In my mid-twenties I worked at a sushi restaurant. It was a great (and demanding) job, with a family of co-workers and exquisite food. For some reason I regularly mention to strangers that I used to be a waitress even though it’s been half a decade. Every once in a while I will say that I used to wait tables. Though I rarely think about it, there’s a big distinction I haven’t been paying attention to: I am versus I do.
I think about this juxtaposition these days when it comes to writing. I’ll say, I was a waitress without hesitation, as if it were my identity. But I am a writer? You’d have better luck asking me to sing karaoke stone-cold sober. I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with how much I want it. It reminds me of what Steven Pressfield says: “Self-doubt…reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it…The real [innovator] is scared to death.” (See The War of Art, 2002.) I am scared to call myself a writer, even though I have devoted countless hours and resources to the task. I’m scared that I don’t really have anything to show for it but a massive document on my desktop (am I really a writer if I’ve never been paid for it?). And I am scared that I am not offering a real service to anyone else because it’s such a selfish pursuit (i.e., I enjoy it so much). On my good days I remember a beautiful saying by St. Irenaeus: The glory of God is man fully alive.
On my not-so-good days I realize I feel comfortable saying I was a waitress because I got paid to do it, as if this fact alone determines who I am and what is worthwhile about me. I know that many of you get paid to do something, but it doesn’t define you. Perhaps in your spare time you refurbish antiques or throw pots or coach baseball, and that is what really gets you moving and out of bed in the morning. This makes me wonder what kind of world we would live in if we said not, “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m a social worker,” but, “I’m a potter/coach/refinisher.” Because even though it’s an important thing to be engaged in the economy, and engaged in the world in other ways, it’s essential to do the thing that you’ve always wanted to do, that you love, that your heart beats for, even if no one ever sees it.
There are some lucky you-know-whats out there whose dreams and paychecks align. But as for me, I am a writer because I write and because I can’t not write. I hope I can offer something worthwhile to the world, but I am learning that it’s okay to just do, even if it’s only for me, for now and maybe forever.
Because, after all, I am a writer. I am.
And I can’t help but wonder: who are you?