Thursday, February 10, 2011

Life lessons: What are you?

What are you?

Notice, I'm not asking 'who' you are but rather 'what' you are. We all have a name we call ourselves; usually given to us, sometimes chosen by us or our friends, usually two or three names strung together, but sometimes only one. While we 'know' each other by these names, rarely do they convey anything at all about us meaningful. So, we label ourselves. We package our identity in words and phrases designed to explain our various functions, jobs, talents, and desires to others. We then use those labels to make decisions about ourself and others.

The moment you were born, and with the medical technology now commonly available often long before your physical birth, you received your first in a long line of labels--son or daughter. Your sexual identity was proclaimed and tagged with the simple sentence, "It's a boy". Next came your introduction to your place in a pecking order; you were either the oldest, the second child, the youngest, or a combination of these things. Sometimes it took years to know if you would be the middle child, or the youngest or where your final place would be. Eventually, this was worked out and you were properly labeled.

Your physical circumstances became labels whether you embraced them or not. Some of us are thinner than others, some are fatter. Some have blue eyes, some brown. Your social circumstances play a part as well. Many get married and add labels of 'husband' or 'wife' to their growing resume of identifying descriptors. Some become parents. Some own pets. We move through school and into jobs. We identify ourself by those things as well.

Beyond these labels that have been applied to us in terms of our relative families, our physical attributes, our fields of study, or our job titles, there are the labels we apply to ourselves. These do not necessarily have anything to do with those that someone else would apply to you. You might consider yourself to be a 'musician'. Others hearing you sing or play might disagree with your assessment. 

It is those self-applied labels that I am wondering about today. What do you list? What don't you list? Why? And, would the people around you who know you best agree or disagree with them?

Some of the things I call myself, like photographer, are things I am relatively competent at but don't pursue as a profession. Others, like musician, are things from my past that are now dormant and not necessarily still parts of me but are labels I'm not yet ready to discard.

Yesterday, an essay by Scott Roche titled "Aspire?" got me to thinking about the label 'writer'. I have been wrestling with the labels 'writer', 'poet', and 'editor' for a while now. I've had a hard time claiming any of these as parts of me. I have hesitated to own them. In large part, because they are relatively new to me. There is also the idea of competency involved with being able to state that I am a particular something or other.

I do write. Almost every day. In one way or another. I am hard pressed to remember days where I didn't create either a blog post of some sort, a poem, or an article. I edit things for other people almost daily, from large novels down to bits and pieces of miscellaneous things. Even as I recognize that I do these things, I have still been reluctant to claim them as parts of myself. Why?

In part, I think it has to do with the fact that so many of my friends are writers or editors these days. Most of them grew up writing and knowing they were writers. They have been crafting words for years. This was most definitely not the case for me. I had a difficult time even learning to read and didn't become a voracious reader until I was ten when I was given the first six Nancy Drew mysteries by a friend of the family who had noticed me struggling to read. From then on, I read constantly. While I read everything I could get my hands on, and could tell someone what I liked or didn't, I couldn't tell them why. Nor could I get my own thoughts or ideas out in any kind of coherent fashion. I avoided writing all the way through school. I would wait till the last possible moment, get a random topic from a classmate that fit the particular type of paper I was required to write (compare and contrast for example), and on an adrenaline rush, crank out the minimum requirement. I usually got a B. But it was a torturous endeavor that left me in a cold sweat for the rest of the day. The only reason I think I was able to write even to a B level was the detachment involved with writing about something random that I had no emotional connection to in any way. When I tried to get my own thoughts out, I end up with a disjointed mess of randomness and not quite getting to the point. I'm hoping this essay doesn't become a case-in-point.

My editing is the same way. I know what sounds or looks right to me. But ask me why, and there is a good chance I'm either not going to be able to articulate it, or the answer will not be in terms you would learn in any English class. Having said that, I began to own the label 'editor' long before 'writer' in part because while I have a lot of insecurity over whether I am a 'good' editor or not, I know I am editing. But that is a question of qualifying my abilities as an editor and whether or not anyone else values my work as such. For now, I have decided to own it. It has become a part of who I am and something I enjoy immensely.

Calling myself a poet was also difficult for me. I've always thought of poetry as such a difficult craft, a rare and beautiful art form requiring painstaking delicate precision--ballet in word form. I hesitate to even say I write poems as more often than not, they write me. How can I take credit for something I didn't really do? They seem to be born in front of me. Often, I look back and read through them and don't even remember creating them. But whether I labor over them and rip them from myself, or they appear effortlessly, I am finally acknowledging them as my creations. And so, I am a poet.

While I have come to call myself a 'poet' and an 'editor' I still had a difficult time saying, "I am a writer". I have attempted to write fiction. Not very successfully. Somehow, I had the idea of 'writer' confused with 'writer of fiction'. I have been writing blog entries for almost five years now and recently started writing non-fiction articles on knitting. for whatever reason, it has taken me a very long time to be able to label myself as a writer.

Perhaps my reluctance with all of these is the desire to have qualifiers in front of them. I want to be good at these. And, without some form of acceptance, I wasn't willing to lay claim to them. I enjoy these things. I wouldn't be struggling to write this now if I didn't feel some sort of need to express myself in some way. That said, I don't want to do these things without some sort of validation.

One of the biggest changes I have been slowly going through is learning to give myself validation. Not just in these things, but in all things. And, in learning that lesson, I can now say that in addition to all the other things I am, I am also a poet, a writer, and an editor.

I would never have been able to learn this lesson (or so many others) without the love, support, friendship, and patient teaching of so many friends. I am inspired and instructed by so many people, their words spoken and written, in public and in private, each and every day. So, thank you, Scott, for sharing your thoughts yesterday and in doing so, helping me clarify mine.


  1. You're welcome! I'm so glad you got some meaning from that.

  2. Accepting who we are, especially when there is expectation attached, is so hard. We tend to judge our own merit and quality, so when we say things like, "I'm a poet," we automatically feel guilty. "Who am I to say I'm a poet... who do I think I am?"

    But acceptance, despite how difficult it can be, is definitely key! This was a great post, Sue. Very thought-provoking and honest. Thank you for sharing it!