Being a writer, or Finding Identity in the Middle of Chaos

The COVID-19 pandemic is the plot twist of our time. The global crisis that changed the trajectory of all of our stories. And one thing crises, and plot twists for that matter, do to people as individuals is make them confront their own identity.

For many of us, we’re stuck at home, trying out new hobbies and teaching ourselves new skills, to become the person who makes their own bread and knits their own sweaters and paints along with Bob Ross. Some people may have too much time now— like that Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”—and are dealing with the emotional toll of losing their jobs and professional identities. Others are struggling to balance teaching their kids math while still working their jobs remotely. Still others are on the frontlines of this, confronting life and death every day in hospitals and on the streets and in grocery stores. We all have a story in this time, and it will shape the rest of our lives.

So what does my life look like right now? Honestly, I consider myself one of the extremely lucky ones. For now, I still have my day job. I’m editing while running around after an almost 10-month-old baby who has discovered all the things in the house that can hurt her, and is super interested in all of them. My days are a constant string of feeding others, feeding myself, cleaning up, playing with singing plastic baby toys, checking emails, doing work, trying for some self-care. I am lucky. And I am tired. And like many people in this time, I feel like I’m constantly asking myself “Who am I in all this?”

For most of my life, the answer was easy. I was a writer. I wanted to be a published author. I put all my eggs in that basket. I started “writing books” when I was probably eight years old, aspired to be a world-traveling novelist in high school, went to college for English and creative writing, went to readings and dinners with some of the great authors of our time. I got a job at an educational publishing house at 22, wrote novel after novel, each one seemingly falling just short of being picked up by the right agent or editor. My first verse novel Every Little Bad Idea came out in 2018 and I expected to feel like I’d made it. That I was a published writer, and now I was set.

That was anything but true.

Because writing is hard. Publishing is an industry full of amazing voices. I know this— I’m an editorial director of a fiction imprint, and I have the privilege of choosing and editing amazing words from authors I adore. And honestly, it felt a little too overwhelming to try to join that race again. In fact, I spent a year writing nearly nothing of importance at all, sure my inspiration had run dry. Sure that I had nothing big to say.

And then my daughter was born.

Her birth broke open a well of creativity in me. I started writing poems into my phone while feeding her. I started writing, regularly, every single morning, even if it was only for fifteen minutes at a time. I was writing again! But I did not feel like a writer.

In college, I first read the quote: “Don’t be ‘a writer.’ Be writing” by William Faulkner. I heard it, but I didn’t subscribe to it. Of course I wanted to be a writer, to have the firm identity, to hold a finished book in my hands and know that I created it. But now I understand. Because now I don’t write because I want to be published (though someday that would be nice). I write because I can’t not write. Because stories bubble up like a shaken bottle of root beer. And I have to let it out—even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day.

So—how to be writing, and be “a writer,” in the middle of the chaos of parenting and dealing with a global crisis? I don’t think I have the answer to that. But today, I’ve taken the day off from work. I’ve handed my baby girl off to my husband for a few hours. I’ve pulled up a couple writing projects that have only gotten a few minutes of attention each day. And I’m going to pay attention to them. I’m going to post about writing. I’m going to consider the future of the words I’m putting down.

For today, I’ll be writing, but maybe also do the work of being “a writer,” which is to say, I’ll let in an audience. I know my ideas and thoughts and words are totally all over the place in this uncertain and chaotic time. And really, I’m not sure anything I say has a streamlined point at all, even in this blog post. My brain is a bit scattered lately, which maybe you can relate to. In any case, if you’re reading my words, thank you. And also, take good care of yourself, friends. You have a story to tell too, and I’m listening.

Portrait of "a writer" who actually got dressed for real today.