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
- 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?