Please welcome a fellow Gotham teacher to Bloomer. Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World. Here’s a post by Sonya:
Students often ask me, “When did you know you were a writer?” The question is so laden, so bursting with adolescent angst.
And I don’t mean that in any kind of condescending way. I have come to think that we never really grow up, not in our most tender, verdant souls; that adulthood is a very nice and useful idea that allows us to function in a complicated world and give wise-ish advice to people younger than us; that we are always both hungry for attention/recognition/love and terrified of it – that look-at-me/don’t-look-at-me contradiction being, a friend of mine who studies adolescent development tells me, the hallmark of adolescence.
(Case in point: my debut novel, LONG FOR THIS WORLD, was just released earlier this month, and I find myself, on a moment by moment basis, oscillating between hoping that a major literary publication, or maybe a more mainstream publication, or a hip-and-smart blogger, reviews it; and counting the seconds until I can go crawl back into my quiet little anonymous (i.e. un-googlable) life and finish writing the next book.)
So the question, “When did you know you were a writer?” is an identity question, a self-worth question, a personal freedom and fulfillment question, a nascent creative soul’s hungry question. And loaded into the question seems to be a ground-zero that tethers the asker to a primary or base identity — something presumably more real, more acceptable, more common, more stable. To be a bank teller, you apply for the job and show up every day for work; to be a writer, you have to know – via, perhaps, some mystical experience – that you’re a writer.
Hmm… Marilynne Robinson said it best: “You are a writer when you are writing.” My God, how simple – simplistic? – and yet how true. Do not roll your eyes, reader, as if I’ve heard that one before. As we evolve in our work lives, piecing together various kinds of work to earn money, step-by-tiny-step nudging out the non-writing stuff and making the writing central (or at least that which is writing-related), I find it to be even more starkly true: I am not a writer when I am doing a reading and answering questions about the writing of my novel. I am not a writer when I am grazing on wine and cheese at a fashionable literary awards ceremony. I am not a writer when I am teaching, i.e. talking about craft and helping others with theirs. I am not a writer when I am Facebooking other writers or keeping up on literary blogs or rearranging my formidable bookshelves. I am not a writer when I am drinking coffee in Brooklyn at the table next to a handsome, bookish type named Jonathan.
I know I am a writer when I am writing. When I am working with words, when I am making ideas and characters come to life with language. When I am laying out the pages on the desk and taking my blue ball-point pen to chunks of text that I know don’t work in the story, when I am losing myself while typing a paragraph where something terrible, or euphoric, or quietly illuminating is happening. This may sound naïve, and perhaps you will find me here blogging in five years saying something different, but I feel strongly that I must be an honest book tourer/literary speaker/teacher; I must be writing while I am talking about writing. Otherwise, I feel like a fraud. Even if it’s just an hour of work on novel #2 in the morning because that’s all there’s time for, or even if I’ve been working on the same damn narrative arc problem in a short story for three months, I know that I cannot stand in front of you, dear asker of the question, and exhort you to “show, don’t tell” or “up the emotional stakes and conflict” or “quit your day job! Art first!” if I am not myself at the writing desk, messing with words, living in the trenches (and heights) of which I speak. I certainly cannot talk about “when did I know I was a writer” if I have not just come from, or am on my way to, sitting down to write (or, in many cases, rewrite).
YOU are a writer if you are writing. No kidding. THAT is “how it feels” to be a writer; nothing more, nothing less. I sit with my students, who’ve been writing three stories per ten-week session, along with analyzing all the wonderful master-writer readings and thoughtfully critiquing one another’s work, and I tell them: right now, you guys are writers. Someone once said, “The secret to staying married is to not get divorced.” The secret to being a writer is to not stop writing. Show up for work.