writing, identity, and self worth

As a vocation, writing can be life-giving one day and draining the next. If we ignore the fact that it is simultaneously the best and most impossible thing, we are not being honest with ourselves. That self-deception is emotionally unhealthy and bad for our writing in the long run. So here’s my run at openness and honesty in where I’m at in my writing life.

My writing schedule has been disrupted quite a bit over the last few weeks, which has also affected my blogging schedule. (Sorry about that.)

It takes me a long time to find my rhythm again. To maintain and cultivate a state of mind consistently ready to write. You’d think this would be good incentive to keep up the habit…

Anyway. As I tried to find that regular rhythm, I encountered deep feelings of ambivalence toward the story I’ve been trying to write for the past (almost) three years. Reasons to put it aside (code for: GIVE UP) sprout up like weeds, mushrooms, baby rabbits: The story is dark and heavy. I want to write something that would make a child laugh instead. I’m making no progress whatsoever. I’m nowhere near finished. I don’t know what happens next. And so on.

As I straightened up my writing space, procrastinating, I found a note from the professor who gave me feedback on many drafts of this story while I was enrolled in my MFA program. She wrote,

Don’t let it go–it needs to be finished and you’re the only one who can do it.

That was more than enough motivation to get me writing yesterday, and it even carried me through my writing time today. But will those warm fuzzies carry me through the end of the book? Probably not. I’m not even sure they’ll help me tomorrow.

My work and the way I feel about my work are always tangled together. This is not a good thing. Too often, it means I measure my worth as a writer, and even as a human, by how I feel about my writing sessions. If I’ve had a good writing session (as I did after finding my professor’s encouraging note), I am satisfied, fulfilled, and the rest of my day has a golden glow. If I’ve had a bad writing session, I don’t move on serenely to another activity, I quit trying, and grouch away. The whole day feels less valuable. Wasted.

The problem is, the way I feel about the work is rarely an accurate indication of the quality of work I have accomplished. I’ve had sessions that FELT good, where all I wrote was one flimsy paragraph, and sessions that FELT bad where I’ve done really important revision work or discovered new things about major characters.

Super famous writers have said they can never tell which pages came to them easily and which were hard labor. In the end, what should count is that the work gets done. If I feel unsuccessful about the work, it does not mean I am unsuccessful as a writer/human. In other words, I am not how I feel about what I do. And, I am not what I do.

As I continue deeper into my writing life, I need to purposefully make a distinction between who I am and what I do. This is not necessarily a popular or encouraged idea. When we meet someone for the first time, we ask,

  1. What’s your name?
  2. What do you do?

By the latter, we are asking after their means of gainful employment, the thing on which they spend the majority of their hours.

Writing is not my means of gainful employment. It is the thing I can’t live without. If I don’t write, I start to feel like a shaken bottle of Coke. The psychic pressure builds. I start acting more like an unstable maniac. If I don’t write, I am not my best self.

At the same time, I am not the sum of my work. My identity is not a function of what I do. I am a human who writes, not a writer who is human.

I’d love to be able to give some practical advice about how to deal with this unwieldy seesaw of the writing life, conquer it, and become a best-selling author (REALLY THOUGH), but this isn’t something I’ve figured out how to balance. It’s a problem I’m becoming more aware of. I’m trusting that awareness will lead me in the right direction.

So,

It needs to be finished, and you are the only one who can do it.

Write no matter how you feel.

Write because you have to.

Just do the work.

You are more than the sum of your words.

I am saying these things as mantras. Eventually, if I repeat them enough times, the truth will sink in.

 

 

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Allison Wall

I'm a writer writing about my writing life. There's a lot of writing. And writing about writing. You get the idea.

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