What does it mean to “be a writer”?

I spent this weekend at the Bay Area Book Festival. After a talk by Joan Frank, Dorothy Lazard, and Jane Smiley, I stood in line to have them sign the books I’d bought.

Joan Frank asked me, “are you a writer?”

I hadn’t brought up writing. I’d said something about looking forward to reading Frank’s book, which is an exploration of artists’ later work, and how that differs or evolves from their earlier art.

I froze.

And I thought, I have to say yes, because I’m reading tomorrow.

I smiled. I said yes, and mentioned the reading. Joan Frank gave me her card, said something nice, we chatted briefly about late art and distilled focus, and the line moved on.

And I was left thinking, why does saying you’re a writer seem like such a thing?!

It came up in one of the earlier panel talks too. One of the authors, who also teaches, mentioned that for their students, there’s always a moment – that saying, acknowledging, they’re a writer, is a thing. Clearly, this isn’t just me.

What is going on here?

I wouldn’t hesitate to say I’m a gardener; or a hiker; or a cook; or a daughter, or a friend, or a wife; or a person who’s learning the drums. Clearly and obviously, these things are true.

And yet by that measure, clearly and obviously I’m a writer. Writing is how I interact with the world. Need to figure something out? I write about it. Make a plan? I write about it. Deal with sadness, or celebrate joy, or even just remember what happened? I write.

So why did the fact that I was scheduled to be on stage, as a writer, seem so significant in saying yes? Why did my brain think have to?

It can’t be only that I don’t make my living from writing. After all, I don’t make my living from gardening or hiking, and I acknowledge those things. And professionally, I usually say I work as – not I am – a product manager.

Identity is a hot topic these days: identity by gender, by race, by socioeconomic background, by geography, by sexual orientation, and on and on and on. We are all so many things.

What if that’s the thing with writer? That it is identity, being, self?

So fundamental, so deep-down, that saying it out loud is terrifying?

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m a writer.

Nice to meet you.

And oh yeah, the reading was awesome. Maybe eighty people in the audience (!). I kept my pace right where I wanted it, I remembered to adjust the height of the mic so I wouldn’t need to bend over awkwardly, the edits I’d made landed smoothly as I spoke them, and I did not trip going either up or down the stairs to the stage. And although I was too in-the-moment to register applause one way or the other, I’m assured by the people I came with that it was there, and enthusiastic.

We took a group picture at the end.

It felt fantastic.

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