I've been going to these writing conferences. They can be quite intimidating, especially for an introvert like myself. They are in huge open rooms with florescent lighting and too much air-conditioning blasting from dusty vents. There are armies of tiny water bottles and people who really want you to wear badges. I go to these conferences to learn how to do the non-writing part of being a writer. These things are about the chatting. The promotion of yourself. The handing out of cards. The perfecting of the encouraging nod at the lady who writes for The New Yorker and who, ironically, is telling a very boring story.
Even though I wish I could just stay home and put letters and spaces together forever without any human interaction - I need to learn, so I go to conferences.
I was at one recently and I was talking to a man. If you were going to cast a movie and needed someone to play the role of "Writer" you would hire this dude. He was old and white and wore a sports coat with elbow patches on it. He carried a leather briefcase that was worn and reminiscent of a saddle. You just knew he wrote with a fountain pen. It was all disappointingly cliché.
We chatted for a little while and then exchanged cards. His card had things like PhD written on it. When I handed him mine, he looked at it for a moment.
Eventually, he raised his caterpillar eyebrows. He made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and that thing you do when you are trying to clear phlegm.
It was clear that whatever my credentials may or may not be, he wasn't buying it.
I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Conveniently, I was standing right next to a folding table that held all the published books of the published writers who were not me. The "real" writers who had books you could hold and run your thumb over the SKU number. Perhaps the weighty, profound thoughts contained in those published books would collapse the table, crush me and put me out of my hack misery.
I swore I'd never go to one of those conferences again.
But then I realized -- why did this guy get to define me?
I am a writer. You know how I know that?
- Because I sit down every day at 7:30 am and write. And I don't stop for the next 5 hours.
- Because I get up in the middle of the night and run to my desk to write down ideas I have for a story.
- Because I've been writing to comfort myself and process the world since I was four years old.
- Because if I don't write for a few days, I get a little crazy.
And yes, my words appear in magazines/blogs/online publications with a byline and a photo -- but above all, I am a writer because I say I am. I am the one who gets to define myself. Not Mr. Elbow Patches. Not anonymous internet commenters. Not even my family or friends. Me. Just me.
It gets dangerous if we let other people do our sorting and categorizing for us, regardless of whether we are talking about profession, politics, race or life choices. When others slap their own labels on us, we are vulnerable to their whims and biases. Most dangerous of all: when we let people tell us who we're supposed to be, after a while, we become inclined to believe to them.
Let us return to the enduring wisdom of Friends for a moment.
Rachel: It's like all my life everybody keeps telling that I'm a shoe. You're a shoe, you're a shoe, you're a shoe! But what if I don't want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I'm a purse, or a hat... I don't want you to buy me a hat, I'm saying I am a hat! It's a metaphor, daddy!
That's why we love Rachel. She decided to be a hat. But it's challenging to be a hat. Sometimes it's easier to be the shoe everyone says you are.
I don't know if the man at the conference would have been happier if I was a shoe. I'm not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe if my card had said actor or housewife or frozen banana salesperson, it would have made him more comfortable. But for whatever reason, writer didn't seem to work for him.
So, I say this with the utmost respect: fuck him. Fuck the judgment and the assumption that he gets to define who I am and how I lead my life.
I'm a hat, dammit. A writing hat.
I don't know what you are. You might be a hat or a shoe or a frozen banana salesperson. You might not really know what you are. That's totally cool. That's the adventure and joy of life - you get to figure that out. And that's a constant process, because you will evolve and then you get to start the self-discovery all over again.
But however it all plays out, the crazy, twisting, hairpin turns of your life, please don't give the power of definition over to anyone else. It's your birthright. You get to keep that, regardless of how many tweed jackets, advanced degrees or SKU numbers anyone else has.
You define you.