The names we call ourselves

Is there a phrase or question that makes you start sweating when you hear it? One that used to haunt me was, “So, what are you doing for work nowadays?”

Every time those words were uttered my fight or flight response was activated. While I would very much have liked to run away, the rules of polite society dictated that I stand and address the offending inquiry. It horrified me because it forced me to ask myself a question before I answered theirs: am I going to call myself an author or not?

I would begin flipping through my mental rolodex filled with all the reasons I could use to support the aforementioned title. I wrote a book! Oh, where can you purchase it? Well no, my book isn’t actually published yet, but I’ve been submitting it to agents for consideration! And, uh…I recently won honorable mention in the Writers of the Future competition! Oh, you don’t know what that is? Ok, well it’s a fairly prestigious contest…

Eventually, I would snap out of my reverie and wonder how long I’d been quiet. “I’m actually a server right now.”

“Oh,” they would say, and a pause would float awkwardly between us. “That’s nice!”

There weren’t usually many follow-up questions after that. Why did I hesitate to call myself an author for so long? I’d written a book, run a blog, created pieces for competitions, attended writing conferences, joined a writers union…were those not reason enough? Many of us in creative fields struggle with owning what we ‘do for work’ for the simple fact that it has yet to consistently pay the bills.

One day, I was struck by the irony of that justification when I remembered what my parents had routinely told me while I was in school: being a student was my job. I certainly wasn’t getting paid to earn my degree, so why would they say such a thing? They would reason that it was hard work, and it was setting me up for my best possible future. Every time someone tries to make me feel ashamed of claiming the path I’ve chosen as my job, I think, is that not what I’m doing now? Working hard? Setting myself up for happiness and success? Sure, it may be unconventional and risky. The road to getting paid for being creative can be long and arduous, but if your footsteps fall across its gravel day after day, who could possibly call the road by any other name?

The problem with not claiming your identity is that you risk losing it in the process. Waiting to measure up to someone else’s standard or definition is not only a waste of your time, it’s counterproductive. The suggestive power of demeaning yourself to be what you do for money instead of what you do for fulfillment can stifle your expression, slow your progress, and increase the distance between you and your goals.

Understanding how to claim the truth of your identity on your own terms is a powerful thing. You are an author. You are an artist. You are an actor. You are a musician. Calling yourself anything else only serves to fan smoke across an otherwise beautiful sky. Don’t let it be blocked, so that you might actually allow it to be. 

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