by Ali Williams
The Savoy hotel ballroom is very blue and white and gilt. It’s full of mostly-older music industry types, the kind of people whose program bios feature casual snapshots of themselves with Beatles. I’m here as a plus-one, my best friend runs the organization that stages the British Grammy-equivalent. Over the fancy luncheon, risotto with fennel (yum!) and quince sauerkraut (just as not-good as it sounds), there is a lot of chatting, a lot of Oh you’re from the States, what do you do?
I used to say ‘trapeze artist’ because I was, and that was easy (you’re already starting that conversation in your head, right?). Now, I’ve published essays and won prizes, had my byline in the New York Times and on Brevity’s blog. But compared to my friend and his book deal and my other friend and his three-book deal, I feel like one of the stepsisters trying to get her size 11W into the shoe. I haven’t sold any books, how can I possibly say I’m a writer?
So I get it. I can see how my friends farther back on the publishing trajectory may not feel like “real” writers, how finishing a piece and publishing a piece and getting an agent and getting a book deal are all badges that say I did it or I am it and each of those things punches our ticket, validation. How claiming the title before the accomplishments can feel like misrepresentation.
But at the same time, I remember how, before circus, I first became a theatre director.
By telling people I was one.
I worked community theatre gigs and high school gigs, and eventually college guest artist spots and professional positions. Every time I met someone in theatre I’d say, “I’m a director,” and when they asked what I’d done lately I described one of my shows without being specific about the level I was working at. “Oh yeah, we put Puck in a mask and the whole stage was a giant bed.” And they were sophomores.
It’s not a lie.
It’s starting a conversation.
Sure, you may not be a published writer. You may not be a full-time writer. You may be an early-career writer. But you know what? Published writers don’t get everything they write published. People who make a living writing almost always teach or edit or freelance on the side.
You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself, and project that definition to others. Every time you say what you want to be is what you are, you help move yourself ahead and you let others help you move ahead. Like dressing for the job you want to be hired for.
Imagine you’re chatting with, say, Cheryl Strayed and the guy who owns your local indie bookstore. When they ask if you’re a writer, and you say, “Oh, no, not yet,” the conversation ends there. But when you say (modestly), “I’m early-career, but I’m working on a memoir about my time in the military,” or “I’m excited about sending around my new travel essay series,” that opens a door for them to help you. They might say, “Oh, nice,” and smile blankly, yes. But they might respond with, “I’d love to see a few pages when you’re done,” or “Make sure you query so-and-so, I hear they’re looking for that,” or “Do you know about our reading series for local authors?” All of those responses create dialogue. They help you bond with the larger community. They make connections.
Being a “writer” is like being a “dancer” or a “parent”. You are a dancer when you dance—you are a parent the entire life of your child. Because our work exists in a recorded and fixed form, we tend to use production of fixed forms—books—as benchmarks of our success. But being a writer is a process. When you show up at the page, it is like showing up at the barre. It is like listening to your child when you’re not sure you’re about to make the right decision. Writing is a process rather than a destination.
There is no certification for writers, no governing body, no guild. We have permission to define ourselves, and we should define ourselves as worthy. Presenting ourselves as part of the group helps others see us as worth their time and energy. Worth, eventually, their dollars and their reading.
Yesterday I ordered new business cards.
They say, Writer.