Writing as an Identity

I was recently listening to an episode of the Secret Library Podcast where host, Caroline Donahue encouraged listeners to consider what their life may look like without writing. 

Initially, I was dumbfounded. Caroline was quick to acknowledge that posing that type of question on a writing podcast may seem a little odd, but that taking the time to truly reflect on that possibility could lead to useful insights. 

For me, if writing was no longer a part of my routine, then whole areas of my life would crumble away. I wouldn’t teach writing, have a blog or YouTube channel, and I’d be losing an activity that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of my time to. 

At its most basic, writing is a creative outlet, but beyond that, it has become the axis from which so much of my life hangs.  

Without writing, I wouldn’t have my current job, many of my friends are writers so we’d no longer have that in common, my days would be a patchwork of errands and empty space, and I’d have to discover a new way to work out my thoughts and feelings on various topics.    

In the podcast, Donahue asks the listener to consider how the feelings or achievements they hoped to get from writing could be met from some other area of their life. 

Perhaps you write as a way to feel seen, heard, and acknowledged. Starting a YouTube channel, joining a theatre group, or public speaking would also give you those qualities. If you write because you are driven to win an award, that is a need that your day job may be able to provide. 

Of course, most of us probably write for a variety of reasons; this hobby is too consuming and nuanced to be driven by a single desire. 

This mental exercise is particularly illuminating as it is a different way of coming at the question: why do you write? Or what does writing do for you?

Personally, I know that when I’m not writing I tend to get restless and bored. Life lacks depth. Writing provides me with mental stimulus and a way to exercise my imagination—a skill that is seldom encouraged outside of childhood. At its best, writing is both a critical and creative process. 

When I’m not writing, I feel off centre, a bit unmoored. 

In many ways, writing has become my identity, and while I don’t necessarily think that is healthy, I also recognise how rare it is to find something that you deeply love and are obsessed with. 

Two qualities that could have manifested into me becoming a serial killer, but fortunately the only thing buried under my floorboards are dead manuscripts. 

Of course, we’ve all experienced wins and joys that have nothing to do with writing. In fact, when you first start out as a writer, it may be some time until you achieve your goals. 

I rarely write when I’m travelling or on holiday because I want to be present with the novelty of being in a new place. Travelling requires us to be outward, whereas writing requires us to internal and inward. 

I don’t miss writing when I’m travelling because I know that this time away will refresh and refuel me. 

If I am at home, however, and for whatever reason writing is unable to be a part of my daily (or to be more honest, weekly routine), the way I spend my time starts to feel purposeless. I become deeply resentful when my days are sucked up with urgent to-dos, and when I’ve gone through particular periods where this has happened day after day, I’ve wondered, ‘is this how everyone else lives? Completing tasks that are urgent but unimportant?’

I’ve worked hard to create a life that centred on writing, but that also means that my relationship with writing has altered, slightly. Writing is no longer a fun way to amuse myself on days off, now it is the one activity I must do to ensure that I continue to progress professionally. 

Publishing short stories, releasing these videos, and blogs are a way to earn immediate approval; they are also a way for potential clients to learn more about me before requesting my coaching services; having a long list of academic publications is a must when applying for teaching positions, and publishing my novels is now a way to validate myself as a writer, teacher, and coach. 

Art marking is important to me, and despite the professional pressures I just mentioned, they haven’t tarnished writing for me—though I can easily see how that could happen.  

And that is the tightrope that most creatives have to walk. 

If imagining a life without writing, painting, acting, dancing, or music makes you feel hallow, then you must create. Art marking doesn’t have to be your fulltime job or a stream of income, but if you contain within you then need to make something out of nothing, then it is important that you honour that aspect of your personality.

If writing is a revenue stream, then getting crystal clear on your priorities and boundaries is a must. What types of art are you not willing to make? How much time do you need to make art that you are proud of? How much empty space do you need to daydream and wonder? What forms of art, media, or experiences give you energy? 

Donahue’s question—what would you’re life look like without writing?—is an arresting one, but the answers it spurs are worth the discomfort of pondering this dystopian nightmare. 

What about you? Can you imagine a life without writing? How important/vital is writing to your happiness/fulfilment/joy/sense of purpose? 

Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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