On Becoming a “Writer”

When people ask me what I’m up to these days, I get all tongue tied and fumbly. I hem and haw about sort of being more or less kind of semi-retired and then I generally mutter something about doing the occasional bit of trademark work or incorporation work, which I did for 15 years or so, alongside my husband. The truth is, he’s working on his own now. I help him out with a couple of very specific things, but mostly I’m learning how to be a writer.

I still choke on saying it, though. Here, let me try it again: I’m a “Writer.” Nope. Can’t do it. Still doesn’t feel right.

Oddly, I have no trouble saying I’m a writing teacher. In fact, it’s teaching again that has caused this existential hiccup, though what I’m doing now is nothing like any writing class I’ve ever taught before. I do these awesome contemplative writing workshops in which we write as a group, and I’m part of the group but leading and guiding, so of course since I’m, y’know, leading and all, people ask me about my own writing…and then I get all fumbly again. Well, I’m not really a “Writer,” I haven’t been published (well, not in a very long time), I have a blog but I don’t really blog very much, and so on. Until recently, I didn’t even have a name for the kind of writing I do. (For the record, these days I say, essays, creative non-fiction, some fiction, the very occasional poem. It’s a similar answer to what I tell people when they ask what kind of music I play: a little bit of folk, a little bit of blues, maybe some old jazz…)

I also have no trouble calling myself an editor. That’s where I started my (very) checkered career, and I’ve actually done a LOT of that.

But to call myself an actual writer? Um, no.

And this despite the fact that I’ve done at least as much writing in my work as editing, and way more writing than teaching. Writing has always been a central activity for me. I’ve kept journals all my life. I’ve written hundreds of academic papers over the years and as a grad student, I even had a couple of papers published in peer reviewed journals. I wrote for a couple of community newspapers in the 70s and for a feminist newsmagazine in the 80s. I’ve always done some writing for some part of my work, but it’s never been my job title per se (well, maybe once — no, twice) (it was ministerial correspondence, okay?).

Yet still, I haven’t been able to bring myself to think of myself as a “Writer.” But a conscious, daily writing practice is changing all of that for me.

A transformation has been taking place slowly over the past year, as I’ve been working with a writing group with my wonderful teacher, Miriam Hall, who has shown me how it’s done, holding my hand as I’ve taken my first fumbling, stumbling steps from struggling to write three days a week for 5-10 minutes at a time to writing pretty much every day, for at least 10 minutes a day and usually for longer, often a lot longer. As I write that down, I know it doesn’t sound like much — but it’s incredibly hard to do, just like meditation practice or getting yourself to the gym three or four times a week for one lousy hour at a time. Hmmm? You know what I mean. Unless you put it into your schedule, the time just slips by, right?

This transformation has been accelerating because I’ve been making writing a practice, just like my meditation practice, just a little bit, nearly every day. Things started to pick up in July, when I went on an amazing writing retreat with Miriam on Washington Island in Lake Michigan. We wrote every single day for seven glorious days and mostly didn’t talk to each other outside of the group sharing sessions (except for “pass the salt,” or “your hair’s on fire,” see my post on silence). I came back absolutely on fire, wanting to extend the rhythm of the retreat into my real life, to hang onto the steadiness of the practice. And to some extent, that’s been successful.

Then about a month ago, I upped the ante and joined a closed facebook group called “continuous practice,” created and curated by Saundra Goldman. The practice consists of committing to a creative practice for 100 days (mine is 10 minutes meditation, 10 minutes personal writing from the prompt “Where I am right now”) and posting to the group every day. I’m on day 32. I’ve skipped a few days, especially when I travel, but mostly I do it. And guess what? After struggling to post anything to this blog for months, I’ve posted faithfully the past four Thursdays. In a row. A year ago, I wasn’t ready for this practice. I actually said that, oh no, that’s just way too hard. Now, clearly, I’m ready to reap the rewards.

Just as I have come to experience myself as a “meditator” — by meditating regularly — I have also begun to experience myself as a “Writer” — by actually writing. Who knew that it was actually writing that would finally turn me into a writer? It so obvious — and I’d been told, right off the bat. It’s right in the core text I use in my writing workshops, Writing Down the Bones, where Natalie Goldberg tells us that if we want to become writers, we need to just “shut up and write.” That’s what I’ve been doing for the past year, getting steadier all the time, and now I’m finally ready, at 62, to do what I was clearly born to do.

A conscious, daily writing practice is changing my perception of myself, of who I am, what I am. The effects are that far-reaching. Yet writing is still the focal point. Through the practice of writing, writing has become consciously, mindfully, what I do these days.

Huh. I guess that’s what I’m up to these days. Writing.

I am Writer. Hear me roar.

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