So, this happened:
Last Monday, as I was making last minute edits to the piece about writing and ADHD, I got an email. That day, my ADHD felt extra strong and everything that could distract me did. It was no surprise that I stopped what I was doing and immediately went and looked at my email when I heard the alert. And there, in my inbox was that email.
The first thing I did was shriek. The next thing I did was call Adam, who said, “Can I call you back later?” I told him I needed to read something to him first. I read him the whole email. I enjoyed his surprise at my submitting something he hadn’t laid eyes on, hadn’t watched me agonize over for days and days. We took a few minutes to talk about it, and to celebrate the success, and then we hung up with a plan to talk later. I let a few more people know what had transpired. My celebration was short lived, and not just because I had work to finish. What actually ended the celebration was a wave of crushing doubt.
Not-a-Real-Writer gets Real-Published
I’ve clung to the idea that I’m not a “real writer” for a long time. I have one publication credit from five years ago, but I’ve also never defined being “published” as criteria for being “a real writer.” I still have no idea what it means to be “a real writer” but what I do know is that having things published makes me feel like there are expectations.
Expectations that I’ll submit more things for publication.
Expectations that people will want to read those things.
Expectations that eventually I’ll produce and submit work on a consistent basis.
Worst of all though, is the expectation that I know what I’m doing.
The email from Lilith is time-stamped 4:10 PM. I called Adam at about 4:45. Absolutely nothing changed in that time. Truly, absolutely nothing changed between the time I submitted the story in October, and when I found out that Lilith had decided to purchase it. Except expectations. And not even my expectations. My assumptions about the expectations other people had for me. That’s what changed. Suddenly I assume that when people hear about the microstory being published, they will expect me to submit more, to publish more, to rack up more bylines and more credits.What’s next? A full length magazine article? A book?
I don’t know.
I’m still afraid to let people read my work most of the time. It was momentous when I read two pieces of my own aloud at an open mic poetry event over the summer. It was an even bigger deal when I wrote my first post for this blog,a poem of my own with a companion-essay on its composition. An open mic event has a limited audience. They’re there for the event, and they go home at the end of the night and that’s that. Putting a poem out there on a blog means anyone on the internet can see it, and you don’t put anything on the internet you wouldn’t show to Grandma, put on a highway billboard or put on the front page of the New York Times.
But I did.
Is my fear about legitimacy, my fear of expectations, related to my own history? Fourteen or fifteen months ago, I started writing again after a very long hiatus, and thirteen months ago I started writing with Adam. When I started, I picked it up thinking of it as a hobby. Writing would be something I did for fun and relaxation while we were all trapped at home during a pandemic. I thought of it really as something I did only for myself, perhaps sharing the occasional piece of work with someone, but with no real goal other than “become a better writer.” My focus was on just writing again, because it was something I used to love and had given up. I was thinking of the journals I’ve kept, the letters and notes I write, the Facebook posts. I certainly wasn’t thinking of publishing on blogs or in magazines or anything like that.
About a month after I began studying with Adam, writing suddenly became serious for me when he introduced me to a writing group. To borrow his description, I began to write like an addict going for a ninety day chip. I began writing daily and continued that way for about six months. Clearly I’m not the same writer I was a year ago. I developed a writing habit. So much of the advice that “real writers” offer is advice like “write every day” and “write what you know.”A year ago I couldn’t call myself a writer (even if other people might have.) Six months ago, when Adam and I first began collaborating on a blog, I still had trouble calling myself I writer. I definitely avoided calling myself a poet. Even now, I still have trouble calling myself a writer and I definitely don’t call myself a poet.
What is it that will make me feel like I can legitimately take on the title of writer for myself? I do use it sometimes when I write about myself. Just recently it’s become possible for me to not feel completely weird or cringe or become nauseated when I see it on paper… at least some of the time. But in a conversation? I still can’t actually say the words out loud to most people. I don’t know how I’d answer if someone asked me “Are you a writer?” Even my Twitter bio says “writer-ish.” I also don’t have an answer to what will make me feel like I’m actually qualified, and finding that answer is a quest I’ve been on for months.
Becoming a “Writer” Versus a “Better Writer”
One distinction I make in my mind is between becoming a “writer” and becoming a “better writer.” My goal at the beginning of this journey was “to become a better writer.” Somehow that word “better” felt easier. It felt more like a goal I could actually achieve. I just didn’t see myself in that “writer” role, and yet that distinction between “better writer” and “writer” has started to fade.
For the last eight months, I’ve been writing blog posts, sometimes several posts a week. And when I look at some of those early blog posts and compare them to the ones I’m writing now, I can see the changes–how I’ve morphed from someone who doesn’t want to share my work to someone who does; who has a public voice.
My voice has gotten stronger in other ways. I read one early piece where Adam had done the editing, and it was so clear that Adam’s voice was speaking alongside mine, and in some places even speaking over my voice. Did I not know my own voice at the time? Did I not have the confidence to challenge Adam as an editor then? I do remember how it felt when we were workshopping a poem one night at around the same time I wrote the post I’m thinking of, and I challenged one of his suggestions. Two things had fallen into place: I had a clear understanding of why I’d chosen the words I did, and I finally felt able to explain not just the idea that I was going for but the reason I said it that way.
Who decides what makes someone a real “writer” anyway? Do you become a real writer when your work is published? The first time? The fifth? The tenth? With this second credit, I feel like I’m now actually less entitled to call myself a writer than I was before I knew they were going to buy the piece. Is that just nerves? One credit I can write off as a fluke. Twice? Twice means there might actually be something there. Twice is that scary zone between “it was a fluke” and “this is a real thing you’re doing.” Twice isn’t enough to make it feel like a real possibility but it’s enough to make it feel like more than just a chance. It’s enough to scare me a lot. Writers are powerful, influential people and I don’t know if I’m capable of being responsible for that power.
Maybe for me, being a writer is being a better writer. Maybe I was a writer when I started. As long as I’m always trying to be a better writer, I’m a writer, whether I say it or not. Not that long ago the skill I had to focus on was having the confidence to argue my case against edits that would have changed the voice of my work. This new phase is to maintain my voice and my goals whether I’m published or not. Somewhere down the road I’ll figure out what comes next. The promise I’ve made to myself is to keep working towards “better.” I just need to be patient while I discover exactly what the next stage of “better” looks like.