Saturday, December 01, 2007

Identity Management

No, I’m not going to talk about single sign-on, LDAP, or strong passwords, so disappointed techies will be advised to keep moving.

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Okay, are we writers alone now? Good. Because I want to take a minute to discuss who we really are.

In the years I’ve been writing and meeting writers online, I’ve seen a wide range of attitudes toward the end result of our efforts. For some, just getting their work into the hands of a few friends is enough, while for others, print publication and financial success are the only markers that their long hours at the computer have not been in vain.

Why such a disparity in what a writer considers “success?”

Clearly, some of it is innate. Some people are naturally oriented toward the external trappings of success (such as a positive review in the New York Times) while others see success as something internal. (Who cares if anyone else likes it? I had fun!)

But there’s another element to all this that had eluded me until recently: Identity.

When you define yourself first and foremost as a writer, that means something to others, and you’d have to be made of stone to not be swayed by the cultural assumption that if you’re a writer, you therefore must be published. For those of us who see writing as our primary identity, a sense of true accomplishment can only come from commercial success.

Even if we hit the brass ring of traditional publication, that doesn’t mean the book will sell or that we'll ever be published again. Therefore it seems to me that we writers would be wise to better appreciate our other identities.

Most writers are fully capable of developing other artistic skills, so why not paint, learn a musical instrument, or sing? If you already do these things privately, maybe there’s a retirement home that would enjoy some new paintings or a piano concerto. Maybe there’s a church or civic choir that would appreciate your lovely voice.

Get some new certifications and develop new career goals. If you don’t have a non-writing career, why not do a little volunteer work?

Want to do something non-creative for a change? You could take up a sport. Go back to school. Learn to fix cars or re-upholster furniture. Plan a garden for spring. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Then when the query-go-round has got you down, your writing is only one piece of your identity that’s not going as well as you would like. People love your great ideas at the office. Your brownies/quilts/therapy pets were a hit at the retirement home. You finally mastered that tricky heel work in your flamenco dance or hit a shot on the golf course that made your buddies jealous.

No matter how much our writing lives mean to us, we’re more than our stories. When we stop narrowly defining our success, we become open to many more ways to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Let’s not succumb to the temptation to box ourselves into narrow ways of interpreting our lives.

12 comments:

Chumplet said...

To me, being a writer is just one piece of the big puzzle that is me. I'm an artist, a mother, a colleague and a best friend to my husband. I'm a horse lover (but hardly ride anymore), a photographer and a furniture mover.

Success in any of these 'professions' is measured within myself. Perhaps I'm a successful writer because I managed to finish a novel, then a traditional publisher had enough confidence in it to publish it. Maybe next week I'll raise the bar and seek an agent and a NYC publisher. Then my success will have a whole new definition.

To my family and friends, I'm already successful.

Rabbits' Guy said...

Amen to your thoughtful post. Boy, trying to be a one-trick pony seems like a sure road to over-stress and a lot of disappointment. The strongest and most interesting people are very multi-dimensional and able to shift gears and attention easily.

Thomma Lyn said...

Excellent post -- I've blogged about this, too, about "success" and how it means different things to different people.

I have always thought it unhealthy for a person to define themselves in terms of any one occupation, activity, or passion. Even if I never wrote fiction again, I could never become bored: I have my music (playing / composing), the delightful hiking and exploring in the mountains hubby and I have been doing, our kitties, my blogging (and I love doing the cat blogs, LOL!), reading, motorcycle riding, and other interests such as helping my hubby with cool projects when he's feeling well, target shooting, cooking, trying new things all across the spectrum... if I sit in front of this computer too much, I go bats!

Despite frustrations on the writing query-go-round, I'm an adventurous spirit, and I love to challenge myself with anything at hand which interests me. That includes writing, sure, but it includes many other things, too.

Most things I do for their intrinsic reward. I'm just not very externally-motivated as far as the trappings of "success"; I never have been. At the same time, however -- and this might sound paradoxical -- I would like to get somewhere with my writing. It doesn't have to be a big Stephen King or Dean Koontz "somewhere", but I've worked hard over the years honing my craft, and though I have done so for the personal challenge and for the intrinsic reward of the art, I've also honed and worked on my craft because I want my books out there to be read, and I would like to make something an income that way, if possible, even if it's modest. It's a significant goal of mine, though by no means is it my only goal.

And sure, rejection sucks, disappointment sucks. But you learn from it, and soldier on. I saw something the other week about a lady who finally got a book out there after fourteen years of refusing to give up. Talk about determination! :)

Though writing is certainly a big part of who I am, I define myself as something much broader than a "writer" -- I'm a human being, an artist, and an adventurer -- and it's those qualities which, in turn, help me with my tenacity and my ability to weather the inevitable disappointments which arise -- on paths I have pursued in the past and on any path I might wish to pursue in the future. There are so many factors on any path which are beyond a person's control. But broad-mindedness and tenacity and a willingness to learn and grow will carry a person a long way.

And relying solely on external validation will never satisfy any artist -- no matter how "successful" a writer is, he/she will always have to contend with rejection in some form -- bad reviews, being dropped by your publisher for low sales, etc. Nothing's guaranteed, so putting all one's eggs in the "external validation" basket is just asking for trouble because no matter how much a person gets, they find it is never, ever enough.

And first and foremost is remembering what's most important: loved ones, their health and well-being, and making every precious day with them count.

Thanks for some excellent food for thought, and for the chance to articulate all this to myself! :-D

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nah, being a writer defines me. It's my excuse for doing crazy things and exploring the world -- "Hey, I've got to write what I know, right?"

As for success, yeah. Too many people call me unsuccessful because I'm not in print yet. The way the industry has changed just since I had my first agent is unimaginable for me, let alone for people who don't know how all this works.

Maybe it's time to redefine what success means. Maybe a writer CAN be a valid thing even without a book to hold or a payment.

Thomma Lyn said...

Susan, I like your moxie! I, too, get the perception of "unsuccessful writer" because I'm not in print.

And my fuming over occasional disappointments aside, I don't feel "unsuccessful" at all -- I feel like a work-in-progress. I am a goal-oriented person, I will work hard, and I will "get there", but only if I keep at it.

And that applies to you, to any of us writers. The only way we are "unsuccessful" is if we quit.

I loved this: "Maybe a writer CAN be a valid thing even without a book to hold or a payment." Hear, hear! One of the most hurtful things about being a writer -- especially if you have left a full time job to write full-time -- is the perception of non-writers, especially if they are in your family circle, that you are "lazy" or "don't want to work." Hell, I have been known to work fifteen hours a day! But to many people, unless you're counting the money from your labor, the labor counts for nothing.

bunnygirl said...

I agree that success as a writer tends to be very narrowly defined by our society. Kafka never published any fiction in his lifetime, but no one calls him a failed writer. Ditto Emily Dickinson, who is hardly considered a failed poet.

Unfortunately, America doesn't think much of activities that don't draw a paycheck, the bigger the better. The holdover of our Puritan legacy is that financial reward is proof of our worthiness. And then people wonder why they're not happy!

Personally, I don't know if I would want to get the bulk of my income from writing. I don't like feeling pressured to create. It takes the fun out of it and then what would I do for a hobby? Balance Excel spreadsheets? I think not.

I'm keeping the day job! :-)

Bernita said...

I agree.
Writing isn't the only thing that defines me.
That I'm sand until the glassblower makes me crystal.

WriterKat said...

I like what you have to say here. You are absolutely right. There is a strange thing about being a writer that isn't in print. It's like wearing your heart on your sleeve for all to see your dream. It makes us vulnerable to other's judgements.

For a while that unnerved me, but as I've developed a support network of other writers, I see it as a badge to wear proudly. Unfortunately, too many out there either don't have a dream and are living the status quo, or are too afraid to put their dreams out there, so don't bother trying.

It is important to have other identities & passions. If all my eggs were in one basket, the soundless nights, rejections, jumps & hurdles would be all too much to bear.

Virginia Lee said...

It's funny - I still define myself as an actor first in my mind even though I've not been on a stage in fourteen years. But I write from an actor's perspective, I think, and that enables me to inhabit my characters more effectively, at times to my detriment.

People began telling me I was a writer nearly 20 years ago. I call myself a writer at times, but really, I consider myself a griot more than anything. And that's not quite the same, is it? :)

xine @ chicken-scratch.ca said...

Thomma-Lyn sent me over. I agree with your comments about not narrowing our definition of success. In late November I participated on a panel about the writing life. The audience members were comprised of students at a local university, recent graduates of the writing program. I talked about the notion of success and how it's an individual journey. I truly like the title of your piece: identity management - certainly got my thinking about all my various roles - wife, mother, writer, artist and communications specialist (in my working life).

TIV: the individual voice said...

As a psychologist, I wrote my dissertation on artistic identity, and it was women more than men back then who took this more multi-faceted balanced view of their lives, very different from Renaissance notions of macho Artist as Hero. Nice post.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Interesting post. I define myself as a writer but its not how I make my living. I consider myself to be a fairly successful writer because I am happy with the amount and quality of what i write. If Istarted to make a decent income out of writing, I'd give up the day job! (That isn't going to happen)