Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Secret Agent Writer

What is it about calling ourselves a writer that makes the liver quiver and face turn the color of ripe tomatoes?

Last weekend, while visiting an out-of-town church where I had just done a speaking presentation the day before, I was approached by a doe-eyed, 30-something woman in a crowded room.

"Hi. I'm Ellen."

"Hi, Ellen, I'm Debbie."

"I know who you are. And I know what you do."

"What I do?" The way she said it made me wonder which of my secret vices she was privy to.

"Yes. I want to ask you a question." Ellen's eyes darted covertly around the room. She stepped closer and lowered her voice. "I ... I'm going to a writer's workshop in a few weeks and want to know how I should prepare."

"Oh, really? So you're a writer, too?" My voice mirrored my enthusiasm in meeting a kindred spirit.

Ellen's face flushed and she raised both hands as if fending off a blow. "Shhh." She glanced nervously around and whispered, "Nobody knows. And I don't want them to."

I had to smile. I remembered all too well my early writing days when I, too, was a secret agent writer, fearful of being judged and found wanting. Fearful that by exerting my meager literary skills, people would deem me cheeky, impudent, unaware of my limited abilities.

I didn't tell anyone until after my third magazine article was published - not even my own mother. (Perhaps that had something to do with her always correcting my grammar, even as an adult.) It was a good year into my secretive career before I stopped correcting people who called me a writer.

"Oh, no - I'm not a real writer. I'm just a story-teller."

It's a process to admit - even to yourself - that you're a writer. We're not sure what the term actually encompasses and we're hesitant to label ourselves with so austere a title. But I've come to realize that being a writer has less to do with external justification (whether we're published or not) and more to do with internal fortitude.

If you can't not write, honey, you're a writer. Admit it. Accept it. Embrace it.

(Be sure to check out the excellent chapter about dealing with preparing for writer's conferences in Grit for the Oyster: 250 Pearls of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers, beginning on page 207.)