Thursday, May 14, 2009

Retinal Scans and Literary Fingerprints

We are what we write. Or are we?

As writers, how much of our self-identity do we place in what we do? What is it about writing that so closely ties what we do with who we are?

Because I do think there's something abnormally personal about writing - we can see that in our own actions, and we can see it in how society judges and interprets what we do. If I tell people I play some tennis, no one asks me if I'm going on the ATP Tour, or if Roger Federer is better than me. No one dismisses me if I've never played at Wimbledon. And yet, if I mention I write, this statement is inevitably followed by a question: "Are you published?"

It's a disconcerting thing. Curiosity, yes, forms part of it. But there's an element of judgement here, too. Judgement not just of your skill as a writer, but of you as a person. It's a faulty dynamic, I think, but it relates back to the personal nature of writing, to its uniqueness and individuality.

Writing is expression, and stories are our thoughts shaped into narratives. Our stories, in some sense, are the art we make of ourselves. We make it of what we've read, of what we've seen and heard, of what we've felt and experienced. Of what we've imagined. So, that judgement seems not just an evaluation of the words we've put on the page but of the thoughts behind it... of those ephemeral aspects of self.

We buy into this, partly because we have to, because there is more of us in our writing than in our tennis, our sudokus, our favourite television programs. There is something indefinably us about our writing. Yes, it may be influenced by others, or even imitative of them. But there is always something of the unique voice in it, and the stronger the writing the stronger that voice becomes, the more particular, the more you. The writing is yours, and something only you could have done. No one else could have written it quite so. You have left a literary fingerprint upon the page. You have left a little of yourself behind.

This is the beauty of writing, and some of it's danger, too. A danger because we absorb some of that cultural evaluation. Publication! Oh, I must have it! I must be able to answer that horrible question with a "Yes!" We internalize it. We want a book on the shelf with our name on it. That thought becomes a part of you, a part of how you see yourself. It is your future. If it's not here yet, well, that's only a yet...

But we won't all make it on those shelves. There ain't enough room, sad to say. What then? What if that endless "No" comes to bury even the thought of yes?

This is where it hurts, I'm guessing, and that question of self-identity comes back in. I am a writer. Yes, this is wonderful, but you can't forget the rest. Better to say just I Am Me, because that "me" can, and must, encompass more than writing.

I was a soccer player growing up (footballer, for you Brits). And I was a very good one, among the best in the province. I had dreams and aspirations. A scholarship, a professional contract... I had played since I was four, and playing was part of me. I was a soccer player. It was an identity, part of how I saw myself. Why doubt it? My future with soccer seemed somehow inevitable.

And then when I was seventeen I wrecked an ankle. It seemed innocuous enough, pivoting to kick the ball. It was a championship game, city title on the line, a title that seemed part of that inevitable future. But... no. A terrible pain in the ankle, a pain that wouldn't go away. I watched, from the bench, as the game went to extra time, and then a shoot out. I watched as someone else took the final shot (my shot, that was my place) and missed. That dream of a title vanished even as the first crack appeared in my vision of an inevitable future. One surgery, and then a second, and then a pile of different therapies, one after another. In the end everyone would give up. Sorry, no can do, better luck next time.

I felt a loss. Not just loss of the game, which was hard enough, but a loss of self. I had to readjust my idea of who I was. If I was not this, not a soccer player, what was I? A slow feeling out. I didn't have a retinal scanner to give me a quick answer. But I found my way, in the end.

And yet that's why I worry, too. For "I am a Writer" is part of that new identity I found. And yet it can't be all. I have to remember, first, that I Am Me. Writing is a piece in the puzzle, no more. It can't be more. And yet how do we separate ourselves from our writing? From these words that are reflections of who we are, or who we might be?

It helps me, I feel, to think about writing as not who I am, but as how I find who I am. Writing is not the product of me, but the process. It is not about the story I've written, but about what the story has shown me. Writing is the window, and I am what is on the inside, looking out. It is through that window I truly see the world.

Sometimes stories are rejected. Sometimes windows break. Jagged words, scattered bits of broken glass. But there are new stories, new panes of glass. And it is always the view, in the end, that is important.

Any thoughts? How do you navigate your writer's identity?


Anonymous said...

To answer you, Ink, I don't sit around thinking about it. I just do it.
Still Alive (in case you were wondering)

Ink said...

For clarification, if needed:

Big W "Writer" equals bad. Little w "writer" amidst other things - mother, brother, stamp collector - equals good. :)

That would have been a much more pithy post. But, you know, I like me some words.

Ms Kitty said...

I suppose that age has softened the meaning of the title of 'writer' for me. I have been too many 'people' over the years.

'Writer' was my very first chosen identity, all the others were given to me, or I was shackled to them, depending on my attitude at the time.

Of all my - adjectives - writer is the one I like the best and use the least. In fact, until I joined Forward Motion, then created my blog, I never shared MY writing with anyone.

The hundreds of procedures, work instructions, catalogs and quality manuals all belonged to the companies for whom I worked.

The internet has changed a basic fact of my writing: I have readers, not many, I don't know who they all are, however, they ARE out there.

So while I never really play the 'writer' card in the face to face world - it remains one of my favorite adjectives.

Bookworm1605 said...

So who is that anonymous survivor person what doesn't sit around thinking about it?

I don't really identify myself as a writer, or a Writer. No, I don't write squat. I think of myself more along the lines of a typer. Or maybe a Typer. Yeah, I type a LOT. Writing--not so much. Very tedious. And I'm all out of number 2 pencils. (Not really, I just don't want to sharpen them. Rather nasty business, writing with dull pencils)

Now, I totally get the whole identity thing. I've thought of myself as a typer years before I actually began banging on a keyboard. (Come to think of it, typer is a lame term, too. I'm thinking I need something with more pizazz. Hmmm. How about Inventor of Drama, Ideas and Organized Themes...or IDIOT for short.

Yeah, like I was saying, I considered myself to be an IDIOT way before I actually...well, you know, acted on it. Then, for a while, it was almost like I was ashamed of my little hobby. I was a lone IDIOT, creating my little worlds and characters in a vacuum. Then I discovered the internet, and a whole bunch of other IDIOTs like myself. I was amazed at how many IDIOTs there were out there. What a relief! I hadn't realized how much being a closet IDIOT had been wearing on me.

So now I spend a lot of time interacting and sharing with other IDIOTs online. That's how I have dealt with the whole identity crisis thing.

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