Hello my April showers,
How is this month almost over already? It seems like just yesterday I was eating a coffee-shop Pop-Tart on my half-birthday (also known as April Fool’s Day), and now it’s nearly May Day. My days have been full, and the weeks have gone fast.
One way I’ve been spending my time this month is editing chapters of my book. I’m currently working on a chapter called “Labeled,” which was inspired by my senior year yearbook of the same title. The chapter is broken into sections by different “labels” I identified with, sought out, or avoided. The chapter starts with an aspirational label of my middle and high school years: “popular.” It ends with one that has remained prominent in my adult life: “writer.”
As I was reading through a draft of the chapter, two words in that last section jumped out at me. “Real” writer. I had noted one way in which I believed I wasn’t like other “real” writers. After reading those words, I thought about how funny they sound. I mean, I really exist, don’t I? I’m not a figment of our collective imagination, so far as I know.
Of course, when I wrote those words, I wasn’t questioning my material existence. I was expressing the doubt I had felt about calling myself a writer. I’m clearly not the only one who has pondered their proximity to the “real writer” label. When I Googled “real writer” and “not a real writer,” a lot of relevant articles came up. Many of their titles were questions, asking what a real writer is and if or when you can call yourself one.
As I read through the articles and reflected on my own experiences, I compiled a list of possible barriers to entry for calling oneself a real writer. Unsurprisingly, this included external accomplishments like getting paid for your work or publishing a book. Some of the list items were qualitative, internal metrics, like diligence or passion. It was easy to find many ways people could qualify what it means a real writer… and in the process, disqualify themselves.
We could spend time fiddling with the “real writer” label, trying to define it in a way that feels more comfortable and less exclusive. Mercifully, most of the writers whose articles I read landed on a simple conclusion: if you write, then you’re a real writer. I agree. But what I’ve been turning over in my mind is not what being a real writer means, but why the term even exists in the minds of so many of us. What is the point of measuring the gap between ourselves and so-called “real writers”?
Maybe we’re trying to locate the point at which we can exhale. Where we can kick up our feet and say, Okay, I’ve made it. Writing can feel like an obstacle course of unknown length that we traverse mostly alone. So, it makes sense that we scan the horizon for a safe landing spot. A point of validation. A way to know for sure that it matters. Our hard work matters. We matter.
The craving to feel the value of your work is so understandable—and not just if you write, but if you build or teach or parent or anything else.
So, I understand why the term “real writer” exists in our minds. Still, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the way I have at times used it to invalidate where I’m at on my journey. At times, the way I’ve used it could be interchangeable with saying I’m not “good enough.” Not having something published yet, not perfectly adhering to a consistent routine… both signs I wasn’t a real writer (good enough).
Don’t get me wrong; having goals is wonderful. Trying to grow is great. Striving is awesome, but I’d hate for us to miss the becoming. The messy middle, when we’re putting in the work, however imperfectly. In so many ways, I think this is the main event. Not whatever we consider the finish line.
I know it would take the fun out of things, but sometimes I wish we could look at the present through the lens of hindsight. It would be so much easier to see the bigger picture and ourselves within it. The bright spots in the most challenging chapters. And how cool it really is to be on the way. Towards people we’ve yet to meet, goals we’ve yet to achieve, roles we’ve yet to grow into. Viewed from the other side, the stumbling path we traveled seems so much sweeter.
I was thinking back to a moment from the summer I was 17, when I had just started to pursue writing. I had big dreams for what I wanted to accomplish, and I really believed I could make them all come true.
I worked at Panera, and one night, the café was pretty quiet. I caught a glance of my reflection in the window. Me in my apron and baseball cap. I don’t know what struck me, but for a moment in time, I had one foot planted in the present and one in the future. I felt how cool it was to be the keeper of my dreams. The one to hold them close until I could release them to reality. Then I thought of my future self. Someday, when I was far down the road in my life as a writer, I would look back on this moment with fondness. I’d step back into the fizzy excitement of the journey beginning.
Neither version of me felt more valid. More real. Both seemed incredibly precious to me.