The Woman in Front of Me with a Sign on Her Back at the Writer’s Conference

Two rows in front of me, slightly to the right, the woman was wearing an oversized purple T-shirt emblazoned with the word “WRITER” on her back. We were all writers at this local conference, or at least we thought we might be someday, so why did she need to make this announcement? I couldn’t think of any profession that needed such a definitive statement, except raiding FBI agents who self-declare with bright yellow jackets to protect themselves from friendly fire. I do acknowledge that the identity of a writer lacks traditional markers. Doctors, lawyers and beauticians can use their licenses as validation, and those working in a structured job can rely on job descriptions, performance goals and raises, none of which is available to the writer. In addition, writers have few props. Painters require brushes, canvases, easels and a well-lit studio, knitters endlessly search out unique fibers, potters require clay, a wheel and a kiln, and silversmiths a forge. Writers only need a pencil and paper, and the pencil can be found wedged between the couch cushions, and the back of the grocery list will suffice as paper.

The woman’s T-shirt suggested that her primary identity was that of a writer, a scary proposition given that habitual rejection dominates most writers’ lives. I am lucky to have a separate identity as a physician so I can hedge my interest in writing by clinging to this more recognizable role. When asked what I do, I generally say “I am a physician, but I like to do a little writing in my spare time.” More recently I might say, “I am winding down my career as a medical consultant and am spending more time writing.” However, if I drop the physician identity entirely and simply say “I am a writer” I have abandoned my comfortable safety net. If I reinvent myself as a writer, then I need to produce words, those words will be read, and a judgment rendered.

Certainly anyone can “write,” but the identity of a “writer” builds slowly, beginning with internal validation; the writer believes that the subject is interesting to an audience and is communicated in a compelling fashion. The next step is external validation, typically starting with a supportive audience of family and friends, and then progressing to the ultimate external validation based on the brutal honesty of random strangers. Performing and visual artists often have a live audience to comment on their work, but reading is done off stage, in a library, Starbuck’s, airplane, or at night within the light cone of a small bedside lamp. This final external validation can be very elusive.

I participated in a writer’s workshop where a group of students critiqued my work under the direction of a moderator. Even though my essay on the death of my mother left me feeling raw and vulnerable, I appreciated the constructive criticism from this captive audience, and was particularly eager to hear from the moderator. Her credentials as a writer were clear; complete and total strangers had read her words and bought her books. I had also spent good money for her expertise. LeAnne leaned over to me and said, “I want to tell you, I really, really like…” I sat up with glowing pride, expecting that she would say she liked the structure of the piece, the use of imagery, or even better compliment the emotional depths I had plumbed. I outstretched my hand, ready to receive the soft and lustrous gems she would surely drop in my palm. I planned to fondle them and roll them around in my pocket whenever my flickering confidence needed a boost. LeAnne continued, “I want to tell you that I really like your shirt. Yellow looks good on you.” She reached over to touch my forearm. “That’s a nice light weight flannel isn’t it? I was wondering as I looked across the table at you.”

I remember working on that piece, at first struggling with my thoughts and then suddenly feeling a surge of delight as words and phrases percolated up from an invigorated gray matter. I printed off the final draft, tapped the pages on the desk to align them, ruffled them with my thumb to feel the moving air and reveled in the satisfaction that I had produced a tangible something out of nothing. I realized that this sense of internal validation would have to sustain me through casual disinterest and outright rejection.

But this sporadic and mysterious writing alchemy makes me wary of a full commitment to a new identity. What if my internal validation is totally delusional? Where is the T-shirt woman in this process? Did her shirt announce that she enjoyed well-earned validation based on published works, blubs, blog followers, agents or other trapping of success? If so, why did she need the T-shirt? Or was she afflicted with an overblown confidence that far outstripped her talent? Perhaps her T-shirt was a desperate cry for recognition in a dispiriting vacuum of indifference.

Regardless of her motivation, the shirt irritated me as presumptuous. A writer’s identity should be based on the quality of the writing, and not the writer herself. But writers need an audience, and finding that audience inevitably requires self-promotion, a distinct skill that is an overlooked part of the professional writer’s total package. At the very least, the woman’s T-shirt begged for someone to ask about her writing, and with this minimal provocation she could pass out a business card with the addresses of her Facebook fan page, website, blog post, twitter and LinkedIn account.

So here is my take-away lesson. I can applaud the woman for embracing self-promotion, but not her preening message. I may be taking the first step onto a shameless slope, but perhaps I could promote my writing with a T-shirt emblazoned with my blog logo and website address.

Leave a Comment