writer.
And not a single person questioned me.
Photo by Tom Smith.
Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn. See her portfolio at eberhardtsmith.com.
A fantastic article (again). A few weeks ago at a party I was in the middle of the meeting ritual (‘I’m a surgeon/firefighter/lecturer in neuroscience; what do you do?’) and feeling thoroughly ruffled by the fact that it would eventually be my turn to introduce myself and my pitiful job as sales assistant, when my younger sister took me to one side and said- ‘Why do you do that? Say you’re an artist. Say you’re a writer. That’s what the question is. Not ‘how do you make your money’ ‘. And she was right. It’s so easy to get caught up in what others might perceive you to be (namely fraudulent and deluded with self importance), that you can forget what you actually are. What defines you most? Go with that.
Wow. This is a really inspiring piece. You are a writer. And you make me want to be one too!
I think we all have different criteria for when we get to call ourselves writers. Crossing that threshold, wherever you set it, is a celebratory moment. It’s a brave thing, to decide to own your dream, to pronounce it. Congratulations!
YES, you are a writer!!! And a fucking GREAT one at that. Paid or not, you’re (as you know) one of my faves, Alecia:)
I went to a Mark Doty reading when I was young and someone asked him when he knew he was a “real writer.” He said “It’s simple: if you write, then you are a writer. Publications don’t matter. If it’s good doesn’t matter. Do you routinely sit down and craft your thoughts on the page? Yes, then you are a writer. And you should call yourself that.” It’s always stayed with me. :)
First, congratulations on your recent successes.
Writing is such a weird vocation (if that’s the word.) I had a similar experience coming to terms with the title “writer”. I was never so happy as when I voluntarily took unemployment and became immersed in the writing of my first novel, not believing anyone in the world would even care when it was done, but propelled to write down the story in my head all the same. Now that I have no problem referring to myself as a writer (well, less of a problem) and am promoting the novel, blogging etc I struggle to find the time I need for my second novel and look back with such jealousy to the days when I didn’t truly identify as a writer. My days were open and free. I don’t think I will ever be able to recapture that bliss. WIth the self identification comes a lot of complication.
Another excellent post with excellent points. It’s very comforting to know that there are other creatives out there taking chances and making moves in order to do what they love.
Interesting piece of writing. I think, this self-denial of a something you love to do and possibly earn a good living from extends more to other areas. But, it is good to read it from a writer.
I love your writing. There is no question you are a writer!
I absolutely love this piece! I too struggle with calling myself a writer even as I enter into blogging for the first time . Your statement that the difference between aspiring and practicing is simply the practice rings so true in my ears. Thank you for sharing this inspiring post!
This is a wonderful article. I have the same problem, it’s taken me 3 years to be able to say I’m a writer when asked about my profession. When asked if I make a living at it, I say that I do other things to supplement my income.