Earlier this month, I was invited to be part of a career fair at the school where I teach. The fair administrators wanted me to talk to the third, fourth and fifth grade students about balancing writing with my teaching job, how I’ve been published, and why the students should consider a writing career for themselves. Most of the kids only knew me as “Mrs. Sowul the band teacher” and not as “Leanne Sowul, writer,” so it felt a little like I was revealing a secret identity to them.
To prepare, I covered a triptych with click-bait style posters proclaiming “Three Reasons It’s Great to Be a Writer!” “Five Things About Writers That May Surprise You” and “Seven Steps To Writing And Publishing A Story.” I planned an activity that involved each small group coming up with a story idea and figuring out how to get through the planning and drafting stages to the point of writing a query letter. I brought props with me: a box of interesting trinkets for story kernels, magazines and literary journals where I’ve been published, the plaque I got for winning first prize in an essay contest last year (kids love awards!), and a copy of the DIY MFA book so I could talk about my column on this website.
But there was one thing holding me back when I was preparing to reveal my secret writing identity: I couldn’t let the students know that I’ve never felt less like a writer.
You Are What You Call Yourself
I’m a big believer in titles. If you love to run, you can call yourself a runner even before your first 5K. If you practice piano regularly, you can call yourself a pianist even if you’ve never given a recital. I’ve been a writer ever since I started writing for myself– not just for school assignments, but my own journal entries and short stories. Even before I was published, I felt it was important to own that identity. Now that I have been published, my work has been acknowledged and I even have a literary agent (though no book deals yet) I can’t even win the argument with my self-doubt: I am a writer, the same way I’m a teacher, a mom, a daughter, a wife.
But just because I call myself something doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes feel like a charlatan or even a failure in that role. I’ve been getting very little on the page lately, and haven’t felt inspired in weeks. It’s easy to identify the cause of this identity crisis: I have too many other identities, none of them secret. I’m a full-time teacher and a mom of two little ones. Those two jobs take up almost all my waking hours. Writing gets crammed into the margins, before my kids wake up, during lunch breaks and occasional weekend binges. As a result, my writing time doesn’t satisfy me; my creativity is frustrated. It’s becoming a smaller piece of my overall identity simply because the time I spend on it has been squeezed out of my other, more demanding identities.
Identity Is Fluid
That morning at the career fair, I feared that my identity crisis would come through to the students. I watched as my first group approached the booth and sat down on the floor, looking up at me expectantly, ready to learn what it was like to be a Writer. I began to speak– hesitantly at first– about my experiences with writing and publishing. And as I did, a part of me observed that my speech was passionate and that I was wholly engaged in the conversation. I noticed that the kids’ eyes were lit and their expressions attentive. I realized that I was finding the words to talk about myself as a writer, and as I found the words, I began to strengthen my identity again. It was clear, to myself and to the students, that I loved being a writer, even if my relationship with it was currently strained.
From that experience, I learned that it’s okay to not feel secure in my writing identity all of the time. It’s funny to think that I’ve taken breaks from my other identities without it feeling like a crisis– why does it seem like the stakes are higher with my writing self? I stop teaching every summer, but don’t feel like less of a teacher. I take an afternoon off from my kids to release the yoke of parenting, but that doesn’t make me stop being a mom. There’s an easy analogy that’s often made about wearing different hats to represent your different identities, but identity doesn’t work like that. It’s not a fixed object; it’s fluid, like shifting colors of sand.
I’m still in a bit of a writing slump, but I’m no longer assigning it a deeper meaning. Just because I’m not writing well doesn’t mean I have to question my identity as a writer. I’m a writer because that’s the way I create things and process the world. That’s not something that can be thrown away as easily as taking off a hat.
Have you ever questioned your writing identity?
Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and authors the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. She writes historical fiction and memoir; her work is represented by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary Agency. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, at Facebook.com/sowulwords, or on Twitter @sowulwords.