A couple weeks ago I found myself in the office of an ophthalmologist I hadn’t been to before.
“Alright, Jessica, I need you to lean forward, rest your chin here, and press your forehead against this brace,” she said as she turned off the lights. “Now tell me, which one of these is better, one or two?” She continued, “one or two?”
“One,” I answered.
“Okay, now three or four? Three or four?”
“Three?” I said, less confident.
I doubt myself sometimes when answering these questions. The stakes feel so high. Like if I somehow pick the wrong number, I’ll end up with contact lenses that make my vision worse, not better.
I was supposed to see the eye doctor at the beginning of November, but life got life-y, as I recently said to a friend, and I had to reschedule twice, and then outright cancel my appointment. It took me getting down to three days’ worth of contacts with an expired prescription a couple months later to get me in that chair.
“So what do you do?” the doctor asked, flicking the lights back on.
“I’m a writer,” I answered, smiling. I’m getting better at saying this without adding qualifiers.
“What do you write?” she asked.
“Creative nonfiction,” I said. “Mostly personal essay and memoir.”
“Oh, is your publisher here in Madison?” she continued.
I froze. I’ve never been asked that before. The line of inquiry usually ends after I say what kind of writing I do. I blurted, “No, um, I’m not published. I mean, at least not yet.”
She went on with our appointment, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that exchange. Why did I say I am a writer? I should’ve told her my background is in law, or that I used to teach in a clinical program at the university. Those are real jobs, ones I actually had. They involved a salary and benefits. They required an advanced degree and experience. But they also aren’t the now-me. The now-me is writing. And no, the now-me has not been published, not yet, and the now-me is not generating income from my writing, not yet, but why am I suddenly hung up on that? Those are not the things that matter most to me, but it’s hard to push against what our culture values. I’m projecting my own insecurities onto her silence.
The appointment ended, but I continued to be bothered. I kept thinking about various writer friends and the range of their accomplishments. One friend with an essay published in an anthology, another who illustrated a children’s book that was recently published, and even a friend who received an encouraging rejection for a short story she submitted. Then I remembered it: a few months ago, someone I know won an award at a writing conference—and for creative nonfiction, my area of interest. We’d met a little over a year ago on a writing retreat, and have been on a second writing retreat together in the meantime. When she shared the news of her award I was so happy for her. And I was also jealous.
As I continued to perseverate on feeling like an imposter, calling myself a writer when I’ve never been published, I decided to rub salt in my wounds by looking up the award my friend had won. At the very top of the front page of the website, I discovered this:
“A writer is a writer before, as well as after, publication.”
Well, shit. There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Permission, or maybe a reminder of something I once knew but had forgotten? We don’t have to be published to be writers, just like my friends who paint are still artists even if their work has never hung in a gallery. When I started to take writing seriously a few years ago, I never expected publication of any sort was right around the corner. I was brand-new, curious, and fueled by my excitement. Initially, all I wanted was to see where writing might lead me.
Of course I hope publication of some sort is in my future, but in order to win a contest you have to enter. And to get a piece in a literary magazine, you have to submit something. I’ve never entered a writing contest, and until earlier this month the last time I had submitted something for publication was in November 2015. That was also only the second time I had submitted work. I didn’t mean to stop for so long, but the more I learned about craft, the more I wanted to work on my writing before submitting anything else. I’ve been doing that through classes and craft books, and will continue to do so, but it’s time to start sending my work out into the world, even if it’s just in small doses.
For the months of November and December my writing got put on the back burner. Again. That’s okay. This is how our life goes. We contract and expand in the space around parenting and partnering. Then, as the new year began and things settled back into a routine at home, I returned to writing. As I sifted through the sometimes overwhelming volume of writing-related social media posts, emails from online journals, and such, something caught my eye. Brevity, a journal and website I thoroughly enjoy, was seeking submissions for an upcoming episode of their podcast. They were looking for ‘One-Minute Memoir episodes,’ pieces up to 150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). This was the perfect way for me to dive back in after a long, unplanned break. On the day submissions closed, I pulled something together and sent it off with an hour to spare.
I’m still waiting to hear back from my recent submission, but regardless of when I first get published or paid, the next time I’m asked what I do, I hope I will have the courage to continue to answer, “Me? I’m a writer.”