I Am Not a Writer

Today’s let go is this: I am not a writer. This is an icky one to say out loud, so I know I must. As someone who writes but would never call myself a “writer,” this strikes a chord. I’ve always assumed the label writer belonged to more officially qualified folks. Say, those who’ve been published. Or have written a book. Or make money writing.

It can’t belong to me because it’s not on my business card and I’ve never been hired to write and I’m nowhere near as good - not even in the same universe! - as the real writers I adore: Annie Lamott, Mary Karr, Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Joan Didion, Mary Oliver.

Or, I can’t call myself a writer when I don’t write every day. Thinking about writing, obsessing over words, reading voraciously - those things don’t make you a writer. Right?

The thing is this: there are many thoughts and fears that have kept me from writing, but the most pervasive and consistent one is the thought that I’M NOT A WRITER. How insane is that? Dear self, don’t pick up a pen or sit down with a blank screen and see what happens because you’re not a real writer.

Kind of crazy.

But also kind of human nature, it seems.

The best parallel I can draw from in my experience is around running. When people find out I’ve run marathons, the most common response I get is, “I could never do that.”

And my response back, every time, is, “You could if you wanted to.” And not as in, “If you were as driven as me, you’d be able to do it” but as in, “If you want to run that far, you totally can.”

But maybe wanting to is only half the equation, because I think what really allowed me to run those crazy distances was that I honestly didn’t care what the outcome was. I like to run. I like to do things that break my own perceptions of what’s possible. I like to push myself physically. But, I never really attached myself to an outcome. The first time I ran one, I didn’t even have a number and I can’t tell you what my time was — I just know that I finished it. I’ve never timed my splits (I still don’t even know how that works) and I’ve never felt bad about myself for having “a bad long run.” Any day I run more than 10 miles is a win. 16? I kick ass. There’s no such thing as a bad 18-mile run in my book. And a marathon? It’s a MARATHON.

This kind of detachment, but also commitment, allowed me to train for and run three Boston marathons. One in a pretty kick-ass time. One in soul-crushing, record-breaking heat. I committed to the process, submitted myself to it, let it be what it was. And you know what? I now say that I’m a runner.

But the thing is, guys, I care so much more about writing than I ever have about running. I do worry about the outcome, even if I’m the only one who ever sees what I’ve written. I judge. I criticize. I lament. I sweat when the words don’t come or come out hacky. I self-defeat. Yet still, in my heart of hearts, in the truth that runs stronger than all the other truths, is that I love to write and I love to read great writing.

When it comes to running, I just lace up and go. Some days I can blast through six miles and feel like doing six more. Other days my veins are filled with cement and I can barely trudge through two. Both experiences have happened enough times that I know neither means all that much. The point is to keep doing it; tomorrow’s run has yet to be revealed.

A few things have recently raised my attention to the exact idiocy and danger of my “I am not a writer” thinking.

1. Ira Glass’ impeccable bit on storytelling and the secret of producing great creative work. He says a lot in this video, but the thing that keeps ringing in my head is,

"The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work."

2. This little line, which has been haunting me, and I shared my thoughts on the other day.


3. This Momastery post.

4. Perhaps most importantly, Cheryl Strayed, or the voice behind Dear Sugar is one of my most sacred and beloved current writers. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about some piece of what she wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things.

I recently revisited a piece, where she lists some nuggets of advice to a fledgling 22 year-old.

"Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet."

"You don’t have a career. You have a life." has been ringin’ like a bell in my head, over and over. Just like I’m not a mother, sister, daughter, co-worker, yogi, runner, reader or friend because it’s printed somewhere; I’m all those things because they’re what I do. Right.

"You are a writer because you write." 

Well, ok then. I am.