I have read and reread your letter many times. This is what struck me the most, it was in reference to leaving the job: “It’s as if I have turned in my sweatshirt that identifies me as a teacher of writing and therefore as a writer somehow, and I’m now standing here, naked and unlabeled, unsure of who I am, unsure of how others see me.”
I know this place so well. For years I worked as a house cleaner, dusting my own books on other people’s shelves. I was sure that this was not how other writers made a living. I was sure that I was less than. It did not help that I existed simultaneously in two vastly different places, one the literary world, the other the world of blue collar work. One day I stood at a podium before an audience and read from my published book, and the next I found myself on my knees, scrubbing someone’s toilet. When asked at a literary cocktail party what I did besides write, I answered, “I clean houses.” People burst out laughing. They said, “No, really. What do you do?” I had to say it more than once. I had to watch their faces change. I have never wanted to visit the kitchen and get among “my people” so badly as I did during those moments. I felt like an imposter. I couldn’t see myself as a writer because I was looking at myself as I imagined others saw me. I wanted that sweatshirt you spoke of. I was sure that was the secret to actually being a writer. Without it, I would never measure up.
Comparison never works in one’s favor. I can never measure up, because measuring up is not the point. The point is to say yes to the writing, to the characters that show up for me, to the stories. Muriel Rukeyser said, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” It seems that this should be true of a writer’s life as well.
This is all that I want. This is my life’s goal. To be able to write one novel after another. To explore story, to get to know as many different characters as I can before I die, to step into lives I cannot actually live. To me this is the journey of fiction. It is its heart.
Stephen Gaskin of The Farm in Tennessee once said, “Pay attention to which way the energy is flowing.” This has been a guiding principle in my life. Whenever I feel myself overwhelmed or off my path, I need only think of this bit of advice. Is there someone or something that is zapping me, that is taking more energy from me than it is giving back? Sometimes the answer is yes, but the situation is temporary and I know I need only to ride it out. But I always keep in mind the question: Is this an experience I want to repeat? Am I overfilling my schedule for some purpose? You spoke of traveling, of being on the move and getting sick once things slowed down. Travel is very stressful for me. I’m nervous at a reading, but nothing compared to the stress of getting myself from point A to point B. I can do it for my characters in a story, but not for me in real life, not without stress.
For any artist it is hard to know what to say yes to and what to say no to. I have no “public-appearance guiding rule” for this. I can’t know whether or not a teaching gig, or a reading gig will expose me to someone or something important to my career or not. Second guessing only means that I overbook. It also means that I am afraid, afraid that if I don’t make public appearances often enough I will lose my identity as a writer. The only way I can navigate these waters is by faith, faith that I will receive what I need to receive when the time is right, and faith that following my own writing path is the only guiding light I need.
It was writing that finally resolved that house cleaner/writer identity crisis I was having. I wrote a book called A Broom of One’s Own about that life. I explored my feelings and the issues I felt of class and fear and identity. I wrote about how my knees hurt, how I was featured in National Enquirer as the writing maid, what vacuum cleaner bags cost, how I hated chasing other people’s public hairs down drains, how I liked being alone in a house so I could think about the story I was working on. It wasn’t until I wrote that book that I could make sense out of who I am and what my identity is. I couldn’t effectively explore that part of my life any other way except by writing about it. It was writing about it that helped me own it, and make sense of it.
I try now to keep my writing at the forefront of my life. I try not to worry about that elusive “sweatshirt” that will label me as writer. I try not to concern myself with what others think. If I can succeed at that there is no question which way the energy flows. It flows back and forth between me and the universe of story. Wildly, ecstatically, and optimistically. If I am writing all the atoms in my life align.
I love you dearly. xxxoo – Nancy