January 30th, 2007

Identity Crisis

Yesterday I met a friend of a friend, and our conversation got me thinking about identity—never a topic too far from my mind. (Who is that quirky Elisabeth Deffner? Some days, I’m just not sure.)


The FoaF is a painter who’s written and published (not self-published) two books. Her sister’s a writer who graduated from a prestigious creative writing program and hasn’t published anything.


It isn’t hard to see how this could cause considerable friction between them. The painter sister isn’t a writer (English is the only class she ever flunked, she confessed), and yet she’s published. Writing isn’t who she is, but it’s what she has done; writing is who her sister is, but she hasn’t been able to make a go of it. (A situation that reminded me of the time my brother landed in the pages of Cricket. He was in junior high, I guess. And oh how he cackled about getting into my target magazine before I did. Yes, it was a “favorite first lines” page, and yes, he was one of several kids who’d submitted the same favorite first line of a novel, and yes, okay, I admit it, I was a little downcast that he got there before me. Not as downcast as I was when he refused to stop going on about it—but still. It’s like seeing someone really obnoxious marry a really great guy. I mean, did Providence just take the day off? But such is life: not always fair. Sometimes you don’t get what you strive for, and sometimes you win what you weren’t even trying for. Keeps things interesting. [And my brother did stop gloating when I informed him that he was hurting my tender writerly feelings. Aww.])


But back to writing.


If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If a manuscript goes unread, was it every really written? How much of writing is the writer—how much the reader? If you write but are unpublished, are you a writer? Or is it a two-step process: writing and getting published? (Isn’t this quandary that’s given rise to self-publishing?)


When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer. It’s a simple answer and a true one. I don’t consider myself a reporter—I wasn’t trained in reporting, and that’s probably readily evident to my readers. I don’t consider myself an editor, either; I can whip a piece into better shape, but I don’t have the gift to make other writers shine. (Sometimes when I read a published piece of mine—which I don’t often do—I think, “Dang, I am good!” And then sometimes I’ll compare the published piece with my final draft, and deflate considerably when I realize, well, I may not be bad, but it’s my editor who’s really good.)


But people aren’t satisfied with just “writer.” They want to know for whom I write, what sorts of things I write. To some people, writing features doesn’t qualify me as a “writer”—only fictionistas deserve that moniker. Others think writing for kids’ publications is more of a fun pastime than a career, and so scarcely earns the title of writer. So an ostensibly simple answer leads to some complications. 

Then this FoaF asked a surprising question:


“So… Do you write anything for yourself?”


I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that one. In the most basic way, everything I write, I write for myself. I write first of all to please myself; to feed myself (literally—this is what I do for a living, after all); to express myself; to stake a claim in the world. (Isn’t that what blogging is fundamentally about? We write to cry out our names to other people in cyberspace, hoping that they will shout back to us. We write to let the world know that we’re in it, in hopes that the world will be glad to be so informed.)


The summer after I graduated from college, I had two projects: an ambitious reading plan (five novels a week. Obviously I am not a math person, or it would have occurred to me before I even began that that is very nearly a novel a day.) and cranking out short stories that would leave The New Yorker begging for more.


The reading I accomplished. The writing I accomplished too. I still have a stack of very mature, very depressing, very 21-year-old stories that (go figure) The New Yorker didn’t drop everything to publish. Gradually it occurred to me: I’d based my lifeplan on writing. It was all I ever wanted to do. And if I couldn’t do it, what was I going to do?


Well, I took the CBEST, for one thing. And when my mom showed me a little newspaper that had arrived in the mail—a school district newspaper, started by a school district mom—and pointed out the ad calling for writers, I actually called the phone number. “Hey, this way you’ll get to see your work in print while you’re working on your stories,” my mom told me. (Every burgeoning writer should be lucky enough to have someone so supportive. She believed in me more than I did!) I didn’t even like reading nonfiction, and I’d certainly never stooped to writing for my high school or college newspapers (not a literary person like me!), so this absolutely seemed to be a step in the wrong direction. But it’s the direction that took me into writing for a living at a time when those fine East Coast literary magazines were too stubborn to realize the genius that was flooding their mailbox with short stories.


If a story goes unread, has it really been written? Of course it has. Does having written an unpublished story give you the chops to call yourself a writer? That’s a question only you can answer.

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