I Am Who I Say I Am

It’s something that happens every day, every hour, across the country many times over. It’s done so casually that some people respond without a second thought, and then reciprocate with half-hearted interest. It happens at birthday parties, happy hour, luncheons, business meetings, the grocery store, the gym and even while lying on the table of a chatty masseuse.

“So, what do you do?”

Five words and a question mark that either incite fear or excitement (after all, our favorite subject is ourselves). Some people answer humbly (“I help people” says the life-saving ER doctor). Some over-inflate their importance (“I lead research to find the cure for cancer” says the guy who washes petri dishes). And, some stutter because their answer would be schizophrenic (“By day, I’m a mild-mannered reporter, but in the evenings I’m a superhero” squeaks the mousy guy in the thick glasses).

Secret superheroes aren’t the only ones whose windpipes close up at that question. Writers fall into that category as well.

The writing world is full of people who practice their craft outside of the hours of 9 to 5. Many of us slave away at day jobs – some fulfilling others simply filling the bank account – and those that aren’t in the office spend their hours looking after their children, only able to sneak in a few writing sessions during nap time. If you were to ask this secret society of writers what they do, 99.9 percent would answer with what they do during the 40-hour workweek (except the moms, that job is more than full-time and should be honored as so).

Why is it that we have a hard time identifying ourselves with something we love? For me, the answer lies in the follow up questions:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Ooh, cool, what do you write?”

“Fiction.”

“Awesome, where can I buy your books.”

Picking off non-existent lint, “Uh, well, my first novel isn’t out yet.”

“When is it coming out?”

Clearing throat, “Well, you see, the publishing industry is really interesting and complex, so I’m not really sure.”

“But it is coming out, right?”

Gulp. Sweat breaks out on forehead. Heart races. Stomach churns. “Excuse me, I have to pee.”

Leaves party to down a dozen Krispy Kremes, vowing to never write again.

If we are outside of the realm of the Stephen Kings, Ray Bradburys, or Sandra Browns, does that mean we have less validity to identify ourselves as writers? When does that defining moment happen? At the very first word? When you finish a manuscript? Or, when you receive your first contract or advance? Or, do you finally get to call yourself a writer when your name stares out at you from a bookshelf?

Does it matter if we’re a best-seller or a novice novelist? If you get paid for your work, does that mean you’re more of a writer than someone who writes for those close to them? Does a literary genius have any more right to call himself a writer than someone who struggles but has her whole heart in her story?

At what point in your life do you quickly answer, “I’m a writer” with a strong, clear, confident voice?

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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14 Responses to I Am Who I Say I Am

  1. Sara Flower says:

    It’s weird, but I used to tell people that I was a writer with more confidence before I was published. Go figure, right. I am still proud of what I do, but I am almost more nervous now that is out there – I wonder what they will think about the story and I wasn`t super stoked about the first cover either, so I am having it re-designed. Maybe once that is done, I will be a lot more confident. Great post!

  2. I know exactly how you feel! Been there myself. But at the end of the day, you know you write for you. Not for the approval of others, right? 😉

  3. Kim says:

    I love your comment about mothers and I think if you write anything, you can answer I’m a writer. Even if you’ve only written a paragraph of a story, you’re a writer. It’s when you imagine these amazing stories and you don’t write them, that you don’t qualify as a writer, only an imaginative person.

  4. I’m reminded of an old cartoon. Two women standing at a doorway and looking into a room where a man is seated at a table in front of a typewriter (yes, old cartoon). One woman tells the other: “A writer is his word for unemployed.”

    Another way to think of it. A writer is simply one who writes, and unfortunately that is such a broad category that it includes anyone who writes. An author is a writer who has been published. All authors are writers, but not all writers (far from it) are authors.

    That is the source of the awkward “what do you do?” question. When the answer is writer, people assume that is the same thing as author, and so the continued questions.

    A comment about Susan’s comment. I write books hoping and intending them to have an audience, and even more hopeful that audience will be approving. If that were not the case, I would write in a diary; I would not go through the agony and ecstasy involved in writing books if all I expected to do with them at the end was leave them unread on a hard drive or printed out and tossed into the bottom drawer.

    More often than not, Kimberly, when someone finds out I am a writer, they begin telling me that they want to write someday, maybe do that novel when they retire. My answer is always, I want to be a brain surgeon someday, and might take it up after I retire from writing.

    Good luck. In today’s publishing world, you are going to need buckets of it.

    • Thank you, Donigan! You’re right about wanting an audience, and I think the first step (or several steps) any writer takes may be initially for themselves, to prove that they can do something they’ve always wanted to do. I’ve met some of my closest friends through writing. Even if I don’t end up on the NYT Bestseller list, being part of this wonderful community has been an unexpected (and pleasant) surprise.

  5. sfnowak says:

    I work as a writer for the Department of Defense (yes they have writers.) This gives me the option to use some variation of the old, “I’d tell you, but..” The best response is just a stoic stare in response to, “So what do you write?”

  6. Loved your dialog on this post. You sound more brave than I am. I kind of hem & haw at this point. “Oh I’m a writer.” Then I bet them to the punch. “But I’m unpublished, looking for an agent.” Or something like that.

    Before I joined a professional writers group, I wouldn’t even do that. But now that I know the “rules” I more confidently call myself a writer. I won’t call myself an author until I’m pubbed.

    Somehow I think that’ll give me more confidence. That’s probably just an delusion akin to the age-old “once you’ll married you’ll live happily ever after.” Um no, you’ll just have a partner to face the same struggles you always faced.

    Anyway, that’s my two-cents. 🙂

  7. I tell people I’m an aspiring author.

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