April 25, 2016 § 17 Comments
By Ann Cinzar
Is it an occupational hazard that as a woman who writes, I have a hard time calling myself a writer?
Ever since I began to write for myself — as opposed to an organization which paid me to do so — I have a hard time saying, “I am a writer.” When someone asks “what do you do?” I stumble over the words, unable to say “I write” without splicing my sentence with “try to/kind of/sort of.” How can someone with a love of words be so maladept at using them? And where did this pervasive case of imposter syndrome come from?
I’ve noticed this affliction with many of my women writer friends. We commiserate about feelings of inadequacy; we toil over work but leave it sitting on laptops; we hesitate to send our work to “big” names because we don’t think we are worthy. In short, we’re reluctant to call ourselves “real writers.”
A few years ago I befriended a “real writer.” He (yes, he) is the real deal: his books win awards, he’s had critical acclaim, he’s been in the New Yorker. He’s smart, young and funny, but he’s still humble and unassuming. One reviewer called him “perhaps the most endearing man in the country.” (I am not talented enough to make this stuff up.)
My first encounter with Real Writer was serendipitous. A few days earlier had been a momentous occasion for me — one of my essays had been published in a national newspaper. After reading my piece, a friend said to me “Do you know Real Writer? Your writing reminds me of his stuff. You should meet him.”
I laughed off my friend’s compliment — clearly, she was just being nice. And, while I knew Real Writer lived in my neighborhood, I also knew the likelihood of ever meeting him was slim.
The next day I went to grab a latte and there was Real Writer, shoulders hunched over his computer, at the coffee shop. My coffee shop! It hardly seemed a coincidence. Perhaps the writing gods had sent me a message? Naturally, I introduced myself.
“Are you Real Writer?” I asked.
“Why yes, I am,” he said, his eyebrows raised in manner suggesting, Ask me anything you’d like. Well, it may not have happened exactly like that, but that’s how it plays in my memory.
Nonetheless, we launched into a conversation, and after some time he asked, “Are you a writer?”
I laughed out loud. Real Writer just asked me if I wrote. It was akin to having Jamie Oliver ask me if I cook. I mean, of course I do, but would I call myself a chef? Is calling yourself a writer any different? Isn’t there some baseline standard, some prerequisite? Moreover, how do I call myself a writer when the real deal is sitting in front of me? Surely he thinks I’m kidding myself — a dilettante, dabbling at the fringes.
The truth is I spend a lot of time at the fringes, thinking and talking about writing. Sometimes it’s on my own, but often it’s with my other women writer friends. We support each other in our insecurities, we discuss the latest VIDA counts, we placate each other in our literary rejections.
Interestingly, when subjected to my self-indulgence or rejection woes, every man in my life tells me a variation of the same thing: Get back to work. My husband, of course, provides the most incisive and least diplomatic response. “Get over it.” He says. “Stop talking about it, and do the work.” This is the voice of experience. My husband doesn’t sit around wallowing in every lost sale or minor setback he encounters in his business. He takes it in, assesses, and moves on. He gets back to work.
I used to think my need to discuss and analyze the writing life was part of my nature — maybe I’m more outgoing than the average writer? Certainly, Real Writer isn’t introducing himself to random people at coffee shops. Then again, maybe that’s why he’s writing best sellers and I’m out chatting with my friends about how hard it is to get anything done, or worrying about our lack of talent, or time, or legitimacy, or self-worth.
Lately I’ve been wondering whether this constant navel gazing is merely an excuse to keep me from writing and submitting. Is it simply a distraction from the work? All this time I spend questioning my work, imagining editors laughing at my submission, stewing about how I’m too late, too old, too untalented…wouldn’t this time be better spent writing?
Real Writer and I see each other regularly, mainly at the same coffee shop. Sometimes I inch closer to him, hoping his talent might seep across the café table and into me through osmosis. I love talking to him about life in general, but on occasion I forget myself and ask him about a writing topic, or tell him about a recent small win. He’s always generous with his wisdom (in the reserved and reluctant manner of a real writer) and even encourages me in my literary pursuits.
One day recently, likely as I was in the midst of some self-indulgent angst, he made an offhand comment. “Just write,” he said.
My first thought, of course, was, Easy for him to say. When you’ve accumulated prizes and praise before the age of 35, the pressure is decidedly off.
But, then I realized I was at it again. That little voice in my head, always over-thinking, over analyzing, and consequently, under delivering. Perhaps the real occupational hazard is that as a woman who writes, I don’t take things literally. When Real Writer tells me “Just write” maybe that is precisely what he means.
Forget about anything else: just write. From now on, that’s what I intend to do. Who knows? Maybe actions will speak louder than words.
Ann Cinzar’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Globe and Mail, and Literary Mama. Her essay “Adult Accompaniment” is forthcoming in the anthology So Glad They Told Me, to be released summer 2016.