Maybe I Never Should Have Called Myself a Writer
August 7, 2020 § 28 Comments
By Sarah Terez Rosenblum
I’ve always been a commitaphobe when it comes to identity. From sexual orientation to avocation; I’m unwilling to claim one facet as the whole. Even with MFA in hand, and my first novel published, when Tinder dates asked, I never said “I write.” Yet in front of my students, I gave lip-service to commitment. “The work will come; just grant yourself permission to be who you are.”
Eventually, desperation, not dedication changed my relationship to writing. What I mean is, the man I was dating went back to his wife. I’m not sure why I found this change destabilizing. I’d weathered more consequential breakups—long term relationships, requiring the dividing of CDs and shared custody of dogs. I came to men late, but he wasn’t the first man I’d dated. And even that shift hadn’t shattered me. I’d never been one of those rainbow flag girls. The ones who start every sentence with “as a lesbian,” who wear their queerness on their tattooed sleeves. I’d faced no loss of self, so I figured my refusal to let one aspect eclipse my identity had paid off. But now, in the aftermath of this particular breakup, I felt formless; no matter I’d held back—same way I did with all my passions; afraid to dive in and find the water only two feet deep.
At first I wrote to imagine alternate endings; to linger longer with the man who had left. I wrote to muffle time until I could bear the ice-pick tick of minutes. Over time, my frenzy grew a thicket of fiction; eventually, I cared more about the character I’d based on the man than about the blurry past. Soon, I’d streamlined my teaching and quit scrabbling to live on internet Think Pieces. I gave up my apartment, moving in with my mother in Wisconsin. Less strapped for money, I blocked off more days to write. Meanwhile, my hours of writing built an infrastructure which supported my process. First, an inner wall to encircle my creativity. Protecting me from myself, it held my Critical Mind just outside. Next, an outer wall to shelter me from external forces. It kept me insulated from other writer’s voices and the whims of culture and commerce. These walls created space for me to invest in myself. It was true then, the smooth inspiration I’d soft-served my students: Once I committed to my craft, I was free to perfect it. After three years, I emerged from self-imposed isolation a writer. Finally I’d allowed myself to become who I was.
So, I’m forty-one, and what began as moony self-soothing has become a compact literary thriller. On the east coast, my agent has her sights set on the Big Five publishers. In the Midwest, I’m messing with some speculative fiction. Picture the writer, smug in her identity. She’s wearing tie-dyed leggings, drinking coffee out of a unicorn mug. She’s writing a story about a genie when the pandemic hits.
The first thing to go was the internal wall around my creativity. My Critical Mind rose above in a cherry picker. “Your mom is immunosuppressed, and you don’t know if your exhale could kill her! Hospitals are filling with victims! How can you write a story about a genie (Even if the genie represents the undervaluing of art)?”
Next, outside voices punched through the outer wall that shielded my sense of uniqueness. All around me I saw writers shifting their panic into Think Pieces. My Critical Mind found a megaphone. “How can these people write so fast about toilet paper? How can they think through their angle on Zoom exhaustion? What does any single point of view matter when we’re all having the same experience? Except also we’re not having the same experience! How is yours worth uplifting when the virus is highlighting systemic inequality, and the people hardest hit are disproportionally black?
Slog forward several months, and the genie story sits unopened on my desktop. I’ve heard from my agent sporadically. At first, sheltered at home in New York, she couldn’t find a hand scanner for my edits. Now. she’s watching the publishing situation with caution. Editors are being laid off and she expects more personnel changes across the board. In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court has long struck down the stay at home order and Covid cases are rising. My daily practice looks less like writing, more like trying not to check my phone. And God I miss the deep dives; distant sunlight making wavery shapes on the surface, while I’m alone in my depths below.
“I warned you,” my Critical Mind blares. “Making something your identity is dangerous. When it shifts, you don’t know who you are.”
I know what you’re thinking—my Critical Mind already thought it. There are worse things than writer’s block and a stalled career. I’m lucky I have savings. I’m lucky my employer transitioned classes to Zoom. But my concern here is identity, and vocation is just one part of that. The way we conceive of ourselves creates us. Identity is bound up in the constitution. It’s what we fight for in civil rights movements—whether Black Lives Matter or For God Sake Let Trans People Pee.
We are not all the same in what we’ve lost to this virus— it spreads unequally. Shannon Doherty is live on Instagram cooking kale in her kitchen, meanwhile with schools closed, many of the nation’s poorest kids spent spring with no access to lunch. Still, it would be condescending to claim that only the elite have the wherewithal to grapple with a loss of identity. I might have time to (slowly, painfully) write about it— and that is a luxury—but the sense of lost self crosses income levels and race.
Recently, when I should have been writing, I listened to a Daily podcast about Achut Deng who contracted Covid-19 after an outbreak at her Idaho meat packing plant.
“Did you consider just staying home from work?” A reporter asks her. Deng’s voice cracks. “To be honest, I did not. I was just thinking… I need to keep working so I can support my family. Thinking about it now, it hurts.” It seems Deng means that her own health had not been her priority. An orphan and immigrant, her focus had been on remaining the person who made a better life for her sons. Obviously, survival is key here; you can’t self-actualize till your basic needs are met. Still, tied up in Deng’s answer are self-esteem and personal integrity. When she was sent home from work, she felt some essential part of her was gone.
Being told the local watering hole is closed is not comparable. Still you hear the fear in those who flocked to bars in Milwaukee when they opened. Cloaked in complaints of boredom were deeper questions. Who am I if I can’t blow off steam over brews with my buddies? For better or for worse, we ground our sense of self in what we commit to. We become who we are through the things we do. And those people with guns, shouting about masks and haircuts? They’re angry because they feel threatened by outside forces. I’m not saying “there are very fine people on both sides,” but anger covers fear, and beneath their indefensible politics and disregard for the collective health of the country, just like me, it’s a sense of self they’re afraid they’ve let slip.
Over these months of uncertainty I’ve wondered: Do I regret committing to my writing? Would I feel less threatened if I had less self to lose? Maybe the right answer is identity is ever-evolving. A healthy ego can incorporate new information. In the end we’ll grow stronger from this momentary loss of self.
But I’m not ready for peaceful acceptance. It’s like that Think Piece says (The one written, pitched and shared across Facebook, while I was deleting twenty different first sentences); right now we’re grieving. As individuals and as a country, we are removed from the daily ways we define ourselves: as churchgoers; as stand-up comics; as gym-rats; as physically demonstrative friends. A sense of identity and selfhood are made manifest through a number of factors, and like so many, more than stylish hair, more than community, my sense of who I am is what, for now, I’ve lost.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.