The Best (and Worst) Advice on Finding Your Identity As a Writer
Identity is a loaded word, especially when it comes to writers. For many, the act of merely identifying as a writer is a major hurdle. And changing your identity from being a bad writer to a good writer is harder still, especially since, as an art form, writing requires us to face difficult emotions. And those emotions are something that even the most advanced writers have to worry about and contend with; but when you're just starting out, those emotions can really mess with your head. Then there is the process of writing itself, which is as grueling as trying to make a perfect snowball with just air, spit and dust. Just know that not having a perfect draft after your first go does not mean that you’re a bad writer. The process of writing itself is fraught with drafts. And, similar to the process of making a film, a lot is going to be left on the cutting room floor.
Then there are the branches of writing. Academic writing is very different from blogging. Writing for sales is very different than writing for entertainment. And writing for video or film is wildly different than writing a novel. Writing is simply the umbrella term used to cover a vast range of specializations, styles, topics, formats, and purposes. And each variation requires something that another may not. That takes a shit load of time simply to navigate, let alone master. So be kind to yourself if you’re struggling to find a niche. It takes time, and more often than not, your niche finds you.
And just because you have no published work, and no awards to your name, you are not exempt from calling yourself a writer. Do you write (almost) every day, rain or shine? BOOM. You’re a writer. Do you constantly find yourself thinking up scenes and dialogues in your head that you feel you must jot down? YES! You’re a writer. Do you agonize over certain words in the pursuit of expressing how you really feel and think? Yeah, you’re probably a goddamn writer. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but just because you’re not setting the world on fire, if you feel compelled to write, then chances are you’re a writer. And just, for a moment, consider how ridiculous it is to think you aren’t a writer if you’re not drowning in accolades and awards. Are you no longer considered to be a figure skater if you don’t make the Olympic team? Are you no longer considered to be a gardener if a surprise flood kills everything? Are you no longer a dancer if you don’t make the cut at Julliard? Come on now. If you find yourself picking up pen and paper more often than not, chances are, you’re a writer. And you get to be as stressed out and crazy as the rest of us. Welcome.
So where does identity come into play? Well, the way you write - that’s your identity. What you write about - that’s your identity. The way you see the world - again, that’s your identity. People may see the world in similar ways, but never the exact same way you do. Others may write with the same words, but rarely in the same way you could. And other writers may write on similar topics, but the fact that you’re writing about it, that’s what makes your stuff unique in comparison.
Now, consider what happens in school. You get assignments. You write essays. You either scrape by, or excel with flying colors. But that writing is never for you. It’s always for someone else and some other purpose. You’re stuck playing by someone else’s rules, and forced to deal with whatever hangups your teachers might have.
Random example: In 8th grade, we had to do essays on the Holocaust. I was one of the last to choose a topic, and got stuck with the Nazi Medical Experiments. Researched the shit out of that topic. Wrote a damn good essay. I was so proud to turn it in. Then, I got a C+. Why? Because it was “too depressing.” Of course medical experiments are horrific and depressing! Why’d you make it a topic?! Then, years later, I run into that same English teacher who introduces me to someone as the ‘best writer she ever had in her class.’ I was furious. The woman gave me C's the whole goddamn time. So think about that: whatever happened in school has nothing to do with what you create as a writer once you’re free to do as you choose.
But there’s the rub: when we’re writing at school, there are clear boundaries. We have a general idea of what is acceptable, and what is not. Risk doesn’t really factor into the equation. Plus, what you write generally stays between you and your teacher, in most scenarios. So it’s relatively safe. However, when you’re writing online - holy shit, you never know if you’re about to step on a landmine of public opinion and hateful Twitter assaults. And, with that danger looming, you’ve also got to find your voice, determine your style, organize the structure to tell a powerful story, figure out the perfect prose to match, and then see if you can even sell it. It can be overwhelming, to the point of feeling defeated before you even start. But if you feel the urge to write, and you keep coming back to it time and time again, against your better judgement, then you have a responsibility to suck it up and keep going. Eventually, you’ll figure out what you’re doing, if you just keep showing up.
And that’s also super shitty advice. At least, I thought so plenty of times when I was just starting out. “Just keep at it. You’ll figure it out.” Phrases like that can make you want to pull your hair out and scream. “Why not just tell me what I’m doing wrong?!” Because, chances are, no one can tell you what you’re doing wrong, exactly. They just sense that it’s not right. And that has nothing to do with your identity, but it has plenty to do with your path.
Let me give you another example: Alright, I’ve been working on a novel for some time. I really, really, really wanted to get it done before I turned 30. It was a huge milestone for me and I wanted to hit it hard on the head with a finished novel. So, I wrote a few drafts, then, during the last 30 days before my birthday, the home stretch, I wrote that novel from start to finish. It was exhausting, and I would never in a million years do that again; but as soon as I sent it off to friends - fellow writers and enthusiastic readers - I immediately sensed something was off. While I did get plenty of feedback that was great, people tiptoed around the fact that the story (and writing) wasn’t what it should be. Friends apologized for not being able to help more - that they were unable to articulate what was missing - but then an editor friend of mine ripped off the bandaid, scab included, and straight up said that it needed to be completely re-done. Oh, I was fucking pissed. Here I was, thinking I had done the impossible, and turns out, I had done the absolutely ordinary...poorly. But what does this have to do with identity?
Well, after pouting for about four weeks, I returned to pen and paper and started over. And through the process, I discovered my identity when it comes to fiction writing - which is a completely different skillset than writing for businesses and publications. Sure, it’s not 100% polished or fine-tuned, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than I was before. So, I think, when people tell you to keep at it, what they’re really saying is, only you can figure out who you are. No one can tell you, or uncover your true self for you. It’s like Michelangelo creating a sculpture. He said “every block of stone has a sculpture inside it and it is up to the sculptor to discover it.” What I think this means is that only you can find the sculpture inside of yourself. And you’re going to have to chip away at it, again and again. Sometimes you’ll make a wonderful discovery, but more often than not, you’ll make some silly mistakes that turn into valuable lessons.
That’s what it takes to find your voice. Sometimes you have to write like other people, and sometimes you have to write like only you can until you find that perfect balance. More often than not, you’ll have to write like shit for a while. Just remember: it’s a process. You won’t get it right the first time, or maybe even the fifth. But if you’re called to write, you’re called to write. And your identity is merely the reward at the end of the workaholic rainbow. All you can do is search for it, trusting that you’ll know it when you see it.
So, yes, the best advice of all (and worst, and most annoying) is to just keep going. Your sculpture is in there somewhere.