Your Identity as a Writer

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Publications, Reflections, StoryQuarterlyLeave a Comment

This week I’m celebrating one of those little wins in the writing life: An acceptance from StoryQuarterly.

This is for a story from my collection, Dream Studies, which is currently out on submission—and while other stories in the collection have been published in some lovely places, this acceptance marks the largest and most established market I’ve cracked thus far with fiction. (StoryQuarterly is run by the MFA program at Rutgers, and it’s been publishing continuously longer than I’ve been alive.)

Recently, I’ve had family in town, and when I shared this little win with them one night over dinner, there were toasts all around (though I’m sure none of these folks have ever even heard of this journal).

I told my family members something I hadn’t even quite realized myself until then: that I’d been waiting for an acceptance like this since I was eighteen years old.

That was the year I attended the Interlochen Arts Academy. The year I had my mind blown by writers like Stuart Dybek, Jamaica Kincaid, Mary Oliver, and Theodore Roethke.

Laughing, I told my fam, “That was the year I decided I wanted to be great.”

My auntie just grinned and said, “Kid, you’ve always been great.”

Which brought home to me…well, so many things.

When you’re ambitious with your art, it’s easy to let your identity as a writer become your identity, period.

Which is an excellent recipe for feeling like a steaming pile of disappointment to yourself, sooner or later.

Because art is long and life is short, and publishing is a tough industry—one in which the winds are always shifting. (I think many of the novels we loved when we were younger would probably struggle to find a publisher these days.)

The truth is, most of us just have to write what it is we’re called to write, and we don’t have much control over how our literary efforts will be received, despite all best efforts.

I’m sending you this email at a time of tumult and transformation in my life. A time of introspection, reevaluation, and rapid personal growth (never a tidy process).

And a big part of what I’ve been working toward in this time is uncoupling my sense of identity as a person from my identity as a writer—particularly my self-perceived level of success as a writer.

That night, my aunt reminded me that there are people who think I’m amazing just for being who I am.

And it occurred to me that being a writer may in fact just be a symptom of an overall condition I have, and which I think you may have as well—a condition that might be characterized as being perceptive, sensitive, smart, tuned in to the world around you and the people around you.

Which really is something special all by itself.

The irony isn’t lost on me, that just as I’m starting to finally to get some traction with the sorts of markets I’ve been chasing since I was a kid I’m also coming to understand that these sorts of acceptances really aren’t all that important.

What’s important are the people who love you for being who you are.

What’s important is discovering what it is about you that is in fact MOST YOU—and finding a way to express more of that in your day to day life.

So often, when we’re seeking acceptance from others what we really seeking is self-acceptance.

So often, when we’re seeking the thrill of sharing our work with others, the deeper joy lies in the cultivation of what makes our work most unique.

If I have a wish for you today, it would be for your writing to take you deeper into who you really are, regardless of external outcomes.

Increasingly, I’ve come to see that’s where we draw the power necessary to make great art.

Here’s to your stories.

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