‘I Think I’m a Writer, But What Kind Am I?’

Certainty comes from mistakes.

Dear Yanyi,

First, I want to thank you for all the time and love you put into these letters. I look forward to The Reading every week, and I admire the safe and welcoming community you created. Thank you!

After having been a reader for a little while, it is now time for me to write my own letter seeking guidance and wisdom. I think I'm a writer. I know the reasons why I hesitate to embrace the label (I fear failing to live up to it, I am insecure about my lack of externally recognized work, etc) and have been working to change the way I think about myself and my relationship to writing. I’m very much a beginner in this whole process and I definitely subscribe(d) to the habit of craving validation for my identity and this label of “writer”—I wanted to get prestigious internships and get published and dreamed of being recognized because I thought that was the only valid way of being a writer in the capitalist society we live in, but it only soured my relationship with the craft and paralyzed me.

I am trying to return to writing—for myself, not for the validation, and hopefully with less of the self-imposed pressure and expectation. But I keep running into a block...I think I am a writer, but I don't know how to discover the mode and medium that allows me to live and embrace my truth. Am I a fiction writer? A poet? Or a journalist, an essayist? Some kind of cultural commentator? Or am I a genre-bending question mark? I know that no writer must be defined by a single genre, but I feel lost because I don’t know what ~kind~ of writer I am (which compounds the anxiety of whether I really am a writer). I don’t know what kind of nourishment I need and am seeking. I don’t know what kind of writing will bring me fullness, or what kind of fullness I can bring to it in return. Part of it is that I want to share something of myself with the world, to help and connect with others, and I think I’m meant to do that through writing but I’m not clear on what it can offer to the world or to myself—just that if I were to put some goodness into this wild universe, it would probably be through this odd and complex medium.

I haven’t properly written in so long, partially because of the process of overcoming previous trauma and partially also because of the paralysis I mentioned earlier. I used to think that my purpose in writing (mostly in the form of private journaling, or the odd poem here and there) was to overcome this trauma and express some of the pain I experienced, but I guess part of me was left disappointed because writing didn’t help as much as I thought it would; it didn’t relieve the pain, and maybe it was because I wasn’t good at expressing myself that way. Part of me feels that I failed, that my original purpose for writing must have been misguided because I didn’t succeed. Maybe I should turn to new forms, like journalism, fiction-writing, or essay writing—any kind of writing with more boundaries where I can detach myself a little and attempt to find a new purpose. Am I just running away from myself and if so, how might I find a way back?

Thanks so much for everything,

Tokyo, Japan

Dear S,

You’ve already thought through so much of what I could have said to you in your letter. You know that you’re a writer, that you care about writing, but you don’t know exactly how you’re going to bring that writing into the world. You’ve also had a writing life already, one in which you journaled and wrote poems, thinking that it was to achieve catharsis and to help your pain, but you weren’t successful at the time. You feel as though you’ve already failed once as a writer because of this. Now, it sounds like you’re asking how to start over again.

You’re looking at other genres like fiction, essay-writing, and journalism because you see those as having more boundaries from the self than the highly personal writing you’ve been doing. You want to distance yourself from your previous failure and what you see as a misguided intention for expressing yourself, so naturally you’re looking to forms that seem more direct in their structures and less personal in their content.

It’s true: using your life as the source of your subject matter can be exhausting, a constant wait for inspiration to arrive and for the writing to finally commence. It’s also true that writing, in itself, is not therapy—working through the traumas of our pasts requires outside help with trained specialists and support groups—in fact, you might find yourself writing your way into an echo chamber, an intricate trap that you’ve set yourself rather than the gradual awareness to set you free. The problem isn’t expressing yourself correctly: it’s that the work you needed to do was never something you could do alone.

You’re treating genre as a kind of form or structure, perhaps in the way that you’d choose a major in school. You’re looking outward for a sense of structure so you won’t be bogged down by your own voice. Sometimes structure can serve as permission. At other times, it can be evasion.

You’re afraid of running away from yourself, as you mentioned at the end of your letter. Let me assure you: you’ll never be able to run away from yourself. Writing can only come alongside you to where you are on your journey. It reflects, in fractals and distortions, where we are. We must still choose where to go next, in the end. Sometimes, we choose the questions, but more often than not, we are choosing the answers. Answers, like paint chips, that we hold up against the question of who we are.

Focus on answering the question.

If a genre is an answer, it doesn’t matter what genre you write in: your questions will find you in different expressions. You can’t pick a genre like you pick a major. There’s no one checking whether you’ve completed the requirements of a degree; no survey course; no midterm evaluation for aptitude or talent. The writer’s life is full of starts and stops. There is no penalty for getting along in your own way.

For six years, I worked double-time as a writer and a software engineer. I learned what it would mean to continue in tech: in fact, I could see my life stretching out in the lives of my coworkers, in the horizon of the industry. I also hit a wall with my professional development. In order to advance in the way I was supposed to, I needed to put in more time to software development outside of work. I would have had to give up the time I used to write. No matter how many times I convinced myself and my manager that I would do more, my heart wasn’t in it. I had no reason, outside of professional obligation, to want to do more.

Part of writing is running fast, far, and in the wrong direction. Don’t be afraid of making choices for fear they aren’t the right ones. You must assume, actually, that they are all the wrong ones. To write is a series of improvisations. Your failures give you as much information as your successes, perhaps even more so. Success comes easily: it fits in the mold, arrives softly on the correct landing, but it teaches you nothing about who you are. Early success can leave you without the wisdom of how to learn, leaving you stuck with imitating for what you’ve most been praised. The best success is an aftermath, the trailing indicator of the work.

When I first thought to left my job in tech, I was convinced that I would freefall into failure. My saving grace, contrary to what you might think, was limiting the scope of my experiment. Doing the math of my expenses and needs, I gave myself a runway of a year. If I had not achieved what I wanted as a writer, or if I hated full-time writing, I would go back to tech at that time.

Ironically, it was working in tech that had given me this idea. My company was experiment-oriented, building “minimum viable products” that ran for a certain amount of time, ultimately greenlighting or discarding a feature based on whether it yielded the desired results. The years I spent in tech were not a waste of my time but gave me the principles that have since allowed me to set necessary boundaries and goals for my work as a writer.

The practical advice in order is that you both must not delay and take as much time as you wish. Do not delay on answering the question: take on a genre of your choosing for a year and commit to it, and don’t do it alone. Take a class or join a writing group. Learn everything you can about that thing: audition that life as far as you can. After that year, take what works and leave the rest. You can try another genre. You can take on another art. But don’t delay on taking action. Give yourself the possibility of your life’s multitudes.

S, you once believed that writing’s purpose was to relieve the pain of trauma. This was your first answer. What would your writing look like if you believed something else? What would be your next?

My first answer to writing was that it didn’t matter. I was ambitious—I wanted to do good in the world, make an impact that solved real problems like homelessness or hunger, not hole away for my own pleasure or, more often than not, suffer for it.

It took the people around me—teachers and friends—to rally me back to writing. Once, in a writing workshop, I confessed to a professor that I struggled with what to write. I felt strongly that there was a moral imperative for me to write about the troubles of the world, to use my art as a way of making good, and that it was absurd, but true, that all I wanted to do was experiment with sound. All I could hear in language, at the time, was music. And I wanted to listen to music all day, play it for myself. My professor looked at me without missing a beat and said, well, why don’t you just do that?

Susan Sontag recounts, in an interview I can’t place at the moment, a conversation with her analyst: Sontag loved writing fiction but felt pressured to keep up with her well-received essays, essays that did good in the world and mattered to people. The analyst asked her why she couldn’t write fiction if it was just for her own pleasure? Didn’t that matter, too?

Most of the time, when we’re looking for structure, we’re looking for permission. A well-wrought path will get you to a destination, somewhere someone else has vetted for you. An untouched field will get you your own desire. It will make you move toward what you want. Life is asking what you want from it. If you don’t delay in answering, you will know what you want when you feel it’s fullness. It will have already arrived.

Elsewhere: If you’d like to catch me out in the world, I’ll be doing a live interview with London Writers’ Salon on Tuesday, 11/17, reading at the launch of JinJin Xu’s There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife with JinJin Xu, Anne Carson, and Aria Aber on Friday 11/20, and at Segue with Richard Loranger on Saturday, 11/21.

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