Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Writing as an Identity

One of the more unique aspects of writing is the way people associate themselves and their identities with their words on the page. People don't just spend time in the evening reflecting on the capricious vicissitudes of life and/or zombie killers from another planet. It somehow becomes more than that.

You can see this in the way people talk about writing: some people compare it to oxygen, i.e. something that they can't live without. They don't say, "I like to write, it's fun, I enjoy it." They say, unequivocally, "I am a writer. It's who I am."

I'm going to be honest here and say that while I don't judge people when they define themselves as writer, whatever their publication status, I find it a little unsettling when they make it an overly intrinsic part of their identity.

First of all, people just don't tend to define themselves by what they do in their spare time. You don't hear anyone shout to the rafters, "I AM STAMP COLLECTOR!" or "I AM A CONNOISSEUR OF REALITY TELEVISION!"

To be sure, there's something about writing that's a little different (to say the least) from stamp collecting. It's more personal, even when it's not a memoir or something that relates directly to someone's real life. Putting thoughts on the page, any thoughts, means taking one's inner life and putting it all out there for the world to see. Normally we're at great pains to keep our emotions hidden, whether that's concealing anger or love or nervousness. Writers do the opposite: they take their innermost thoughts and show them to the world. And there's something scary/thrilling about externalizing what is normally kept hidden.

But an identity?

Here's where that becomes problematic. Once someone makes the leap from writing as a fun, intense pursuit to something wrapped up in identity, it's a dangerous road to be walking on. As we all know, the path to material success in the writing world is ridden with obstacles and rejections. And when people begin to wrap up their identity with the publication process, the rejections become personal, and a judgment on a book becomes intertwined, in the writer's eye, with a judgment of self.

Sure, there's something unique and personal about writing, which is what so many people love about it. But I don't think the ideal is pursuing it in an all-consuming Randy "The Ram" fashion. The moment the writing or the publishing process becomes the defining part of someone's identity, when it becomes oxygen, that's a time when the writer is risking having that oxygen choked off by forces completely outside of their control.

I hear from these people all the time. They're the ones who start spamming agents, who write me angry e-mails, and who go on tirades about the publishing process. They've stopped enjoying the writing process, and because writing is so wrapped up in their self-conception, they can't bear the pain of rejection and instead look outward for blame.

What do you think? Is it realistic to think that something so time-intensive and personal can be placed in a more hermetically sealed mental box? Is there even an ideal approach?

UPDATE: I scrubbed this post of the word "hobby" because I think it was distracting from the intent of the post. For the record: I don't think a creative pursuit is the same thing as a hobby, I don't prejudge people who call themselves writers, and as I hope is already abundantly apparent, I admire anyone and everyone who takes the time to put word to page. I only meant "hobby" as in something that one does that is not one's career, not as something trivial.

As I mentioned in the comments section, this post could have been summed up: "Don't let the publishing process define you." But I didn't have time today for such a short post.


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Deb Lehman said...

I am defined by my writing, but my writing doesn't define me. I've got a husband, two children, friends, interests and a life outside my work. I've got to write, always have, but it's not fun. It doesn't pay the mortgage. It just is.

Anonymous said...

Dang, people. If this post bothered you...I have bad news for you. You're not going to make it in the publishing industry.

jan said...

That's funny...actually I'm making it just fine. Why would ANYONE's reaction to a post about whether it's mentally healthy to self-identify with being a writer (and whether self-identifying with being a writer is related to industry manners) have the vaguest thing to do with their success in the industry.

So far, always agreeing with Nathan hasn't been on the secret insider quiz.

simon said...

I'd have to take issue with the person stating (albeit lightheartedly) that people shouldn't take issue with what Nathan says.
I actually think this has been one of the most stimulating threads on this blog for a while BECAUSE people did exactly that. I don't think Nathan would have any dispute it with it either.
Debate is healthy.

Auburn said...

I don't know, Nathan. I consider myself as partially defined by the fact that I write, though I don't proclaim it from the rooftops (unlike "I AM A REALITY TELEVISION CONNOISSEUR!", which everyone should shout from the rooftops). Partially because I am currently unpublished, I don't feel comfortable saying that my identity is as a writer. I don't make a living from it and I know few people do.

But I certainly believe it is intrinsic to my being. If I don't make a point of writing, even the smallest amount, every day, then I feel that I am skipping some integral part of living. As if I missed a heartbeat somewhere. I honestly feel that strongly about it.

That being said, I don't use "I am a writer" as an excuse for my flaws, or a reason to treat others with less respect, or to disregard advice by non-writers. And certainly I don't make a point of treating agents and other book professionals disrespectfully because they don't understand "my" vision. Even if they will not take my work on for whatever reason, I'm not going to tell them they don't understand me as a writer. But I do ask that they respect my being one.

Okay, I guess I am a writer. But I'm not getting my knickers in a twist about that fact. Still, when that identity is questioned, it does provoke a defensive response, and maybe that's where you've run into trouble before. I'm comfortable enough in my own skin not to lash out at people, but others lack that security.

Trashy Cowgirl said...

I'm just a cowgirl who likes to bs and spin a yarn. Guess that makes me a writer, though it doesn't define who I am. If it was the only thing I had going on in my life, my protags would probably all be writers. They're not.

When I attended an American military university I was known as the "Infantry chick", because I had been in the Infantry. When I rode bucking horses, I was known as the "Bareback Rider" to the point where I really didn't have my own name anymore. I'm no longer in the Army, and I gave up rodeo. I'm still here. Those things defined who I was quite a bit less than most people realized. These days I'm proudly known as "Mom", and that is one definition that will stick with me for life. I guess "writer" would be somewhere in between. I'm never going to quit writing, but it is far from an all encompassing title.

Katiek patrianoceu said...

Does publishing (or attempting to publish) necessarily come with a "writer" identity?

For me, I consider myself a writer because I process things through putting words on a page. And because it's a skill I have that's very useful in the workplace. And because I love doing it. And because my friends know that it's a big part of my life.

Sure, I'd like to be published someday, but then maybe I'll call myself an "author" - don't you think we can and need to separate writing identity from publishing identity?

Mystery Robin said...

I think you can identify yourself as a writer and never pursue publication, or pursue it in a healthy way. It's when you pursue it in an idolotrous way, where you look to writing to save you, to define you, that you become all kinds of crazy. We weren't meant to have something like "publication" at the apex of our being, and we start to crumble.

SC Sousa said...

This post left me feeling conflicted. While I've never been anything but gracious toward any and all rejections I've received, I find that writing very much CAN be a part of one's identity without going overboard.

There is something daring and pure about calling oneself a writer. As was previously mentioned, it can often take a long time to admit such a thing, but really, writers aim to share parts of themselves with a world that, as Nathan pointed out, is very much attuned to hiding themselves in an effort to avoid appearing weak.

As realistic and tough as the world is, it would die without stories to make us think, and to make us hope. At the least, we need escape from life, and the proof of that is in weekend box office receipts, video game sales, the NYT bestseller list, and any other way of measuring the stories consumed in various mediums.

Writing comes in many different ways, but many writers do so because they are introspective and more than a bit conscientious. It is a growing process, but worthy stories come from all sources. I believe the writer that embraces the "writing" side of their person is better off. Some are just plain born to write; it CAN be part of their identity, without becoming the bane of agents and editors!

Anonymous said...

It is way too late at night to stay up and read all 409 comments, so if this echoes anyone who's gone before me, I apologize.

Nathan, my suspicion is that the people who go overboard in pinning all their hopes to the publishing process are people who never had a solid foundation for their self-worth in the first place.

I identify very strongly as a writer; it's what I do, even though it's not how I make my living. But: I try to maintain a realistic view of the differences between writing process and publishing process. One of them, I own. With the other, I'm only the manufacturer, with a lot of other people involved in getting the product to the shelves.

Writing is oxygen; commercial success is helium: it'll float some pretty balloons, but you don't want to inhale the stuff.

Amy Platon said...

Ok seriously? 410 comments to this post, wow I feel like you are sprinkling a little fish food on the surface of the water with your questions and we are all gasping to eat it.

But anyway, I'm a little surprised that you care what the crazies think about your opinion of their book. This is a little like American Idol. You're like Randy. My favorite part of the show is when someone flips on the judges. Just pull out your lawn chair and pop open a beer, and enjoy the show.

You want us (writers) to be serious about our work. If we all treated it like a "hobby" your next post would be..."why aren't writers meeting their deadlines? It's like this is some kind of hobby for them, uhh." If I remember, you just surveyed our sacrifices, now we're taking it too seriously? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

This is a wise post and certainly has resonance for me. But my question would be, and I guess this may appear in the earlier 400 plus comments! Would you expect a published author to define themselves by and be completely invested in their writing (or an artist or musician)? Because when it comes to passion and application the only difference between the published author and the unpublished may be the measurable level of success. We may not be any good but we work hard and with passion : )

I also wonder if the nightmare writers who spam and rage are more likely to be those new to the process who, like many of us, thought that once we had the words down the hard work was done! We all learn over the years. We know a favourable outcome is unlikely but we put the hours of effort in because we love writing. But we still hope. And as one of the earlier comments said, most of us are too embarrassed to call ourselves writers.

But great post, there is a lot of truth in what you say.

hippokrene said...

"Anything. in my opinion, that is all- consuming is unhealthy and makes for a one sided personality."

Oh no?

Being unhealthy and one-sided is a legitamate choice. If a person is happy and hurts no one then I don’t see a problem.

Brenda Mantz said...

I strive to be many things - including a writer. I admire writers who are multi-faceted. With apologies to Wally Lamb, I don't beliver we cannot write honestly from the perspective of someone/something we haven't been.

Jackie said...

I'm a writer wannabe. I have spent a lot more time wannabe'ing than writing.

I have never been paid for my writing, unless you count the monetary prize I won on behalf of a lady who bid $50 for my writing services at a silent auction. After receiving acclaim and $500, she took me to dinner.

The story above is a glimpse into the self-esteem issues of most writer wannabes. We know deep down that we're good at it. We've received accolades from the time we were young. We shine in the universities with our insight and well-turned phrases. We teach and encourage others to write. We hang out with other writer wannabes. We don't finish manuscripts.

I had planned a lengthy essay about how important it is for us wannabes to use the "say it and claim it" mentality to motivate ourselves, because if we keep saying we're wannabes, well... you know. I could wax eloquently for several more paragraphs, but the demons in my head are telling me otherwise.

James said...

Until the economic collapse I earned my living as a writer and nothing gave me more intense pleasure than answer the question "What do you do?" by saying "I'm a writer."

But now my writing work has completely dried up and I am working in a vineyard for one fifth of what I earned writing and while I enjoy working outside and with my body, I am very saddened that I cannot say with the same pride and conviction that I am a writer.

Reesha said...

Wow. Nice can of worms you got going here, Nathan. :)

One note: People usually read e-mail and blog posts one or two notches more negatively than they do when it's spoken.

I read the blog and thought "Uh-oh. I can't believe he just opened himself up for this."

Thanks for having the guts to stimulate such a discussion. It will have me examining my own identity as a writer to make sure I haven't gone too far. Thanks!

Kate H said...

I think there's a difference between identifying oneself as a writer and allowing the publishing process to define one.

I define myself as a writer, among other things, because I have had the urge to write since childhood and I believe it's an intrinsic part of who I am. I don't, however, shout it from the housetops or buttonhole strangers at parties to tell them the woes of my writing life. I keep it fairly private, and intend to do so until I'm published. Maybe even then, because in spite of the fact that I'm willing to spill my guts on a page that may someday be published, I'm essentially a private person.

I do not, however, allow the publishing process to define me. I've accepted the idea that I may never achieve what I hope to achieve in terms of a writing career, and have not become suicidal as a result. Whether or not the gatekeepers ever decide to let me in does not affect the fact that I am a writer. I will go on writing, not because I can't not write--I spent many years not writing--but because writing makes me a better person.

Art of any kind is very different from other spare time activities. Artists of all sorts define themselves primarily in terms of their art, whether they are able to make a living at it or not. It really is something fundamental to the personality, not just an activity we choose to pursue.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Nathan. You have opened up a huge debate. The fact is, until you receive money for a piece of writing, you are not a professional writer. Period. I worked my butt off in college studying writing and communications, then took every measly freelance job I could get until I became a magazine editor. That's what it's like to be a writer and earn the right to call yourself one. Wanna-bes who haven't published anything yet do not deserve it. They have paid their dues.

writtenwyrdd said...

The worst thing about identifying yourself as a writer are the assumptions of others, not my own mental shenanigans! You mention you write "as a hobby" and people still ask (in an attempt to determine if you are a "real" or "serious" writer) "So, what have you published?"

Ack! That's not the point! They ask what I'm doing in the coffee shop with the laptop and I say working on my sf novel. They feel instantly entitled to judge my writerly credentials by asking that question. So annoying.

monchichi said...

Wow, I can't believe all the angry responses. I think all the people who are so offended may have inflated egos that needed to let a bit of air out.

Yes, it's hard to be any kind of creative type, but it's your choice to do so. It's a luxury, and it isn't easy. We should be there because we love the work, and we should be grateful that we have any talent to contribute and the opportunity to pursue it.

This is my first comment on your blog, Nathan, and I'm sorry that you were driven to say that you had a personal life. I think you’re a saint for writing your blog for us (often ungrateful) writers. Thank you.

I am a writer, and I appreciated your post (yes, even the original one, with “hobby” and all). I still want to my fiction to be published, and it's good to have a goal to work towards, but I appreciated your reminder to not let that be the be-all-end-all.

Telling people I'm a writer makes me feel accountable-- I have to keep on trudging forward, even if I feel like downing a pint of ice cream instead.

I take rejection as a sign that I need to keep on working on my craft, and that's that. I think whoever said that we have to keep moving forward, like sharks, was exactly right. You have to put your heart and soul into the work and then MOVE ON.

I know someone who has pitched a project for ten years-- and she IS her project. I don't mind if the agent reading my last novel doesn't love it. The one I'm working on now is way better.

Also, thanks, John, for sharing the Elizabeth Gilbert video. Loved it. Especially the “I’m doing my part of the job” part.

Anyway, I just think the egos need to relax a bit. Feel free to call yourself a writer (or not). Just do it because you love it.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes, from Christopher Parkening, "one of the world's most accomplished classical guitarists":

Success and excellence are competing ideals. Being successful does not necessarily mean you will be excellent, and being excellent does not necessarily mean you will be successful.

Success is attaining or achieving cultural goals, which elevates one's importance in the society in which he lives. Excellence is the pursuit of quality in one's work and effort, whether the culture recognizes it or not.

Success seeks status, power, prestige, wealth, and privilege. Excellence is internal—seeking satisfaction in having done your best. Success is external—how much you have done in comparison with others. Excellence is how you have done in relation to your own potential. For me, success seeks to please man, but excellence seeks to please God.

Success grants rewards to a few, but is the dream of the multitudes. Excellence is available to all, but is accepted only by a few. Success engenders a fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Excellence brings us down to reality with a deep gratitude for the promise of joy when we do our best.

Excellence cultivates principles, character, and integrity. Success may be cheap, and you can take shortcuts to get there. You will pay the full price for excellence; it is never discounted. Excellence will always cost you everything, but it is the most lasting and rewarding ideal.

What drives you— success or excellence?

MJ said...

While I adore you Nathan, you come off a bit jaded here.

I do not know much about you apart from the fact that you are obviouly a literary agent, and the other tid bits that you allow us on this great blog.

However, I can't help but get the whole "I became an agent because I failed as a writer vibe" from this post. I know that's harsh, and possibly this couldn't be further from the truth-but its just the vibe I'm getting here.

It's the first time i've gotten it while reading a post of yours.

I think you make somewhat of a point, but writers are writers, and if they 'identify with what they write', it is because part of their identity is in there.......NO?

I think so!

Anonymous said...

"They feel instantly entitled to judge my writerly credentials by asking that question. So annoying."

If yuou find it annoying then why don't you tell them you're doing something work realted, like editing abusiness letter or something?

Besides, like that episode of Family Guy, aren't people who sit around working on their novels in coffee shops looking for attention? Like, go on, ask me what I'm working on so I can tell you I'm writing anovel kind of thang?

Me thinketh so.

Sun Up said...

I am a writer...but it's not everything that I am. It is however, a huge...huge part of my identity.

While I would love to be published and it's what I'm actively pursuing, just being able to write and get these people in my head onto paper is my motivation.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I didn't write. It's usually the first thing I think about in the morning, and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep (if there isn't any other pressing matters...which there was lately. *Am I pregnant? Am I not pregnant* turns out I am. *L*)

But I'm a mother, a lover, a friend, a daughter and much more. Being a writer is just another aspect of me, but no less meaningful than being some of those other things.

Lisa said...

MJ @ 12:53
MJ, from your post, I can't help but get the whole you were the schoolyard bully vibe. I know it's harsh and possibly couldn't be further from the truth, but it's just the vibe I'm getting here.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you rock. This post is exactly what I needed. I haven't even begun to read the onslaught of comments. I just had to thank you.

Liz said...

Wow, I got here after the "hobby" thing. The power of words, man.

Identity is a strange thing. There are so many things that define us. We go from being "young" to being "old", usually while we were busy doing something else. Then we hear something improbable like "TURN THAT MUSIC DOWN THAT DOESN'T EVEN SOUND LIKE MUSIC" come out of our mouths and gasp and run to hide in the closet in a fetal ball.

Where the writing's concerned, I consider myself more of a storyteller. The written word is, for me, the most accessible medium. I see myself as a participant in a uniquely human and ancient tradition. I feel connected to the illumined faces round the fire.

There's plenty else in my life to occupy and define me - lawyer, mother, daughter, wife, Texan, liberal, omnivore. The words alone are evocative enough. You already thing you know me a little just by reading them. But you don't. And that's the thing about writing. I don't think the issue is about how deeply your identity is wrapped up in writing. I think it goes more broadly than that. I think it's about knowing who you are, how temporary everything is, including your self, and being okay with this. Oh that we could all be immortal and permanent through our works, whatever they may be, but it ain't gonna happen.

MzMannerz said...

I often hear hobbyists declare themselves to be [insert hobby]ers. I've heard people say they are scrapbookers, golfers, gardeners, etc., as part of a description of how avid/new/addicted/etc. they are to the activity. Nothing wrong with that, and it is a separate issue from those who are angry at the process and railing against publishing, their tee time, the lack of rain.

Is writing a hobby? Certainly, to some. Still makes the hobby writer a writer. It's a part of who they are.

You are an agent. That IS who you are. It is not ALL you are.


Jovanna said...

I write because I like writing. It's fun, but can be frustrating when the story flows like a movie in your head and you can't write/type fast enough. It's not my career or anything, so I suppose it is a hobby. Mostly, I write to find out what happens next in my story. You get so much more detail when you write out a story than when you only imagine one in your head. I write because I am seldom able to find books I want to read (or get to a library/bookstore) and I like stories. I like stories and can't get enough of them, therefore I write to see if I can come up with any interesting stories. (other reasons I write is because I like seeing my handwriting and trying to adopt different styles of writing - more to do with visual art stuff, just for fun).

Identifying with the writing can be dangerous, cos you end up turning into a strange person. Kinda spikey, like a human echinda/porcupine. Or at least that's what I've found from my experience.

As for angry spam, I feel sorry for the people who are angry. They must have either had a bad day or been having a series of bad days.

Sarah Laurenson said...

When I was growing up, I heard people define themselves by their jobs. And they were judged based on that occupation. Since the percentage of people who don't like their jobs is far higher than the percentage who do, I find it odd to be defined by something you don't like to do.

I've also heard that claiming writing as a profession is a good step towards becoming published because then you take it more seriously inside. Not sure how true that is, but I think there is a kernel of that in there.

I do what I do 40 hours a week to feed my body. I write to feed my soul. It's a better definition of who I am than my day job. It doesn't mean I am a published writer. Publication is the goal not the journey. And I am enjoying the journey very much.

But yeah. There are a lot of people out there who want to know where they can buy my book when I say I'm a writer.

Really grey!

Anonymous said...

A late comment here, but I am a nurse and a writer. I am not yet published, but not having anyone actually read my writing doesn't mean I don't do it. Being a nurse describes me, but does not define me as I do not think in terms of nursing all day long. I do think as a writer constantly, watching, noticing, drooling over new found words. So yes, writing defines me because that is how I think. It does not, will not, become the only facet of me that exists. That's just silly.

Anonymous said...

I've called myself a writer since I was seven. I can't remember a time when I didn't write. I'm published only as a journalist, not as a fiction writer, which is what I've always worked at. I don't call myself a writer because I'm pretensious, needy, or want validation; I call myself a writer, because it's always been part of who I am. Easily the biggest part.

I have hobbies, and I'll call them such, because I haven't worked at them as I have writing, I haven't dedicated near as much time, and I have no plans to make a future out of them.

Just because I call myself a writer doesn't mean it's all I am. I think the problem here is overgeneralizations. 'Being a writer' means very different things to different people.

freddie said...

I like writing, but I would never tell people in my real life that I'm a writer. I study music composition (for film), but I don't yet feel that I'm a composer. I guess I'll feel I'm a composer when I am able to say what I want to say through the music I write.

The thing is, I once bought into the myth that art is an all-consuming thing. I don't think it is, nor should it be. Stephen King said it best when he talked about his alcoholic days in On Writing. Art is a support system for life, not the other way around.

E said...

Hmm, I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with you on this one. Of course, you should take me with a grain of salt since I am in fact not a writer, but an actress. If writing is anything like acting, however, (pouring your soul out on camera/stage and pouring it out onto paper do have their similarities) then being a writer is so deeply ingrained in you that it is part of who you are on the deepest level. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as these people realize rejection is going to be a constant in their lives and go about their career in a professional way. Acting is my identity and I love that about myself. When you find something you are that passionate about you should celebrate it and shout it from the rooftops . . . whether or not it is necessarily "healthy."

Miss Mabel said...

Clearly I'm late in commenting on this one, and I'm not going to read all the preceding comments (eeps!) But Stephen Covey sums it up nicely in his 7 Steps book--that if you make anything outside of yourself into your identity (father, employee, minister, nurse, whatever) then what happens to your identity if that thing gets taken away from you? You'll lose your identity.

Juliette said...

I'm not a writer but I can say from other experiences. It is strange how people sometimes write blogs about the things they can't admit to others. Some people with blogs don't say to anyone that they have blogs. They write personal things which might read thousands of people but telling those things to people around is something that they would never do. The strange thing is that people feel like they need to tell things to other but they can't, and they turn to blogging to unknown people. The sad thing is that people don't feel free to say things to close people. Why is this happen, I don't know, but maybe it happens to writers for the same reason.

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