When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

Cover of When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?


The music blared as the four us sat at the picnic table outside of the hall. Between the saxophone and bongos, it felt like fireflies fluttered from chest to chest — compounded energy built from 8-hour days, tightness begging to be cracked. This is what happens by Thursday. My body craves dancing — a release, a now obligatory act, a physical prayer, a way out and in. 


On this particular Thursday, African drums wailed as my friend, who is also a writer, walked with me to a table, our legs longing for a break. We sat with another friend and began chatting with a man he’d recently started dating. 


“I’m in film and a writer,” my friend’s date said calmly, a tinge of self-judgment creeping out from the edges. I caught the slightest whiff of it, having seen doubt countless times in fellow writers and worked aggressively on it myself. It’s something I spot and immediately feel called to swat away, perpetually wanting to lift fellow creatives.


“Oh, me too!” I exclaimed, thrilled to have two of my favorite elements as a bonding point. “What kind of things do you write?”


“I’m working on a trilogy — a Halloween-themed rom com. The main character’s new love interest is wearing a mask and turns out he shows up to the party in the same costume as the main character’s ex who is also there. That kind of thing.”


“Oh, I like it!” 


It’s an interesting thing meeting people. When you meet someone, they know nothing about you. We try our best to sum our identities up in nouns, activities, and job titles and in the process can see the slink across a person’s face indicate whether said descriptors sync with their soul or remain outliers, verbs adjacent to the noun. I find this process especially interesting for writers as 99% of us don’t spend the majority of our life on our craft. Much like most sculptors, painters, and musicians there are ways you make money and there are ways you create as exhale. Sometimes the two intertwine and sometimes they are never meant to or need to.  


This spring, the New York Times dove spotlighted a gallery show titled “Day Jobs” which featured 38 artists at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. The exhibit not only labeled the artists’ day jobs, but also showed how their 9-to-5s inspire their creative work. Like the article so aptly puts, artists need the world just as much as the world needs artists. 


Take Stephen King for example, who worked as a janitor before he made it big, which proved helpful when cleaning up a girl’s locker room inspired what became Carrie. Then there are writers who spend most of their life at a 9-to-5 like legend, Toni Morrison, who worked as a textbook editor before she was first published at 39. And what about, composer, Philip Glass? He wasn’t able to quit his jobs as a plumber and a taxi-driver until the age of 41. And yet sometimes the end of the day job doesn’t ever happen, or need to. 


So, when this man I’d just met looked at me and my friend with sharp eyes and said, “What do you two do for a living?” I readied myself for my typical response I felt proud of, having worked a decade to get comfortable with an answer. I was 35, established in my career as a creative director for a nonprofit I resonated with, and had been recognized in small but meaningful ways for my writing. I made music. I started a podcast because it called me and then let it go when it didn’t. I was always more than one thing and I grew to love that about myself. My answer often reflected that mosaic. But then something happened that usually doesn’t happen. 


The sharp-eyed man looked at my writer friend and pointed his finger firmly as though he was throwing something on the other end.


“You’re in fashion, or you want to be in fashion,” he said to her. A solid guess with her electric-colored necklaces and rhinestones lining the corner of her eyes paired with her thrifted army jacket and 1980’s baggy jeans. Her fashion was something I adored about her – a combination of grown Lisa Frank meets with the edge of Brooklyn. She always stood out in the best way in a beach town of people who permanently dressed down in sweaters and sandals. 


“You,” he paused, staring me up and down. The line drawn with his eyes immediately made me feel split in two, watching someone piece together articles of clothing and clump it into a judgment. That micro-moment was already my small nightmare, having only recently quasi-figured out how to use fashion as a form of self-expression. 


“You’re in marketing.” He said quickly. 


“Yeah!” I exclaimed surprised he got it right, still trying to form some inkling of a bond with my friend’s new interest for the sake of my friend. 


“But you’ve accepted you’re in marketing.” He held his gaze and within seconds that extended finger felt like a dagger cutting through my stomach. I felt my eyes drift, my mind separating from my body, my once wide outstretched smile slink to a partial half-moon of confusion. 


I nodded slowly while looking up at the sky, zooming out, realizing that while I would never have put it that way, it was true. I was a creative director on a marketing team for a nonprofit and though I didn’t see it as my life’s work by any means, I’d accepted this was how I made a good living while creativity enwrapped my 9-to-5. Sure there’s compromise involved. I wake, write for an hour before work a few times a week, and channel the majority of my time and creativity towards someone else’s goals in exchange for security. And I work with dozens of creatives who do the same — graphic designers who are also visual artists, photographers with acclaimed personal projects but shoot branded content to pay bills, and cinematographers who film their documentaries on weekends. 


He continued as though I asked for more. “You’re in marketing but you have dreams of being a writer.” 


“Well, yes,” I said, still looking away from him, drifting away from the table, seeing myself distilled down to this single phrase that when put this way, felt demeaning — nothing like the life I had and yet in its brief short form was technically true. 


I could’ve corrected him. I could’ve said, “Yeah I work on a marketing team but I’m also a writer.” I could’ve told him my poetry book was published a few years ago, or my novel is currently in the hands of agents after dozens of revisions and rejections. I could’ve told him that my book was named as a semifinalist for an award, or I’d been selected out of 700 writers for a residency in Mexico or that I just had a poetry show last week. I could’ve said all the things my ego wanted to say to combat the imposter syndrome sparked by that distillation. Yet somehow saying all that didn’t seem to matter because that wasn’t the game. The game wasn’t proving I was a writer just by looking like one. The game was fitting into a box I didn’t make. The game was telling someone who they are instead of asking. The game was one I wasn’t interested in playing anymore. I’d spent years working for big name newspapers and magazines not for the joy of it, but because I thought it made me something —it made me someone— particularly when a stranger asked what do you do? The thing is, when you’re always waiting for someone else’s approval, the game never ends, no one actually wins. And yet it’s an obstacle course I see writers dance through their entire lives. 


“I’m going to go find Dora. She’s probably done performing by now,” I told the group, being sure to keep my tone in a high pitch so they wouldn’t think I was upset, not wanting to ruin my friend’s date. After all, we’d just met, and he wasn’t my lover. He wasn’t my date, so I could try to climb my way up from the ditch my sensitive self fell into, or I could walk away and remember who I actually was. 


The space felt slower as I walked away. The drums now quiet. My mind processed the categorization and wondered, was I was exaggerating? Was that as rude as I thought it was or did it just trigger something in me because it was true? I am in fact a writer who has dreams of further pursuing my writing. I’d rather be spending every morning working on my books than responding to emails and crafting video scripts, but I mostly enjoy what I do for a living. I enjoy that I don’t have to put pressure on my writing to make me money, having tried that for years in my early twenties and felt nothing but anxiety and overdraft fees. 


So since then, I decided I’d create my own path. I taught myself video editing and studied marketing to transition out of journalism when the industry started tanking. I researched what jobs made a good living but were still creative and not mind numbing and decided creative director was the best fit. So, I became one. It took several years but I became one and I was proud of that and also very clear this work was not the way I’d find fulfillment in life. This was not the reason I woke up every day. It was enjoyable enough and I learned how to work efficiently so I could spend more energy on what I loved. That’s what I wanted to say; I wanted to rewind back to the table and say all of this. But how can you explain years of life in a 60-second introduction? 


How do you tell someone you’ve thought about these big questions in your hardest moments? Like when I had that cancer scare at 29, or when I was alone in my studio that first week of pandemic lockdown not knowing if it would end, or when I could barely walk for six months after knee surgery. In each of those moments, I realized that all of the ways I described myself wasn’t actually who I was. They were chosen addendums, fluid, temporary, and can be taken away just as quickly as they were born. In those zoom-out moments, life is simple. The jobs, the publications, none of it actually mattered. What mattered was living a life that made me excited to wake up, it was creating to release something that was begging to come out, it was cultivating a community I loved and together, we could weave art amidst the mundane.


I see writers all around me struggle with this paradox of how they make a living and who they are in relation to their art. How many books do you need to get published to feel society will see you as a writer? How big does the publisher need to be to feel like you “made it”? What if you published a book years ago and now only write for your own practice and self? What if you don’t get any royalties for your books? What if you self-published? What if your stories got nothing but rejections? What if you completed your MFA? What if you didn’t? Why do we creatives keep each other tied to these societally-woven boxes structured upon the very hierarchy intended to make us perpetually question our worth and feel small? 


After that night, I thought about his comment every day for ten days. I find it fascinating that it haunted me in this way. It’s just your ego, I told myself. It’s because you feel guilty about working in marketing, another voice said. It’s because you care too much about what people think of you. It’s because you now confidently say “I’m a writer and artist” without flinching. I say it because I know it. I say it because it seeps into every aspect of my life — and yet even then, a comment from a stranger like this still sticks. That’s the part I’m fascinated with— the fact that the entire writing industry, and many arts for that matter, relies on subjectivity. It relies on someone with power, sometimes self-ascribed, telling you “You’re good enough.” Your art is good enough. You’re something to pay attention to. And because of that, now you’re one of us —as if you weren’t before—as if it’s the distribution, not the act of writing, that really matters.


Sometimes I wonder if I’m making this all up. If I’m the only one who spends too long thinking about this. It’s something I’ve pondered a lot as I shop my novel around. I’ve sent it to 70+ agents and only two were interested in reading more and ultimately declined with little feedback on what I could improve. But when one contest slated it as a semifinalist, I suddenly felt the book was worth something. I’d been given an external flag of approval. How many of those did I need to feel like it was publishable? Did I need any of them at all?


One day I hope us writers will break free from the chains we bind ourselves to. The narratives we’ve quietly soaked up in MFAs and workshops. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about reaching life milestones it’s that the moment of joy at the top is beautiful but incredibly brief. Minutes after celebrating you immediately see a new peak. So, you’re kept in this loop of constant reaching. And if writing is a reflection of life, how could we expect that road to be any different?


I don’t know how to alter the publishing system so it works for more of us. I don’t know how to stop caring about what people think of me when we first meet. But I do know that if you write to exhale, if you write regularly, if you’ve started a book and are trying to finish it, if you’ve self-published or if you’ve landed an agent, if you read at open mics, or write without wanting publication, if you do any of that and so much more than my arbitrarily scribed list, you are a writer. You are a writer. And though you didn’t need me to tell you that, sometimes it helps to be seen, even if just for a sentence.


But what happens if we just stop waiting to be seen? What happens if you just decide it’s time? You self-publish. You celebrate. You move on to your next project. You continue to write. The world goes on as it does, and what they think of you affects your life just as much as it did before —hardly at all.


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