Two of my best friends from college visited me over a long, hot weekend in July. We spent a brief time in catch-up mode, covering the four years since our last meeting together, before slipping smoothly into the comfortable space of true and present friendship. When people are this intimate, bullshit becomes unnecessary. Truths and dreams spill out in conversations. Their visit made me realize how much of my daily life I spend being polite and banal, offering up small talk and speaking in a way I think others will find acceptable.
I’ve molded my public persona in such a way that I rarely talk about myself without making excuses or justifications. I apologize for being a vegetarian. I say, “I know it’s weird, but…” as a preface when mentioning my insomnia, or the fact that I live in the suburbs, or my affinity for iced tea or vacuuming. I have not yet figured out how to tell my story in a straightforward, unapologetic way.
Nowhere is this worse than when I talk about myself as a writer. Though “writer” is the deepest, truest part of my identity, I’m quick to gloss over it, dismiss and diminish it, to make it seem as if it’s nothing more than a whim. When asked what I do for a living, I always hear myself say the same thing: “Well, I’m a writer, but, I mean, I have a day job.” And then I go into a lengthy explanation of said day job, detailing the activities I do with seniors. Maybe I think I owe the world a practical answer. Maybe I know the follow-up question is about publication, and I think my list of publications means little to anyone outside the literary world. Maybe talking about working at a retirement center makes me sound more balanced, or more altruistic, or more… something.
Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by my own judgmental tendencies, by the way I sometimes cringe internally when others make the dreaded “I’m a writer” proclamation. “Having a blog doesn’t make you a writer,” my inner bitch wants to say — though of course I have my own blog, and of course this denouncement is nothing more than a reflection of my own insecurity. Still, announcing myself as a writer seems arrogant and misguided. I’ve never published a book, I do not get paid for my craft, nobody knows who I am, but let me stand tall as I tell you I consider myself to be a writer has an odd ring to it.
So I tell a different story instead. It’s not an untrue story, and neither is it a complete story. When people ask what I “do” and I talk about the residents I spend time playing games and going shopping with, gaps surface in the narrative. I do not confess to spending the majority of my days daydreaming about being somewhere else. I do not talk about the writing program my friend installed on my phone, the one I use while waiting for residents at their medical appointments. I do not mention my bathroom breaks, when I lock the door behind me, turn the faucet on, and read as much as I can, as quickly as I can. When I park the car after driving a resident somewhere, I linger in the driver’s seat, jotting things down in a notebook, wondering how long I can stay before my absence is noticed. As much as I love my residents and coworkers, I spend the majority of my day looking at clocks, calculating the minute when I can go home and get on my laptop — the minute when I can go home and be myself.
That person — the one slipping into other worlds and inhabiting characters — is the real me. But I’m hesitant to show her to the world, reluctant to own up to having dreams so big. Even writing this essay feels silly. I again feel the need to justify myself, and to assure you that I don’t think I’m going to “make it” as writer or anything, that of course I don’t actually think I could ever support myself financially as a full-time writer, but maybe I would like to take six months and give it a go, and I know that sounds kind of weird, but…
My single goal in life, from the time I was old enough to learn how to read, was to write. I never questioned what I wanted — never switched majors or considered other careers. I’ve spent years writing after work in the evenings, on weekends, here and there and wherever I could. For me to now get bashful and apologize for my “weird” plan for putting my energy toward writing is for me to further pretend I’m someone I’m not.
“I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.” Someone suggested I write this in big, bold letters and display it prominently in my apartment. What would happen if I stopped pushing down the things about myself that make me who I am, and what would happen if I stopped justifying myself to everyone?
I keep thinking I’m different from my friends who are teachers, nurses, architects and dentists. They made it look so simple: go to school, study teaching, become a teacher. Meanwhile I got a bachelor’s degree in writing, waited tables for three years, got a master’s degree in writing, got a job at a retirement center. Writers don’t just go become writers. They become waitresses who write. They become social media specialists who write. Retirement center activities assistants who write.
But the real question is this: Do they write? I’ve realized that when I get past the obnoxious questions, the ones that come from the world at large and from an insecure place deep within myself, writing has little to do with publishing a book or getting paid or being known. Writing has everything to do with writing.
Writing while working full-time can be exhausting, but it is not impossible. And writing while working less-than-full-time, or while not working at all: that’s possible, too. Lately, it’s become increasingly apparent that I keep waiting for the world to give me permission to do something that only I can give myself permission to do. My boss is never going to say to me, “Gosh, Kristen, I know you’re passionate about this writing thing. Have you ever considered taking six months off and focusing on that?” My family is not going to say, “You don’t need to work 40 hours a week because you feel like it’s the practical thing to do.” Strangers are not going to tell me to go for it. I’m the only one who can say, “I believe in myself enough to do this.”
What “this” is, truly: It’s getting up early and staying up late and turning down invitations on the weekend so I can write. It’s cutting my hours at work and it’s looking for ways to take time off entirely and it’s prioritizing my life in such a way that writing reigns. It’s carrying notebooks in my purse and installing a writing application on my phone and it’s lugging my laptop to coffee shops. It’s putting down a lot of shitty sentences and then editing them until they’re a little less shitty. It’s thinking about characters and plot lines throughout the day. It’s putting my essays out into the world. It’s soliciting agents and taking their rejections gracefully. Sometimes it’s black coffee or red wine or forgetting to eat for hours and sometimes it’s taking a long break to go for a walk or a run or to talk to another human being. Writing is caring and writing is trying and writing is doing.
Maybe my teacher friends make lesson plans and my dentist friends attend dental conferences and my nursing friends read up about the latest procedures and drugs. But I sit on at my grandma’s old dining room table, or my blue futon, or my bed, and I write. I write and I write and that counts for something.
Will people think I’m crazy if I call myself a writer?
Maybe I am crazy, but a big part of my crazy is this thing inside of me, this thing that presses so hard against my chest, digging into me with every breath. “What’s the one thing you think about most?” my friend asked during that recent visit. And because I was with real friends, the ones who know me better than anyone, I didn’t hesitate and I didn’t attempt to dilute my response. “Writing,” I said, because it’s my truth. It’s my story.
I may never figure out a way to talk to others about my writing or other “weird” aspects of my personality, but maybe learning to talk about it isn’t really the point. Maybe writing about it is a good first step. I’m telling the world that I think I’m capable and worthy, though it’s terrifying not to hide behind an apology or justification, not to say, “I mean, I know it sounds crazy, but …”
I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer. And if you write — if you really, really write — so are you.