I read an interesting post on Write to Done this morning offering tips on how to break through writer’s block. The first tip: remind yourself that you’re a writer.
While I generally find the advice on WTD to be both useful and on target, I have to disagree with that particular tip (the rest were pretty handy). Regular readers know that I don’t call myself a wordsmith; but it might surprise you to know that I prefer not to call myself a writer either.
No, I don’t eschew the term in favor of buzzwords like “communicator” or “content provider,” either. When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them that I’m a writer.
I tell them that I write.
A pedantic distinction? Maybe — but it’s a distinction that can clear up the crippling paralysis of writer’s block once and for all.
The distinction between saying “I’m a writer” and “I write” is in the relationship between your identity and an activity. The former subordinates your identity to an activity that you perform. The latter puts your activity into the context of your identity. To me, saying “I’m a writer” is like saying “I’m a breather.” Like breathing, I need to write to live — it’s a creative imperative, a fundamental impulse. I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to turn that imperative into a way to make a living as well.
But writing is not the only process that I engage in. I am also a walker and a sleeper and an eater — and more. All those processes are intimately bound up in maintaining the physiological and psychological processes that collectively make an identifiable personality.
By tying your entire identity to a single process that you perform, you risk putting yourself at the mercy of its vagaries. Some writing days are better than others — some days I can orchestrate thousands of meaty words together in an orderly, meaningful flow. Other days, I can’t string together a decent three-word sentence.
On days that I can’t write, I don’t feel like much of a writer. Back when I used to identify myself as one, a lack of writing output frequently created a paralyzing crisis of identity. Here I am, supposedly a writer (I would say to myself), and yet I can’t find any words to write. If anyone finds out, they’ll know that I’m not really a writer. What am I going to do?
You, gentle reader, can probably join me in tracing that spiraling descent all the way down to the inevitable crash site, right?
It’s hard enough to be not writing; the added stress of not being a writer only prolongs and deeply confounds what is in reality a minor technical glitch. When you get stuck while writing, you can diagnose and fix the problem much more easily if you’re not simultaneously wrestling with something as monumental as your personal identity.
Whether you write, dance, sculpt, assemble, compile, code, or design for a living, I encourage you to disengage who you are from what you do. If you identify yourself as a figure skater, then one day when your body becomes too ill-suited to be good at figure skating anymore, you will suddenly become a former figure skater.
Which is like becoming a former breather.