I am a Writer

I watched a movie last year—Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts. It wasn’t a great movie, but aside from the slow pacing and lack of real plot or character growth—there was a line in there that completely bugged me. To be fair, there were a lot of great lines, but this one has overshadowed all the others. It was a scene where Julia’s character was at a dinner table with a bunch of other people, and she was asked to share something about herself. She said, “I’m a writer . . .”
And the guy interrupted her and said, “That’s what you do—not who you are.”

Are you kidding me?

What real writer could have written that little nugget of untruth? I cannot agree with that statement—at least not for myself. And I pity the writer for whom this statement is true. I am a writer. Yes, it is what I do, but it is also very much who I am. It defines me in a lot of ways.

And I’m not talking about publishing and book contracts—those things are awesome and life changing, but they are merely a natural result of me being who I am.

I’m talking about being a writer. That is who I am. My life entirely revolves around words. I write in my personal journal, in the secret journals I keep for my children, letters to people I love, rants when I’m angry, poems when I feel sappy, novels when I feel creative, songs when I feel sad. I’m a writer. It is something I can’t NOT do. My life is wrapped up in the little moments that make up stories and I can’t help but see it that way.

In a class I had in high school, one of my writing teachers plopped a boot up onto her desk and said, “There’s a poem in there somewhere.”

And there was. There is. Every time. There’s a poem in everything, a story in a glance, words wound up tight in every step I take in life.

I once heard a writer at a conference share her secret fear. CS Lewis said that friendship is born the day someone shares something and you’re able to say, “Me too!”

I have her same secret fear. I am terrified I’m going to die and have nothing but lame and embarrassing rough drafts on my computer. I’m terrified that someone will actually go looking through this stuff, and read my absurd drivel, and then think that all that garbage they find on my hard drive defines the person I am. I’m afraid they’ll judge me on the actual content instead of realizing that the fact that everything is there–written down is what really defines me. It defines me as a writer.

I would like to say that I avoid the problem of what they’ll find on my computer by only writing brilliant things. My prose will reduce you to tears of joy, my metaphors are profound, my adverbs are scarce. And if I said all that, I would be lying.

Everyone has train wreck writing on their hard drives. The point is not what’s in it, but that it’s there. It exists.

Do we always succeed as writers? Will we all get the contracts, the big book deals, the New York Times best seller badge? No.

But we do get the relief of expelling all the jumbled messes weighing heavy on our brains onto paper. We give ourselves permission to create something from nothing. We get the joy of expression.

We try for the other stuff–the badges, accolades, and awards, even when the little green Jedi master tells us we don’t get the luxury of trying.

In my kitchen there hangs a plaque that I got from Josi Kilpack. It reads:

I will not live the life of a normal person. I am a writer.

It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am.

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27 Responses to I am a Writer

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    What real writer could have written that little nugget of untruth?

    Someone who was writing a character who didn’t agree with the writer?

    Remember that Eat, Pray, Love, is a pseudomemoir and as such, I’m quite sure that somebody, somewhere did in fact say that to the author. Heaven knows, non-writers have said it to me often enough…

  2. Scott Hales says:

    I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. Oddly, for me, it has always been what I do, as part of my “job,” and as something I enjoy doing. But I’ve always had a hard time saying “I’m a writer” even though it’s how I spend a lot of my day.

    How does someone know he or she is a writer? I mean, anyone can say they are a “writer”–and many people do so without a whole lot of credentials. It seems to me, though, that being a “writer” has to mean more than picking up a pen and jotting something down. Maybe I’m reluctant to say that I’m a writer because I feel like it’s a title (or state of being) that needs to be earned.

    • Ronnie Bray says:

      Scott – if that were so, who then could call him/herself a writer? I don’t think the term writer’ ought to be inflated to mean only those that are widely read.

      In Standard English, a writer is one that writes. See, I have just written this, and so I am a writer. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

      As Maureen Lippman used to say on a TV Commercial – “You got an ology, you’re a scientist!”


  3. It’s interesting to me that there are some things we “do” that we do because that’s who we “are.” I have a friend who is a Teacher. She also teaches, but she IS a Teacher, and everything she encounters, she experiences as a Teacher. She collects visual aids, for example, and her mindset is such that she looks at everything according to how it can be used in teaching.

    Writers can be the same way. I believe that part of the Writer mindset can be the tendency to try to second guess other writers (as in predicting what’s going to happen next in the movie or tv show they are watching–drives my family crazy when I do that–but they get even: they drive me crazy when they ask me what’s going to happen next, and I have no idea).

    I also believe that part of the Writer mindset is as Julie pointed out–there’s a story in almost everything. It’s also part of the Writer mindset to want to know. An award-winning science fiction author, Connie Willis, has asserted that if you are a Writer (not “if you write” by the way), then EVERYTHING is your business. And you can ask anyone anything you want. When/if they say, “what business is it of yours?” you answer, “because I’m a Writer.” I love that. Writers have to be continually filling the reservoir, and making everything your business is a great way to do it.

    So, yes, let’s define who we are, even if it is by what we do. We are a lot more than what we do, but we do what we do in part because of who we are.

    Thanks, Julie. Write on!

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Guess I’m going to be a naysayer. Kinda. I actually agree that creative writing is what I do, not who I am. You don’t need to feel sory for me, either. I’m just fine.

    I believe I am a writer because of who I am. Lots of people write stuff down. Lots of people are nosy/curious. Lots of people keep journals and write personal poetry they never intend to show anyone. Nowadays, lots of people write blogs, or FB posts and notes, etc. Most of these people will say they really love to write and wish they could be a “real” writer–and maybe, once their mother dies, they will be. But not now.

    I’m different than these people because I AM a writer. And I’m not a writer because I love words. Then I’d call myself a reader. (I do love words and do call myself a reader, but that’s not important here.) I, personally, am a writer because people fascinate me, the way we talk, interact, love, betray, fight, make-up. BecauseI know if I watch carefully, I can figure out the most amazing mysteries about people. I’m a creative writer because I love the puzzle of laying out all these observations in a way that lets other people discover my discoveries for themselves. I didn’t become this way because I began to write. Growing up, I was the person in my family who listened, the person people talked to, the peacemaker. I was the one who understood why this friend was upset with that one even though nothing had been said aloud. I wasn’t judgemental or unkind, but open. Others, I think, sensed this. These traits (and others), I’ve always felt, moved me toward writing, and so I can say that writing is the result of who I am, not the thing that created me.

    • Ronnie Bray says:

      Agree. Some write because they have a ‘voice,’ and some because they need a ‘voice.’

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        Well, aren’t you controversial. Some have a voice and some need a voice. What does that mean exactly? Which did it sound like I was? I’m very curious (in a good way).

  5. Angela H. says:

    I’m just like Lisa, actually. I think I write because of who I am too. I also teach because of who I am, and blog because of who I am, and stick my nose in other people’s business because of who I am, give unsolicited advice because of who I am, and read because of who I am. The list could go on.

    For many, many years I thought I must not be a “real” writer because the description of a person who “can’t not write” didn’t fit me exactly. Interestingly, I interpreted this as someone who “can’t not write fiction,” which was my genre of choice, and I didn’t give myself much credit for all the other kinds of writing I did. I can avoid writing fiction pretty darn successfully, mainly because good fiction writing is hard and emotionally taxing and often scares the crap out of me, so if I’m not being disciplined or brave enough I can engage in all sorts of avoidance behaviors. Instead of being overcome by a fierce desire to write fiction that helplessly sweeps me away, often I feel like I’m being helplessly swept in the other direction, away from the keyboard, and have to actively fight against that feeling in order to get anything done. I’m very happy once I do write, though (usually), which is why I keep at it. Also because I know that it’s good for me to do hard things. But I think too many potential writers think that because writing is hard for them, or because they’re not overwhelmed with the desire to do it, that it must not be for them, and that’s too bad. Just as there are people who “can’t not run” who wind up with excellent marathon finishing times, there area also lots and lots of people who’ve disciplined themselves into marathon running despite their initial inclination to avoid all the pain and suffering it entails, and those people can also have excellent finishing times and claim the medal, and the pleasure of finishing, at the end of the race.

    Do I believe that there are writers like Julie who truly “can’t not write”? Of course I do! I’ve often wished I could join that club, to be honest. But there are also plenty of talented and interesting writers who actively struggle to sit down at the keyboard, and they can claim the title “writer” with equal justification — but only if they discipline themselves and do the hard work of actually writing instead of just wishing they wrote, or thinking they might possibly like to write.

    And you don’t have to feel sorry for me either. :-) By being a “reluctant writer” I’ve learned a lot of valuable stuff, stuff that hopefully makes its way into my fiction and improves it. Heck, even if it doesn’t improve my writing, I know it improves me, and that’s enough.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      I wonder if what we are speaking of is a trait of many/most lit fic writers. Or maybe its more prevalent among our kind than among the genre writers. You gotta admit, the writing they produce is more “fun.” So maybe the writing is more fun. ?

  6. Wm Morris says:

    What Angela said.

  7. Not a “can’t not write” Writer either. But I tell myself that not being able to “not write” isn’t the only qualification for being a Writer. “Having written” certainly helps qualify as well.

    Paraphrasing Orson Scott Card who was the keynote speaker at the League of Utah Writers Roundup one year, anyone who has written things down for someone to read someday, or even for themselves to read again later, may qualify. And Louise Plummer includes lists in those things written down.

    So we could get very broad in the definition here.

    How about this: a Writer is anyone who writes, who can’t not write, who allows him or herself to write, who manages to make him or herself write, who loves writing or having written, who can put more than a few sentences together in an articulate way that makes sense to someone else and generates discussion and sharing of ideas and feelings?

  8. An Author, on the other hand, may be something else altogether.

    I’m not going to go there. :)

  9. Angela H. says:

    Great definition, Kathleen.

  10. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I remember sitting in creative writing class at BYU on day one of the semester. Eloise Bell asked us why we enrolled. Every answer came along these lines: “I write because I breathe” (literally said) and “I write because I can’t NOT write.” I was about person 17 in line and I admit to thinking these people were overly dramatic. I don’t recall what I said, but it would’ve been something very different. I think, when it comes down to it, I don’t really think of my writing as self-expression either. Maybe its because I write mostly lit fic these days. Lit fic is about raising questions that are often unanswerable. It can be emotionally challenging. That’s what makes it easy for me to wander from the keyboard. Like I’m about to do now.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I feel much the same way, I think, about dramatic self-identification as a writer. I don’t write because I breathe…I write because I enjoy it more than, say, playing golf or watching BYU dominate (so I’ve heard) in college basketball.

      When it comes down to it, I think I write not because I want to express myself as a unique being–although that’s a part of it–but because I want to contribute to and participate in ongoing conversations about the kind of unanswerable questions you mention.

      I also want to leave enough of a written record behind that one of my descendants, two hundred years into the future, will be able to write a four-page ancestor report about me for her Family History class at BYU-Nauvoo.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    I write because I can’t paint.

  12. Julie Wright says:

    Moriah, that made me laugh out loud literally. I can’t paint either. Dang it. Awesome thoughts, everyone. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

  13. Ronnie Bray says:

    A ‘real’ writer can write anything they like whether speaking through a character, expressing a contrary opinion, or even telling the truth. It seems certain that being a writer is only a part of what a person is and not the whole being. If I believed that all I was was a writer, then I wouldn’t be much. Writing is a means to an end and not the end itself.

    Being a writer is not the most important thing about anyone that puts goose quill to parchment, it is merely a vehicle through which a person’s interests, ideas, or philosophies are presented.

    Being a writer makes me feel grateful for the gift, but has never made me feel to swoon over myself for having a gift not of my own making. Perhaps I have an underdeveloped ego, but those that know me will disagree.

    I thank Almighty God that he has seen fit to gift me with a form of expression that lets me get what’s inside out. Further than that I claim no personal distinction.

    ‘Twas my belief that all writers felt much the same – especially those that write when sober.

    May yer inkpot never run dry!


  14. Ross Wright says:

    I am a writer because that is who I am and what I do. My brother is a master auto mechanic because that’s what he does and always wanted to be or do. Since children we’ve known what we wanted. Like me, he eats, drinks, talks about, reads about, studies and dreams about automobiles and what makes them function. I am the same way about writing(Regretfullly, he makes a lot better living at it than I do writing). When I asked him about it, he replied, “Why would I want to do anything else.”

    I’ve always written stories of what is, what was; what shall be, what should have been; what will be, what would have been; but more important, what can be and what could have been. I work everyday to master my craft, just like any other craftsman. I write stories because it is me, my very being. To me, writing is my personal calling and purpose in this life. I may not make millions of dollars nor be a famous writer with millions of adoring fans. But I have answered the most important question;
    “Why would I want to do anything else.”

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