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The Power of Misrepresentation

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Nov. 6th, 2012 | 04:17 pm

The Savoy hotel ballroom is very blue and white and gilt, like a French antique shop spread out. There are five large chandeliers, fifty round white-clothed tables, scurrying waiters, and a room full of mostly-older music industry types, the powers behind the pop stars rather than the pop stars themselves, the kind of people whose write-ups in the awards program feature casual snapshots of themselves with Beatles.

There’s a lot of chatting going on. I’m here as a plus-one, my best friend runs the organization that puts on this event and the British Grammy-equivalent every year. I keep meeting people who are fascinated that I’m a trapeze artist…except I’m on sabbatical. It’s been 30 days since I’ve rosined up and climbed. Midway through a chat with the editor of a music magazine, I realize, I do not need this man to see me as a circus artist—I need him to see me as a potential journalist. The gear shift in mid-conversation is tough, but I work it. The rest of the fancy luncheon, over risotto with fennel (yum!) and quince sauerkraut (just as not-good as it sounds), I send the message to my tablemates, writer, writer writer. What do you do? What are you working on? Oh, you’re from the States? Yes, I am. And I’m a writer.

Usually I do feel like a “real” writer. I’ve published essays and won prizes, had my byline in the New York Times and a play on the list of “Most Produced High School Plays in North America” (it’s a small market). But at the same time, compared to my friend Lindsay the prolific playwright, my friend Alex and his book deal, and my friend Chris and his three-book deal, I feel like a fake. Like one of the stepsisters trying to get her size 9W into the shoe. I haven’t even finished a novel, how can I possibly be a real writer? I can’t write without a competition or public shame or a buddy, don’t real writers just sit down and pour it out?

So I get it. I can see how my friends further back on the publishing trajectory may not feel like “real” writers, how finishing a piece and publishing a piece and publishing another piece and getting an agent and getting a book deal and getting a best-seller are all badges that say, “I did it” or “I am it” and each of those things punches our ticket, validation. How claiming the title before the accomplishments can feel like misrepresentation.

But at the same time, I remember how I became a director. I started telling people I was one. I got community theatre gigs and high school gigs, and eventually college guest artist spots and professional positions. Every time I met someone in theatre I’d say, “I’m a director,” and when they asked me what I’d done lately I’d describe something good from one of my shows, without being specific about the level I was working at. "Oh yeah, we put Puck in a mask and the whole stage was a giant bed." And they were sophomores.

It’s not a lie.

It’s starting a conversation.

And it’s useful and valuable to embrace the level you want to be, instead of the level where you are. Like they say, dress for the job you want to be hired for.

Sure, you may not be a published writer. You may not be a full-time writer. You may be an early-career writer. But you know what? Published writers don’t get everything they write published. People who make a living writing almost always teach or edit or freelance on the side.

You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself.

But when you say, “Oh, I’m not a writer,” or “Well, I don’t have any ideas,” or “I can’t finish anything,” you are embracing that definition of yourself and projecting it to others. Every time you say it, it holds you back at the level you are instead of helping you move yourself ahead, instead of letting others help you move ahead.

Imagine you’re having a chat with, say, Stephen King. Or the guy who owns your local indie bookstore. When they ask if you’re a writer, and you say, “Oh, no,” the conversation ends there. But when you say, modestly, “I’m still early-career, but I’m working on a fantasy novel,” or “Still unpublished, but I’m excited about my new travel essay series,” that opens the door for them to help you. They might say, “Oh, nice,” and smile blankly, yes. But they might respond with, “Well, send it along when you’re done,” or “Make sure you query so-and-so, I hear they’re looking for that,” or “Sounds like fun, do you know about our reading series for local authors?” All of those responses create dialogue. They help you bond with the larger community. They make connections and take you further down the path.

Being a “writer” is like being a “dancer” or a “parent”. You are a dancer when you dance—you are a parent the entire life of your child. Because our work exists in a recorded and fixed form, we tend to use production of fixed forms—books—as benchmarks of our success. But being a writer is a process. When you show up at the page, it is like showing up at the barre. It is like listening to your child when you’re not sure you’re about to make the right decision. And viewing our calling, even as hobbyists, as a process rather than a destination allows us to acquire the help, connections, and self-confidence we need to further us along the way. There is no certification for writers. We define ourselves, and we should define ourselves as worthy. Presenting ourselves as part of the larger continuum in our field allows others to see us as worth their time and energy. Worth, eventually, their dollars and their reading.

Yesterday I ordered new business cards.

They say, Writer.


____________________________________________________
So, what do you do?

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Comments {15}

tigrkittn

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from: tigrkittn
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
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Writing is the only career I can think of in which people with no cred whatsoever** are encouraged to claim the title. (That, and entrepreneurs - another field in which a LOT of people without any skills or talent fancy themselves just one lucky break away from the big-time!)


**Obviously, that is not you - but it's a lot of us.

Edited at 2012-11-06 09:39 pm (UTC)

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 10:01 pm (UTC)
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That, and now that self-publishing is all the rage, they can actually BE published writers and still be crap.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
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Added a comment, don't know if you get the notification but I'd like to know what you think :)

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Kizzy

(no subject)

from: xo_kizzy_xo
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 08:44 am (UTC)
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EXACTLY.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 11:52 pm (UTC)
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That is an EXCELLENT point!

I think most artistic careers fall under that banner - musician, dancer, painter, graphic designer, fashion stylist, blogger, actor - and I think the reason might be that the career path is so much less-clearly defined in the art and culture sectors. In countries with an apprenticeship system, this is easier - in Japan, you know you're a studio-sweeper, or an apprentice, or a potter, or a master, and there's an organized system that the artists themselves enforce.

If I'm a "Human Resources Manager", someone else gave me that title and paid for my business card to put it on. But Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime--does that mean he wasn't an artist? Who gets to decide?

I think my view on this is
1) You are who you say you are--you get to give yourself permission and be validated by time
2) Be careful with our definition of who we are, or we end up looking like asses.

The flip side of this is the responsibility to police our own groups and promote the people we know are good. It makes my company look bad if I hire a high school student and call her an "aerialist" instead of an "intern."

So maybe one of the ways to help ourselves self-define is to become part of groups and organizations that help us realize where we are on the quality-of-work/ready-for-prime-time scale?

What do you think?

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 01:50 am (UTC)
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I think I don't have the bona fides to police anyone but myself, which is what I'm doing by not calling myself a writer.

Also I think we don't have to agree.

Also I think I'm really freaking about the election and it's bleeding into everything else at the moment, so not a whole lot of deep thought is happening at the moment.

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Kizzy

(no subject)

from: xo_kizzy_xo
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 08:47 am (UTC)
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Be careful with our definition of who we are, or we end up looking like asses.

That's the fine line, and I think most people, in the sweep of ove-enthusiasm, tend to forget that. Or they just don't care because they see WRITER up there i big Broadway lights.

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blahblahblah, whatever

(no subject)

from: kathrynrose
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 10:11 pm (UTC)
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I'm trying not to feel aimed at. :P

Obviously I've been thinking about this a lot. Obviously I don't need to tell you what I think, since the counterpoints are all already in there.

Yesterday I was talking to Julie about this, and it's true that I have finished things. I had a poem published when I was in the 4th grade. I won poetry contests in school, was on high school and college newspapers, written essay-like lj posts, had a letter to the editor printed. ETC.

But if I met Stephen King and he asked me that, I'd say, "I would love to be. I'm working on it. I read your book, and others, and I'm writing a novel for nano right now."

And maybe it's semantics. Maybe I'm a writer but not an author. I think I have a good grasp on fleshing out characters. I think I'm pretty good at opinion-ish essays, and I totally rock technical manuals where processes are broken down and explained.

I think I can TELL a story pretty well. I just am not sure I can CREATE a story. I get stuck. Truth is, I'm stuck already with Ruby's girl. I'm a couple days behind on word count and all my words suck today again, though I've still been doing research. I don't remember how I switched off my editor last year, but I haven't been able to do it this year and it's killing me.

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tigrkittn

(no subject)

from: tigrkittn
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 06:33 am (UTC)
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Oh we are so alike! The two days of NaNo I completed (ok, not even completed - 2777 words) were almost all dialogue. I can write people talking - but I can't make up a story. I know what a plot is, I understand its components... but my brain can't invent one. It's bizarre. This is why I call myself "not a writer". I'd like to be one, but I can only define myself by my own terms, and I really believe that unless I mean "journalist" or "technical writer" (I actually wouldn't mind being the latter, but that's another issue) I need an imagination to be a "writer" (read: creator of fiction.)

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unmowngrass

(no subject)

from: unmowngrass
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 10:26 pm (UTC)
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I love the way you always make me change and stretch my perspective!

On a tangental note, you posted back in June, or thereabouts, something along the lines of "When it comes to September, what do you want to say you achieved with your summer?" This really gave me food for thought and helped me to reach the next level in my desire to be employed. Now I am, I've been working two days per week since late June at a job I really really like. So thankyou. If you're ever in my neck of the woods (half way between Birmingham and Manchester), I owe you a drink. In fact, going to either of those places, or even London, to buy you a drink is something I would like to do, so let me know if you're up for that. :)

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Andrea Blythe

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from: blythe025
date: Nov. 6th, 2012 10:55 pm (UTC)
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YES. So, true. My dad used to always say, "Fake it till you make it." If you act like a pro, then you start down that path.

It's definitely a challenge with writing, and pretty much all of the creative arts, because there is not clear certificate to say you've arrived. You can only really decide it for yourself, and that can take some gumption. :)

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Ellakite

I don't do nothin'...

from: ellakite
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 01:26 am (UTC)
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... not for the last week or so, anyway.

Granted, circumstances have been tough for me lately -- when I wasn't literally running for cover, I was either too busy maintaining my shelter or too stressed by my situation to think clearly, much less try to do anything of any real consequence. Yesterday was particularly bad, as I had to endure watching people I care about get themselves into a dangerous situation, knowing all the while that there wasn't a Ghod-Dammed thing I can do to prevent it. Sometimes I think I care too deeply about other people for my own good... but then again, while I don't have very many friends, I know that most (if not all) of them care just as much about me...

I must say, though, the last few hours have actually been rather pleasant for me. While my workplace was unheated, I did feel like I accomplished something worthwhile today. Plus, I was able to cast my vote, which I wasn't sure I'd be able to do for most of the past week. Because I successfully completed two little tasks that most people take for granted, I no longer feel useless.

So what do I do? Well, today I wrangled computer code, practiced democracy... and at least for the moment, I aspire to write. I have a couple of chores I *MUST* complete before I will have the opportunity to put "ass in chair", but I no longer feel like that action will be a futile gesture.

Of course, my opinion on the matter may change tomorrow, next week, next month... but who knows? At some point, I may actually have the nerve/confidence to order a set of business cards like yours...

Edited at 2012-11-07 01:28 am (UTC)

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Kizzy

(no subject)

from: xo_kizzy_xo
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 09:00 am (UTC)
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The "say it and you become it" theory can be applied to anything. When you have corporate suits asking your opinion about a new product or how you go about doing this or that, you finally realize that you're not "just a/an X". You don't overthink it. You don't even think in some cases.

It's difficult to label yourself as a writer for many, many reasons. The hobbyist may cringe because s/he doesn't do it FT and/or only does it for Idol. The person intent on being a pro may have little to no works out there for the time being -- who is s/he to say "I'm a writer"? Other people may, say, count being a writer ONLY if you go through traditional channels. Myriads of reasons...

I also think what you've written has a great deal to do with it. I was -- and still am -- in love with writers who aren't afraid to reveal themselves, warts and all, to the masses. Thing is, after the initial frenzy, you never hear from them again. Did they suddenly become shy because they did reveal themselves? Were the only a one or two-hit wonder? Are they OK now? Why aren't they writing anymore? Do they consider themselves ex-writers now?

I"ve got more to say, but I have to make breakfast.

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writerdoc

(no subject)

from: writerdoc
date: Nov. 7th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
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I really love this post. :D Thank you for this!

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Epiphanyrun

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from: epiphanyrun
date: Nov. 8th, 2012 04:34 am (UTC)
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First off, this post is why I wanted to be LJ friends with you. I really liked it.

Secondly, I think the whole question of labels is a bit like saying a tree can't be called a tree, until it's been chopped down and sold for lumber, as though people decide whether or not it's a tree, and it only becomes one, if someone pays money for it and values it. That's bogus. A tree is, just as a writer is.

It's sort of like saying, if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Obviously, it makes a sound, but does that matter, if there's no one around to hear it?

I say yes. Similarly, whether or not I'm a real writer isn't based on some equivalent to being chopped down and sold or how others judge my writing. I'm a real writer if I write, and the true value of that is the degree to which I find satisfaction by doing so. It is not the degree to which I place other people's opinions above my own or say anyone who hasn't done what I've done doesn't count.

I also think the main reason people are so quick to judge others as not being real writers is, at some level, they are jealous of the satisfaction they suspect others derive from doing what they love, so they build themselves up by shooting others down. The world would be a better place if people spent less time focusing on the shortcomings of others and more on living a joyous life. For writers, this includes writing.

Another reason it's hard for people lacking a satisfying way to express themselves to be supportive of other creative people around them is it hurts to be reminded of what is possible. Even if you don't like what someone wrote, at least they tried. Not everyone with talent who derives deep satisfaction from writing can say that.

Another reason people are so quick to judge others as not being real writers is being creatively fulfilled is up there with having a special connection with someone, figuring out something that changes everyone's lives for the better, a once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience, or amazing sex. None of those things are graded on a bell curve.

What matters is the degree of satisfaction the person had while doing them--period. Anything anyone else did or felt is irrelevant, a bit like board game money. I can only spend the currency of my own life. Therefore, what other people have has no transferable value and, therefore, shouldn't let other people's blessings keep me from appreciating mine.

Besides, everyone could say you're fantastic, but, if you don't love what you do, it's meaningless, and simply being in a position to judge others in no way guarantees the person judging has any talent or the ability to judge it in others.

A list of things involving people judging me isn't what makes me a writer. Me writing makes me a writer.

Plus, no matter what someone is awarded or published, you have to remember that it was all just a person judging another without them necessarily having exceptional taste or talent themselves. This is why so much of what's published doesn't make for an enjoyable read. Also, there is no reason I should consider anyone's opinion higher than my own, especially as I am the only one who can experience what I feel when I write.

If I'm more excited about other people liking my work than whether or not I do, that's backwards. All human beings are 99.999% genetically identical, anyway, so there is no reason to put other people's opinions and accomplishments above mine, for any reason. They are just people, as I am, so their approval of me matters less than how I feel when I write.

As far as pretending to be something in order to become it, one time at work, I thought I could never do something that was required of me, so I took on the role of someone who could. By acting the part, in time, I no longer needed to pretend and acquired the skills necessary to do the job. If I had run away in fear, at the beginning, I wouldn't be where I am today.

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