On Being a Writer and Identity

I am a writer.
(This is an attempt to claim it for my own. Or reclaim it).
Nope. I don’t think I have fully embraced it as a job description. Not even now, with three books published. When, besides looking after my children, this is ALL I do.
I remember my first business card.
After much deliberation and numerous consults (and margaritas) with my mystery writer friend (the fantastic Alison Gaylin), we decided on ‘author’. That’s what hers said. At that time she had about a gazillion books out and I had one. But still. Author.
“I am an author.”
“You’re an arthur?”
“No, an author.”
See, it just doesn’t sound right. The word sticks in my throat. It’s hard to say with clarity. And emphasis. Really someone should say it for you. Someone who can really roll their ‘r’s and has a deep velvety voice. Like, they could follow you around, as if to sprinkle rose petals in your path but actually they would just keep up this steady stream of whispering- “she’s an author”, “oh her, she’s that author”, “make way! author coming through”, “she’s an author didn’t you know?”
Plus, I’d rather be an auror.
I’ve been thinking about identity and how much it is tied up in what we do. You know, for a living. (I just barely stopped myself from making air quotes as I wrote that last word).
And how it’s even more convoluted when what we do is art and so deeply personal.
There is pride in a job well done. Even though I can’t rap worth a hill of beans, I still took pride in the records my company produced. Especially the gangsta rap ones with no social merit.
But a book. A book that I write. There is no middle man. Yes, there is my editor and my agent and my beta readers and everyone else whose job it seems to be to keep me from totally humiliating myself with poor prose, but the meat of the manuscript? That is mine. That is me. I am it.
I cannot separate myself from my work. I realize that at some point- most agree that it’s when the work is published- I have to let the work go and be free in the wide world where it will be praised and more often, criticized, and I have accepted that. Once the book is published it is not mine anymore. It is still me though.
And what happens if the work is not published?
And this happens more than you would think.
If a writer writes but the manuscripts aren’t sold, does she make a sound when she topples over in the forest?
Is she still a writer?
I know that people will say that if you write, you are a writer. And that’s true, and hurray!!!
But what I have been wondering about myself is, do I still identify as a writer if I am not regularly being published? How much of my identity-all the different bits of me that I identify as being ‘Jo’- is connected to my book release schedules?
No one wants the recognition after our deaths. I mean, we’ll take the recognition any way we can get it but we’d rather it not be in 100 years when some intrepid explorer stumbles across a trunk of manuscripts in a dusty attic.
I am the writer who was once published. The writer who will soon be published again. The writer who may never again be published?
The one thing I am reasonably certain of is that I am not an author. Or, worse luck, an auror.

2 thoughts on “On Being a Writer and Identity

  1. The whole job/identity thing is a tricky one. If you’re a doctor/taxi driver/teacher you can say ‘yes, I’m a doctor/taxi driver/teacher’ without any qualms. You do that for x-number of hours a week and get paid accordingly. It’s what you are and what you do.

    But for those of us in ‘the arts’ it’s so different. We often even more extremely than other people identify ourselves with our work – it’s a calling not just a profession; and we also put in those x-number of hours a week, but the main difference is that we aren’t guaranteed to be paid accordingly. If a book doesn’t get published (or a painting sold, or a song performed…) we don’t get paid, regardless of how much time and effort and skill we’ve put into it.

    Being a painter, (I have trouble with the word artist just as you do with author, maybe it’s an ‘a-word’ thing) I have these same ups and downs depending on whether I’ve had a show recently or not, and whether I’ve sold anything recently or not. When I have, I feel on top of the world and identify myself whole heartedly as a painter. When I haven’t, I don’t: I feel worse than crap and wonder where I ever got the nerve to think of myself as one.

    With writing it’s even harder since so much time and effort goes into a book and there can be years between books.

    For what it’s worth, in my mind you are a bona fide writer.

    (Not to say that you wouldn’t make a kick-butt auror.)

    1. Hey Lynn,
      I’ve been trying to think of a job other than being an artist where you do the work without the prospect necessarily of getting paid at the end of it. On the one hand, being able to devote your life to your passion is so precious and affirming, on the other hand, we have to be able to pay bills and look after our families. It is a difficult balance. I struggle with feeling a little selfish because I am so stubborn about following this path, even though what might be best for my kids is if I have a regular job. Of course I have flexibility and I am able to be a stay at home mom for them, something else which is precious and irreplaceable.
      Thanks for commenting!

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