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.