I’m A Writer

Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?”  Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.”  Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.

Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story.  But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing.  Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children.  Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.

Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party.  The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files.  My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list.  If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have.  If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.)  Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark.  Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.

I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself.  When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world.  I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer.  “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.

But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer.  I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at  improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.

Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing.  But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills.  If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion.  And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”

What Am I?

IMG_1080I have gotten to the point where I just hate labels.  Not the kind of labels we find on our groceries, of course…they keep me from eating too much sodium or trans fat, and that’s a good thing.   I mean the labels that we give ourselves, and worse, the labels we assign to other people.  Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a joiner, and no matter what group of people I’m with, I almost always feel like the “odd one out.”  Or maybe it’s because most of the people I know well are complicated, complex individuals who don’t fit the labels that we toss about so casually.  All I know is that the minute people start assigning labels, to themselves or to others, I get very uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why people like labels so much.  We want to know something about each other, and being able to identify someone as a “Southerner” or a “Liberal” or a “Protestant” seems as if it would help.  We think it gives us a point of reference, of knowing just how much someone is like us, or even whether or not we think the person is worth bothering to get to know.  Sorting everyone neatly into categories seems like an efficient way to deal with all the people who cross our path, and we know right away who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  What could be simpler?

The trouble is, simple isn’t always good, or accurate.  There are tons of different interpretations of just about every label out there, and it’s a mistake to just assume that our interpretation is the same as someone else’s.  (Personally, I am still completely confused on just what exactly is the difference between a “right-wing dictator” and a “left-wing dictator,” yet we hear those terms all the time as if everyone knows.)  It’s sort of like when we talk to someone from another country and they ask, “What do Americans think about that?”  And the only honest answer I can give is, “That depends on which American you ask.”  We may all live in the same country, but we definitely do not all think alike.

And that, I think, is what I find the most offensive about labels:  the assumption that everyone within that label thinks exactly alike and shares exactly the same values. I don’t want to be “assigned” a to a group that I don’t truly fit in with, and I haven’t yet found a group that I always agree with, on everything.  Or even a group I usually agree with, if I’m totally honest.  And I doubt very seriously that I ever will.

I want the freedom to think for myself, and to draw my own conclusions.  I want to be allowed to have a “conservative” opinion on one issue, and a “liberal” opinion on another.  I want to associate with lots of different kinds of people so that I never stop learning, never stop expanding my personal horizons, and, most importantly, never become complacent in the supposed superiority my own beliefs.  I also want the option of changing my mind, either because I’ve learned new facts or because I’ve simply finally figured out that the way I’ve always thought about something is just plain wrong.

But I know that there are always going to be people who prefer labels, and that there are always going to be people who are eager to stick a label on me.  And when that’s the case, the label I’d prefer is simply “human.”  That one fits me like a glove.

A Fair Trade

DSC00174I really believe that looking into a mirror and thinking, “who is that old person?” is something that every middle aged person has done at one time or another.  Some of us do it on a regular basis, if not daily.  But the reality is that the older we get, the harder it is to identify with the image we see reflected back at us, especially in a well-lit bathroom mirror that emphasizes all the wrinkles and sags.  Middle age means no longer looking nearly as young as we feel, and knowing that it’s only going to get worse, not better, from here on out.  Talk about depressing!

Luckily, middle age brings other, more positive, changes than just the physical ones.  My body may be aging in all kinds of negative ways, but my sense of self is actually improving.  I have a very good memory of my childhood (which is kind of amazing, since I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday), and one thing I know very clearly about my early years is how hard I always worked at “fitting in.”  I paid attention to what the other kids wore, what games they played, and what they thought, and did my best to imitate that so that I wouldn’t be excluded.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I did pretty much the same thing, doing my best to make sure that I looked and acted as much as possible like everyone else.  It wasn’t always easy, and I certainly didn’t always succeed, but I can honestly say that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be.

I can’t say exactly when “fitting in” stopped mattering so much to me, because it has been a gradual process, and one that I am still working on.  I’m sure reaching middle age had a lot to do with it, because the issues women deal with in middle age (menopause, empty-nest syndrome, aging parents, etc.) are a constant challenge to our self image.  Somewhere along the line, I have stopped caring so much about what others thought of me, and started caring a lot more who I really am, and who I really want to be.

It’s possible that this change is just a natural part of the aging process, now that I am at a point where I have to make intentional decisions about what I want to do with the years I have left.  Or maybe I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me this long to learn what is really important in life has nothing to do with conformity, and that the people I actually care about have no problems accepting me just the way I am.  But whatever happened, I’m grateful.  I may not always recognize the old-looking woman who looks back at me from the mirror these days, but I am getting to know the “real me” a little better every day.  And that’s a trade-off I can live with.