It’s been quiet here on the blog for a while, and there’s a reason for that: we’ve been moving. My wife has an amazing new faculty librarian job in Tacoma, Washington, so we’ve been spending the past couple of months transporting our lives and our minds a few hours north from our beloved Portland to this charming little city on the Puget Sound.
It also means that I’ll be taking a year off from the classroom to write full-time from our new home. It’s something I’ve done once before, back in 2010-2011, the period when I drafted Hagridden, finalized and/or published many of the stories that became Box Cutters, and put together the book-length story collection I’m shopping around now. So I’m looking forward to a similar period of creative output, with a forthcoming novella I need to finish revising, two novels trying to pushing through front of my skull and onto the page, and a few other projects rattling around behind them.
All of which means that, when we meet new neighbors or my wife’s new colleagues and they ask what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a writer.”
And that feels strange. But then, it’s felt strange for a long time.
See, I have a thing about labels. It took me years to feel comfortable claiming to be a vegetarian, so I kept explaining to people what I would or wouldn’t eat instead of just using the label. It took me years to feel comfortable telling people that I was a Buddhist, until the day I told Burmese Theraveda teacher Thynn Thynn that “I like to study Buddhism, but I’m not really a student of Buddhism,” and she matter-of-factly replied, “If you study, you are a student.”
And I waited a LONG time before daring to call myself a writer in public, and even now, when I tell people I’m a writer, I often have to fight the urge to look around for the “real writer” who might out me as a fraud.
I revisit this “I’m a writer” thing from time to time, but I’ve been thinking about it especially for the past couple of months because right around the time this whole journey to a new town began and I realized I would be writing full-time again, I read an article in Poets & Writers called “Poet, Writer, Imposter: Learning to Believe in Myself,” by Leigh Stein.
Stein opens her article by expressing, in question form, a litany of self-doubts and, after the list, she explains that everyone who identifies with those doubts “may be suffering from imposter phenomenon, which is the name for those sneaky feelings of inadequacy, despite actual evidence of professional success.”
Later, she describes a commission she received to write an essay in response to an artist’s work, and while Stein initially agreed, she fell into a crippling pit of self-doubt as soon as she saw that the other two people the artist had approached were lit-famous:
I read their names and credentials [of those two other famous writers] over and over until I put myself into a sort of trancelike state of paralysis. I somehow forgot my identity as Published Poet and could only think of myself as Managing Editor of There Must Have Been Some Mistake.
That’s the label thing that I keep turning over in my head. Is it okay for me to claim to be a writer? Even after two books, even with two more books on the way and two novels waiting to get written, I’m not This Famous Author or That Prestigious Literato — so am I, in fact, a writer? Surely “There Must Have Been Some Mistake.”
Stein continues her article with a lengthy, excruciating, all-too-familiar narrative of procrastination and avoidance as she wrestles with whether or not she’s worthy of the assignment she’s been given, and this is where I fell completely into the article, because this is a habit I engage in far too regularly. Of course, I’ve always been a procrastinator in general, so maybe I simply use this kind of self-doubt and these feelings of inadequacy as excuses to procrastinate. But the emotions Stein writes about, and her strategies for nurturing those fears and doing more work than necessary both to avoid the real work of writing and to feel like she has earned the label of Writer, feel terribly familiar to me.
Later, the “Writer” label comes up again as Stein explains a four-stage model for how people perceive their own competence:
Stage one: unconscious incompetence, like writing poems effortlessly at thirteen because you read one book by Sylvia Plath and have no idea that there are any other books in the world. Stage two: conscious incompetence, that feeling of whoa when you’re learning to actually write and becoming aware of exactly how many other books there are in the world. Stage three: conscious competence, or the boldness to answer, “I’m a writer,” when anyone at a party asks, “So what do you do, exactly?” The final stage is unconscious competence, or the ability to easily perform a skill, without thinking as you’re doing it, perhaps even at the same time you’re working on another task.
Stein claims she would like to be at stage three but often exists at stage two. I actually have experienced stage four, but only when I’ve been working alone for protracted periods, like my “sabbatical” several years ago or the one I’m about to embark on: if I sit down and do the work long enough and, most importantly, I do the work out of the sight of others, I can fall into the writing and forget to be afraid of what others might think about it. (This is also one way that I use my procrastination to my advantage: if a deadline looms and I have too little time to worry about what others might think of the work, I break past the fear and just get the writing done.)
But it took me a long time to reach stage three, “the boldness to answer, ‘I’m a writer.'”
That’s where I am now, as I meet new people around our new home and have all these new opportunities to say aloud that I am a writer. Each time, it still takes me a moment to muster myself, to push past my longtime response of “I’m a teacher” and confess — yes, confess, because it feels like I’m getting away with something whenever I say it — that I spend my days at home, in my study, dreaming up stories.
At least now, when someone inevitably asks if I’ve published anything, I can point them to Box Cutters and Hagridden, and announce the forthcoming chapbook and the coming novella; when they ask what I’m working on, I can tell them about my two new novels. But when my study door is closed and I’m facing that blank screen, I still wonder if I’m using the right tense in my nominative — if I am in fact, a “Writer” instead of a “Have Written.”
Because sometimes I think I exist somewhere outside that four-stage competence scale, in some unnamed fifth stage where I know that I have written well, but I fear that I might never be able to write well again. Like somehow I just got lucky a few times, and any day now, the whole thing will come falling in on me.
I think in some respects this is related to the classic myth of writer’s block: as a novice, back in “stage two,” I might have stared at the blank page for ages worrying I’d never find the right words to fill it. But now, having written and published enough work to know that every new writing project is its own creature and you have to relearn all over again how to write each new work, I stare at that old blank page and worry I might have already found all the good words — that I have nothing left to say.
This is a stupid, self-indulgent sort of procrastination. I know it. But there it is anyway, waiting for me in my study whenever I sit down to a project.
I usually deal with this self-doubt by embracing it, by remembering Natalie Goldberg’s idea of the “beginner’s mind” (the original name of this blog, by the way). There’s also a cultural concept I read once about the Japanese, and I don’t know how true this is but it’s a good story: when, in middle age, Japanese people awaken in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, they don’t lie there fretting and worrying over the sleep they’re losing, the work they aren’t getting done, the problems that woke them up in the first place. Instead, they realize that in their hectic workaday lives, they never get this kind of quiet, contemplative time, so they simply lie awake in the darkness and enjoy the gift of a little silent reflection. It’s a habit I’ve tried to embrace, and in some ways, I do the same with my fears of inadequacy as a writer: sometimes, when I have the luxury of time to slow down and do this, I will accept the idea that I do still have a lot to learn, and I start over at my “beginner’s mind” and learn anew how to do the thing I love doing.
In other words, while often I slip into this unnamed fifth stage, I try to trick myself into hopping back to stage two and enjoying the wonder and the “whoa” of learning new ways to write.
But enjoying stage two is easier when I could still claim to be a student, when I hadn’t tricked myself into thinking even for a little while that I’m a professional who ought to know better by now. And that’s what keeps me from embracing stage three — that’s why it feels so strange when I admit to people that I’m a writer.
This was where Stein’s article really drove home something for me, because toward the end, she sits down and talks with an expert in this stuff:
“We look to others to define who we are, [licensed clinical social worker and author Sherry] Amatenstein says. It’s reactive. [. . .] The whole process of writing is so fraught because unfortunately it is so much about what other people think.” For writers, professional value is so tied up in publication: If no one wants to publish that novel or poem you thought was so good when you wrote it, of course you feel stricken. “Artists are always waiting for the next rejection, or the next person to like them.”
I suppose when I tell people now that my day job is writing, it feels like some kind of oral “submission” and I am by habit expecting them to like me for what I do or reject the value my work. I never have this anxiety when I tell people that I am a teacher; I know the value of education and my role in fostering it. But storytelling still feels like something done around a campfire rather than for a living, and because the work itself can so often happen in isolation, without the immediate feedback from — and responsibility to — students or colleagues, it sometimes feels like no work at all.
But I am happy to say that the past few weeks, as I’ve been making this transition from the end of my previous term of teaching to the beginning of my new year of writing, I have been getting wonderful reactions. I met a woman at my dharma center a couple of weeks ago and told her I was a writer, and she cheerfully replied, “Oh, so am I!” and then we chatted about our craft for a while. (Turns out I had just met human rights activist and narrative nonfiction author Lisa J. Shannon. Cue my Stein-like panic in the presence of a terrific writer!) The other night, I met my Tacoma realtor’s husband and told him I am a writer; we wound up talking about Phillip K. Dick and graphic novels all night, and he left with a copy of Hagridden. Our new neighbors helped us unload our truck as we were moving into our new house, and when they asked what I do, I caught myself hedging my bets and declaring, “Well, right now I’m a writer,” as though this was just some temporary gig until I can get back to the “real” work of teaching. And in fact, it is temporary — I love the classroom and will be eager to return to it next year — but there I was, undermining my own self-worth as an artist. But one of my neighbors started talking about his background in theatre, his previous work as a producer and his desire to get back into stagework, and through him, I discovered a bit about the arts community in my new town.
In other words, I am learning all over again — with my newfound “beginner’s mind” — the tremendous value in my work as a writer, not just its personal value to me or its reciprocal value within the arts community but also its social value, its worth as art and entertainment. Sure, I am still defining that worth through the reactions of others, per Sherry Amatenstein in the Stein article. But I have become comfortable again with declaring myself a writer, and I am eager once more to go sit in the chair eight hours a day and do the work of writing — because I am, after all, a writer.