When Can I Call Myself A Writer/Artist?
When I tell someone I'm a novelist, they respond with a reasonable question: what have you written? I answer that I've just finished my first book, a supernatural thriller tentatively titled Marjorie Flack. Perfect. We're off to a great start. Then, whether because they ask or because I feel compelled to disclose what feels like the "whole story" to me, I add, "I'm in the process of getting published," and I watch their expression/enthusiasm/interest fade. Sometimes they look confused; sometimes they smirk. And every time I feel myself want to defend my title. No, I am a novelist. I have completed a novel (several times over). I have spent years and hours upon hours upon hours writing and rewriting and revising this manuscript. I've cried and I've laughed and I've done everything short of bleed this story from my veins. Believe me, I want to say, I am a novelist. But I don't, because I don't search for external validation anymore.
There's an appeal to a particular power structure in the question, who are you? The unspoken question within the question: who gave you permission to be? A reference to some hierarchical notion that I must both seek out permission and said permission must be granted or bestowed upon me by a hegemonic external force. In the case of writing, who published you? Who authorized your use of the identity "novelist" (or "writer," "playwright," "singer," "painter," "sculptor," etc.)? What recognized body granted you the authority to call yourself (*insert identity here)?
Now there are titles that depend upon certain certifications or degrees or electoral processes (I can't just start calling myself the President of the United States. Well, I guess I can, but it won't be true). I can't say I'm a doctor, if I don't have a medical degree or an attorney without a law degree. But I'm not talking about those kinds of titles. I'm talking about the identity labels we use to carve ourselves out in the world, to situate ourselves in the larger sphere of existence. And sometimes that situating is easy. If I say I'm a gardener and I do any kind of planting or gardening-type work, no one questions my status as such. I garden, therefore I am a gardener. But something weird happens when we talk about art. Maybe it comes from within us; maybe our own (dis)comfort with claiming our art is so energetically charged that it elicits that appeal to authorization ("I am a novelist," she said with slumped shoulders, her gaze directed at the floor in front of her). Maybe the call of doubt is coming from within the house.
Either way the outcome is the same. Whether from our own self-consciousness or our cultural conditioning that one does not exist until the dominant structure grants recognition via some archaic measuring apparatus, we marginalize–if not outright deny–parts of ourselves. We shrink. In our search for external validation (can I please be a novelist?), we undermine our fledgling identities before they ever have a chance to leave the nest. Think there's not a cost to that? Something like 81% of people in the United States alone say they want to write a book, but only 0.1% ever will. And roughly 97% of people who start out writing a book never finish it. And sure, that might be because the process is so hard and people's attention is divided in fifty directions and there's no immediate gratification for merely undertaking the effort. But maybe the fact that we hesitate to claim the title of writer for ourselves, the fact that we feel like we have to write our way to embodying the identity of writer, maybe that distances us from the creative impetus, the soul spark from which the very desire to write emerges in the first place. Maybe w put our own fire out.
Take, for example, the high school athlete who goes on to play for the NFL. At what stage of that process did the player become an athlete? Certainly they were already an athlete when they signed their first professional contract. I don't know a lot about the NFL, but I know they aren't in the habit of signing coach potatoes. The NFL signs athletes, so if I am to work for the NFL, I must already be an athlete. And if I am to be an athlete, I must live the life of an athlete. I'm arguing the second I live the life of an athlete, I am an athlete. I train; I compete. I sacrifice for my passion, and because I sacrifice, I become a better athlete. Eventually, I become such a good athlete, the NFL signs me. Art works the same way. Agents represent writers. Publishers publish novelists. Galleries display the work of artists. Theaters perform the dramas of playwrights. Which athlete trains better? The one who already believes they're an athlete and lives as such, or the one waiting for permission to train?
So I'll take the eye rolls and the doubts and even the smirks, because I know that just like the athlete waiting to be signed, I live the life of a novelist. I study my craft; I write all the words; and I read voraciously those of my future colleagues. I am a playwright, because I have written a play (it's under revision, but it's drafted). I'm not an amateur playwright just like the high school football player isn't an amateur athlete. We've just both risen to a particular level and are waiting to move into the next evolution of our identities. I don't need anyone to validate my identity as an artist, as a creator. I create, therefore I am a creator. The title matters because it establishes a container, an environment, in which I show up. If I say I'm a writer, if I claim that title for myself, I'm more likely to show up in the world as a writer...and only writers ever get published.