September 19th, 2011 / 1:25 pm

A lot of very disorganized thoughts about being a writer

A few years ago, I had a student walk into my Intro to Women’s Studies class – late – on the very first day. She was a non-traditional student, probably older than me by ten years. As is expected for first day “ice breakers,” I asked my students why they were taking my class, what they thought feminism means, etc. This student offered to start the conversation. She asked: My religion tells me that I should submit to my husband, and I believe my religion. Can I still be a feminist?

I’d never been asked a question like that before, and it was jarring, sure, but I knew the answer: Yes, of course you can!

This is perhaps an odd way to begin a post about the “authenticity” of being a writer, and yet, it isn’t. A few weeks ago, someone commented that Starcherone wasn’t a  “legit” publisher. A couple weeks ago, the BlazeVOX scandal hijacked the writer blogworld. The issue of legitimacy came up again and again. Last week, an anonymous blogger made the argument that I participate in some type of elite cronyism because I said I don’t like to submit to journals. All of these events circle around the question of legitimacy and authenticity. And I wonder: what the fuck does it really matter?

Maybe I’ll start by circling back to my student. Feminism is a flexible word, and empowerment comes in a lot of different forms, right? It would be problematic for me – or anyone else for that matter – to decide who or what “belongs” in an umbrella term that is as broad as “feminist.”

The term “writer” is just as broad. And maybe it’s the broadness that makes the term so difficult to use. Still, to this day, if someone asks me what I do, I say I’m a professor. If they push, I tell them I teach in English. If that is still insufficient, I tell them I teach creative writing. Inevitably, they say: Oh my goodness! I’ve been working a novel for ages, or, You know, my husband/wife/son/daughter wants to be a writer, or, rarely, I’m a writer too! I’ve written ___ novels, and I’m just looking for the right publisher, but it’s really hard, you know, to find the right publisher?

This is part of the reason why I avoid answering the question. It’s part of the reason I don’t claim “writer.” To be fair though, sure, it’s a little uncomfortable to hear about someone’s vampire novel or historical fiction book or memoir, but that discomfort is only a small fraction of why it’s hard for me to claim “writer.”

There was a period of time – like six months – when I was between “occupations,” which is to say I was neither a professor nor a student. When people asked me what I did, I would laugh uncomfortably and say I was unemployed, which was true, kind of and kind of not, because during that six month stint I was wandering around the US giving readings at various universities. I couldn’t have supported myself off that pay, but I had savings from when I was a real teaching job.

Also, I was working on a novel.

But back to that limbo: After I made my not-so-funny joke about being unemployed, I’d mumble something about working on a book. If people knew me, they knew I was a writer. They knew whatever I was working on would eventually become a book, that is, gain legitimacy through publication. But if the person didn’t know me – and friends rarely ask a person what their occupation is, it’s almost always a stranger who asks that type of question – they would have no way of differentiating me from the tens of thousands of other Americans working on a book.

During that limbo, I didn’t want to tell people I was a writer. I have a hundred reasons why, but here are a few: (1) Everyone is writing a novel. It felt cliché telling strangers that I was yet another unemployed jerk working of my great novel, you know, the one that’ll sell millions and make all my suffering worthwhile? (2) Calling myself a writer feels inauthentic, mainly because I don’t make money from it, or, if I do, it’s not a lot. But here’s the funny thing about my poor logic: I have my job because I’m a writer. If I hadn’t written and published, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Furthermore, I do “make money” from being a writer, just by virtue of speaking engagements. Sometimes, I even make a little money through publishing stuff. And yet, I – like so many others in similar dispositions – am hesitant to call a spade a spade, so to speak. (3) It feels egotistical to call myself a writer, like I’m trying to brag or something.

Except I am trying to brag. My last sentence, two paragraphs up, explains exactly how important the question of legitimacy is to me. I want to differentiate myself from all the other people out there who claim to be writers because I really am one. But what does that even mean!? When does a person cross the arbitrary line from being someone who is writing to someone who is a writer? Does it happen with journal publications? Does it happen with book publications? Because I know plenty of people I would consider writers who have no book and only a few journal publications to their name.

Maybe it’s the privilege inherent in being a writer. Maybe it’s the guilt that comes along with the privilege.

Here’s the thing: I have this angst about calling myself a writer, but I am one. When I teach workshops, no matter what level, I try to explain how very little is separating them (the students) from me (the professor). Mainly, I have a few letters behind my name, which gives me the “authority” to take role and give grades. That, and I’ve had the time to write and publish. That, and mostly, I’ve had the confidence to write and publish.

No matter what angst I feel, in the end, it’s a confidence game. Or, maybe it’s an ego game. I’m not really sure what the difference is anymore. Writing is about confidence, knowing what you’re writing is relevant enough that others will want to read it. Publishing is about confidence. No matter what I say publicly about my discomfort in submitting to journals, the fact of the matter is that to be a writer, one has to submit and be rejected. Even when a journal or press solicits work, there’s no assurance of publication. I don’t know of any journal that just blindly accepts work, well, not from someone like me. Maybe if I were Don DeLillo or dead Roberto Bolano or someone like that, and surprise: I’m not.

I guess my point in this whole rambling disorganized mess of a post is that we should all feel more confidence. Furthermore, I think we all feel enough self-imposed anxiety about calling ourselves “writers.”

Maybe people should stop questioning others’ legitimacy.

Maybe you should focus on your own work.

Maybe you should write more and publish more and start your own small presses and start your own journals or chapbook series or whatever and see how hard all that is before assuming that writers and publishers who are working really fucking hard aren’t “legit.” Yes? Yes.

Tags: ,


  1. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Oh my God, Lily. If we were seated in a room and you said these things to me I would start shouting “YES THANK YOU YES” and throwing furniture around in joy. Another great post that makes me feel a lot less alone! Danke!

  2. Anonymous

      if i’m talking to you [whoever you are] and the most important thing you do is write, or paint, or make bridges, then for gosh sakes i hope you say so.

  3. Roxane

      Hell yes.

  4. Bearibouy

      That last paragraph sums it up.

  5. jesusangelgarcia

      This is a beautiful mess, Lily. It reminds me of the people who’ve asked about my crazy summer tour: Was it a success? The term “success,” just like “legit,” carries vastly different connotations for different people, I’ve found. Fellow “writers” tend to mean: Did it rock? Good shows? Appreciative audiences? Good times? Sell some books? How’s your liver? Non-writers always mean: Can you retire now on your royalties? Legit.  

  6. Scottmcclanahan

      This is great Lily, as always.

  7. goner

      It’s like when people say they are ‘a poet’. What’s up with that?

      Okay, back to this screenplay I’m working on…

  8. Ken Baumann

      Dig it. The big majority of my attention, when I’m not eating or driving or sleeping or loving someone, goes to reading, acting, writing, and publishing. Other peoples’ time, and often money, are involved in the last three, so I say: I’m an actor, writer, and publisher. It started feeling easy just recently. But I also find the ‘What do you do???’ question is often fielded from someone you will probably not spend much time with. There are more comfortable and interesting topics of conversation, or routes to that question/answer.

  9. Janey Smith

      Lily? I just wanted to say your name.

  10. drew kalbach

      i disagree. we need more shame.

      everyone should be ashamed, i’m ashamed.

  11. Darby Larson

      i’d say your sit is more unique though. not many are making moo from their mulch. most are busy laying others’ mulch. if you are making a living from writing related shuffling, then call yourself a writer, no sweat, grandly aggrandize it. say i’m lily and i’m righter than you. i wont call myself a writer before i call myself an engineer though. i spend more time, and others spend more money for it, so i’ll just continue to call me darby. it’s spelled d a r b y. darby the engineer toot tooting my train across america stopping occasionally to write my rights on faces for beer and coal.

  12. Christoffer Molnar

      Here’s what intrigues me: of all the vocations out there, writers seem the most interested in talking/musing about what it means to be a writer.  There’s logic in this, of course; our path is all about slouching toward articulation.  But it gets tiresome, and, Lily, your call to action resonates as more honest than all this writing about writing.

      Maybe it’s instructive to look not at similarities but at opposites.  I’m thinking of athletes.  Sure, a great cyclist has his existential crisis as he’s training for the Tour de France.  But in the end, he just goes out and pedals, and what he does, he does.  The rest is silence.  I think the writing world would benefit from less consternation about the struggle of literature and more work that’s not solipsistic.

  13. Tim Horvath

      Christoffer, have you read David Foster Wallace’s review of Tracy Austin’s autobiography in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays? It speaks to this issue in some pretty rich and provocative ways. I think DFW was kind of obsessed with this issue. Thumbs up to the phrase “slouching toward articulation.”

  14. Christoffer Molnar

      I have, and because I often try to model my thinking after DFW’s in depth pursuit of ideas, I’m sure that many of his thoughts were/are subconsciously prodding my own.  Maybe I’ll go reread it right now.

  15. dole

      For me the confidence question was whether or not I was a reader, and once I settled that I stopped worrying about it.  These legitimacy / authenticity questions should have ended 30 years ago with Derrida.  

  16. nanlan