What’s in a Label? In Our Darkest Hours, Sometimes A Lot

Winter soltice at the Newgrange stone age passage tomb, Ireland

Winter soltice at the Newgrange stone age passage tomb, Ireland

I can tell you the story of my writing life by the labels I used to describe myself when people asked, “So what do you do?”

I can also tell you when I almost quit writing by the labels I used to describe myself.

Labels can be dangerous for sure. We tend to live down to the labels we give ourselves. However, we can live UP to the labels we give ourselves too. There came a point in my writing life — I’d landed my first agent, I’d won a writing grant, I was on a roll — when I realized I was living up to the label “novelist.”

Here’s my progression of answers to the question, So what do you do?

  • Technical writer
  • I write
  • Writer
  • I write fiction
  • Novelist (woohoo!)

Talk about baby steps, right? It took me years to call myself a novelist even though novelist is what I am in my soul. It didn’t help that I wasn’t earning any money at fiction. It didn’t helped that I’d get that most annoying of questions, Oh yeah, what have you published? The funny thing was that the good things starting happening after I graduated to calling myself “novelist.”

Unfortunately, labeling can work in the negative direction too — and without you realizing it. As Lori wrote on Monday: In my experience, that dark moment … isn’t a lightning strike. It’s a slow dwindling of your attention, one decision after another over a series of days, then weeks, then months. Even years.

Here’s why Lori’s words resonated with me: In 2011 I realized that for awhile — at least a few months — I’d been answering the so-what-do-you-do question with “technical writer.” I’d overcome mucho internal baggage only to find myself back where I’d started — and without realizing it!

I was crushed. I wondered if I’d already quit fiction and hadn’t noticed. Maybe I’d been fooling myself. Living a pipe dream. By then I’d lost my agent, after all. I was struggling to earn money. I wasn’t making time for fiction. Maybe I wasn’t a novelist, after all.

This was the winter soltice of my writing life. My darkest days. I almost quit, mostly because I realized I’d lost my belief in myself as a novelist. I was just a technical writer. Why fight it?

But the thing about the winter soltice? It’s meant to be the day we celebrate the return of the sun. Look hard enough and even on the darkest days we’ll see glimmers of light beckoning us forward.

How have the labels you’ve called yourself buoyed you up or brought you down?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

9 thoughts on “What’s in a Label? In Our Darkest Hours, Sometimes A Lot

  1. Pick up that name tag that says “Lisa Alber, Author” already, would ya? It’s yours and it’s still sitting on the table. Put it on. We’re waiting for you.

  2. Interesting post! The other day when I was at my doctor’s office, the doctor reviewed my file and asked, “so are you still a researcher?” While it didn’t throw me into an existential crisis, it did give me pause. I didn’t have her change my job info to “novelist,” because I do have a full time job (which provides health insurance, which is probably all that matters in this context). But I did have to wonder…am I a “part-time novelist,” or am I a “novelist?” (Just as I am a part-time lecturer, not a full time lecturer etc). After pondering this a while, I decided: “bah, who needs labels anyway?” I am what I am 🙂 And I think you are a novelist! 🙂

    • Thanks, Susanna! It’s funny about labels — really, I’m not into them so much, but when it comes to my writing life, using the label helps me own it. You’re a lecturer AND a novelist!

  3. I’ve finally started owning the label “writer” but one thing I’ve noticed is that when people inevitably ask what I write, I first talk about my freelance writing and then say, “and my first novel is coming out in May.” Talk about burying the lede! I may have to work on that one…

    • Hah, yes! No more burying the lede. (Is that how you spell it? Wow. Never knew that.) We’re used to associating ourselves with the primary way we make our money. I say, Phooey to that! 🙂

  4. I relate to this so strongly – it took me a long time to call myself a “novelist” too. In fact, I still find myself leaning more toward “attorney” when people ask me the “what do you do” question – even with one book out and another in progress, I still have a hard time accepting that this publishing dream is more than just a one-hit-wonder reality. Sometimes that seems weird to me, too–I guess this, like everything else in life, requires a little growing into!

    • I can’t count how many times I’ve met artists (nonwriter) and musicians who own it no problem, whatever their day jobs. Is it somehow different for fiction writers?

      IMHO, you’re no one-hit wonder — I can’t wait for you second!

  5. You make a good point about labeling ourselves with what we are, regardless of pay or if we’ve sold something. At the same time, and I hate to say this, I kind of cringe a bit when people call themselves something they have not yet gotten paid to do. What is that about? I mean, if we don’t see ourselves as something beyond our current station, how will we achieve it? I suppose I’m idealistic enough to not want to deal with labels at all. “I am Andrea!” is what I want to define myself as. good luck with that, huh?

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