More Thoughts on Labels


Lately I've been reflecting on a post I made several months back questioning the nature of job titles. If you haven't read it, you should do so before continuing. One of the events that prompted my revisit to the subject was reading Annie Dillard's book on writing, The Writing Life. I've read a few books on writing, and most of them seem to offer advice that is so completely off-the-mark with the way I work that I have trouble fitting their ideas into my life. Dillard's book was no different. Although I enjoy her writing, her approach to "being a writer" seems totally foreign to me. She seems to be a member of the group of writers who sees writing as a personal struggle to overcome. Many of Dillard's personal anecdotes center on her paralysis and self-consciousness as a writer. There seem to be many books on writing that follow this same tack: writing is something you need/want to do, but somehow you also create an invisible barrier that prevents you from getting it done, so here's a book of psychological tricks that will allow you to fool yourself into getting writing done. I'm not totally blind to the idea--I understand that creative practices in general can be anxiety-inducing, particularly for people who might hold themselves to really high standards (as Dillard certainly does). Aside from the pleasure of reading Dillard's prose, the only useful thought I really took from The Writing Life was an idea Dillard had about self-labels. Here's the passage:

"if you ask a twenty-one-year-old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushingly, 'Nobody's.' In his youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work's possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks."

Dillard's ideas seem accurate to me, so naturally I started to rethink some of the ideas I'd had about "calling myself a writer." Re-reading through my previous post on the topic, I realized that I made it seem as if I had never once been interested in being a writer until I sat down to write my novel. That's not really true, though. I have years of old notebooks with ideas scribbled in them--ideas for video games, for poems, computer programs, songs, and yes, even novels. To be perfectly honest, what always excited me about these ideas was what Dillard describes: "the thought of [myself] in a hat." Now looking back on my early twenties, it seems like most of my goals were to be seen in a certain way, rather than to actively and passionately do stuff I loved. I wanted to be the kind of person who had written a novel. Who had published a collection of poems. Who had released a three-part genre-bending series of albums. Even my initial decision to study English in school was fueled by the fantasy of standing in front of a class of students, saying smart things and watching them take notes. In truth, though, for all of the desire I had to be recognized for these activities, it seems now that I took surprisingly few steps to actually doing them.

To be fair, I did take a lot of steps to becoming an English teacher (fancy that, I actually became one), and I did record a lot of music. But these accomplishments affirm Dillard's idea that a love and understanding of the work comes first. I listened to tons of music and loved it. Although I was pretty terrible about doing my actual homework in college, I spent those ten years studying my teachers and the way they taught. I owe my success as a teacher not to the diploma that says I am a Master of English ("the hat"), but to the interest I took in the actual work. So then, the narrative I spelled out in my other post seems to be a little off-the-mark. Maybe finishing the novel had nothing to do with calling myself a writer--maybe it had everything to do with finally falling in love with novels, or as Dillard would say, learning my field and then loving it.

The best book on writing I've read is called On Writing, by Stephen King. It is short and practical and no-nonsense--it works well for me. Thinking about wearing hats sent me back to On Writing, where I found a passage that seems to affirm Dillard's ideas and also offer a better explanation for my writing situation than the one I offered in my previous post. King writes,

"The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly."

King seems to suggest much the same thing as Dillard--if you want to write things, you need to read things. He echoes this idea several times throughout the book. Notice, though, that King also gives the reader "permission" to read and write. What is with that? I'm starting to think permission might actually be an important aspect of pursuing creative work like writing.

In my previous post, I wrote, "I literally told my wife, 'I've decided I'm going to be a writer now.'" Previously I read this moment as a "performative utterance," where the act of calling myself a writer actually made me into one. Now I think that's kind of BS, though. Now when I read that line, it seems like I was kind of asking for permission. At that moment in my life there was a huge, important change on the horizon: the birth of my child. Doesn't it seem pretty irresponsible to decide, at that moment, to start spending four to six hours a day sitting in front of a typewriter? "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." - Sonmi-451, Cloud AtlasI'm fairly certain now that the reason I told my wife I was going to be a writer wasn't to "own" the title and consciously fill the role of a writer, but to essentially tell her, "hey, I've been reading a ton of books and I'm really falling in love with writing and I feel a strong urge to write a novel, and I know you're feeling sick and heavy and irritable all the time and we are going to have a tiny, needy stranger living with us in a couple months and who knows how things will turn out, but can I have your permission to spend a third of my waking life in an imaginary world, isolated from you and our child, making no money whatsoever?" To me, that sounds like a more realistic, plausible reading of events than the magical, "power of words" one I offered in my previous post. So I've come to think that naming (hat-wearing) is not as important as I once thought. In fact, maybe our titles don't really matter much at all (unless we're still narcissistic twenty-somethings). Maybe what matters more is feeling like our actions are responsible and welcome in lives that are not solely our own.