Dueling definitions: the trouble with labels

I’ve been going to these writing conferences. They can be quite intimidating, especially for an introvert like myself. They are in huge open rooms with florescent lighting and too much air-conditioning blasting from dusty vents. There are armies of tiny water bottles and people who really want you to wear badges.

I go to these conferences to learn how to do the non-writing part of being a writer. These things are about the chatting. The promotion of yourself. The handing out of cards. The perfecting of the encouraging nod at the lady who writes for The New Yorker and who, ironically, is telling a very boring story.

Even though I wish I could just stay home and put letters and spaces together forever without any human interaction – I need to learn, so I go to conferences.

I was at one recently and I was talking to a man. If you were going to cast a movie and needed someone to play the role of “Writer” you would hire this dude. He was old and white and wore a sports coat with elbow patches on it. He carried a leather briefcase that was worn and reminiscent of a saddle. You just knew he wrote with a fountain pen. It was all disappointingly cliché.

We chatted for a little while and then exchanged cards. His card had things like PhD written on it. When I handed him mine, he looked at it for a moment.



Eventually, he raised his caterpillar eyebrows. He made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and that thing you do when you are trying to clear phlegm.

“Writer, huh?”

It was clear that whatever my credentials may or may not be, he wasn’t buying it.

I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Conveniently, I was standing right next to a folding table that held all the published books of the published writers who were not me. The “real” writers who had books you could hold and run your thumb over the SKU number. Perhaps the weighty, profound thoughts contained in those published books would collapse the table, crush me and put me out of my hack misery.

I swore I’d never go to one of those conferences again.

But then I realized — why did this guy get to define me?

I am a writer. You know how I know that?

  • Because I sit down every day at 7:30 am and write. And I don’t stop for the next 5 hours.
  • Because I get up in the middle of the night and run to my desk to write down ideas I have for a story.
  • Because I’ve been writing to comfort myself and process the world since I was four years old.
  • Because if I don’t write for a few days, I get a little crazy.

And yes, my words appear in magazines/blogs/online publications with a byline and a photo — but above all, I am a writer because I say I am. I am the one who gets to define myself. Not Mr. Elbow Patches. Not anonymous internet commenters. Not even my family or friends. Me. Just me.

It gets dangerous if we let other people do our sorting and categorizing for us, regardless of whether we are talking about profession, politics, race or life choices. When others slap their own labels on us, we are vulnerable to their whims and biases. Most dangerous of all: when we let people tell us who we’re supposed to be, after a while, we become inclined to believe to them.

Let us return to the enduring wisdom of Friends for a moment.

Rachel: It’s like all my life everybody keeps telling that I’m a shoe. You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe, you’re a shoe! But what if I don’t want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat… I don’t want you to buy me a hat, I’m saying I am a hat! It’s a metaphor, daddy!

That’s why we love Rachel. She decided to be a hat. But it’s challenging to be a hat. Sometimes it’s easier to be the shoe everyone says you are.

I don’t know if the man at the conference would have been happier if I was a shoe. I’m not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe if my card had said actor or housewife or frozen banana salesperson, it would have made him more comfortable. But for whatever reason, writer didn’t seem to work for him.

So, I say this with the utmost respect: fuck him. Fuck the judgment and the assumption that he gets to define who I am and how I lead my life.

I’m a hat, dammit. A writing hat.

I don’t know what you are. You might be a hat or a shoe or a frozen banana salesperson. You might not really know what you are. That’s totally cool. That’s the adventure and joy of life – you get to figure that out. And that’s a constant process, because you will evolve and then you get to start the self-discovery all over again.

But however it all plays out, the crazy, twisting, hairpin turns of your life, please don’t give the power of definition over to anyone else. It’s your birthright. You get to keep that, regardless of how many tweed jackets, advanced degrees or SKU numbers anyone else has.

You define you.


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36 Replies to “Dueling definitions: the trouble with labels”

  1. Well said. I would have died a thousand deaths in a room of writers and pretend/wannabe writers acting the part and who think they’re somehow better than you (leather cases and all). Keep being you. Keep pursuing the craft. Happy writing to you today.

    1. I read your blog during a much needed break from work today. I’m so glad that I checked my email. I was born into a family of preachers, ministers and lay leaders…whatever they are. I had always felt an obligation to be a preacher but that’s not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a roofer of all things. And I would have been the worst preacher ever…introverted, impatient and the antithesis of long suffering. I have been roofing for 25 years and even as recently as today. I’m NOT an evangelical shoe but a blue collared hat and I have always been grateful that I never acquiesced to that self imposed sense of familial obligation so many years ago. Thanks for giving me something new to think about today. 🙂 –John P.S. I totally pictured the saddle briefcase!

    2. What a wonderful way of putting things. People need to classify everyone (not everyone) because it helps or so they think their own ego and people need to put down others for their own gain. Then of course people need to accept their own faults through others. The world is constantly comparing. Forget about it, keep doing what you do 10 degrees from schools do not make you who you are, you make yourself every day you get up and live a good life.

  2. Amen, Lisa! I’ve been to those conferences, too, and there is always someone willing to tell me how I’m doing everything wrong. Thank you for reminding me that only I can decide if what I do is right!

  3. This made me smile. I love hearing from other writers their own moments of epiphany. Makes me glad I’m not the only one who doubts myself. We can all be introverted, together. 😉

  4. Writing conferences … like going to the dentist and having your wisdom teeth all pulled at once. Loved your biz card! I’m never quite sure what to put on mine because as a writer – like many writers – there are times when I’m dabbling with something else on the side to keep the bills paid. Wait until you hand your card out and hear, “A writer? Yeah, but I meant what kind of work do you do?”

    1. Oooooohhhh. Ouch. Ugg. People can be so difficult. Personally, I think you are allowed to put Superhero on your card if you want to.

  5. Maybe you didn’t mean for the deeper meaning in this blog post, but it was very weight-lifting. I am not a writer, nor have I been to a writing conference (very thankful for that after reading this), but have often found my own definition confused by someone else. So thanks for the reminder to not let anyone else have that power.

  6. let him hrumph and preen in the mirror and enjoy being a legend in his own mind. While we READ all that you are writing (yes, REAL WRITING) today. and yesterday. and the day(s) before – and nodding our heads while we do. You make a lovely hat. And if tomorrow you are a glove or a water pistol or a lizard…..that’s all good too.

    1. Thanks so much for this. And I think tomorrow, perhaps I will be a lizard who wears gloves and carries a water pistol.
      Thank you, thank you – you readers mean the world to me.

  7. A comforting and thought-provoking piece. Nice timing on this one too. I had been considering attending a similar type of conference later this summer. If I go for it, I’ll be sure to keep your advice about ignoring ill-informed judgment in mind.

    1. I’ve actually learned some great things from going to conferences, but they come with a lot of other stuff, too. Take what works for you – and leave the rest behind! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. There’s a problem here with different meanings of what being a writer is. There is being a writer: as a temperament, a behavior, a compulsion, a psychosis, a commitment, and a million other things that make people attack a blank page for whatever reason. On that level, it’s just something you are; it is not something to be validated by others or even boasted about by ourselves. From some angles it’s a talent; from other angles it’s a crutch. I think of it for myself as the latter, but I admit it pleases me when others see it as the former. And yes, that’s for each of us to decide for ourselves, and F the briefcase guy.

    But there’s also being a writer, which can be defined by others in whatever way fits their view. Anyone can claim to be a teacher, but I have pieces of paper that say I have a breadth and depth of knowledge, pieces of paper that verify I have passed multiple evaluations and that I have demonstrated certain proficiencies in actual classrooms with real students. There are over a thousand people out there in the world who can say they sat in my classrooms and that they were loved, valued, respected, and encouraged to give the best of themselves to their communities. That validation (and definition) by others is important, and it’s not meaningless.

    In that respect, I think we all kind of want (and some of us need) a certain validation from others. I have been writing all my life and have even been published in some small academic journals, but I have things in mind by which I will define myself as being a writer when I accomplish them someday. The name on the cover. The SKU. The actual, physical pages. The space on a bookstore shelf. I need them, and they are dependent on others’ valuing what I produce.

    As I write this, I realize that my definition of being a writer is arbitrary and my own, unlike the definitions that earned me the right to call myself a teacher, and that while I have my own specific criteria, I apply them only to myself and would never judge another whose criteria are different. So it all comes back around in either case to how we define ourselves, I guess.

    None of which excuses rudeness, so F the briefcase guy either way.

    1. Yes, I think the lack of official certification is what can muddy the waters in terms of definition of a writer. That’s because it’s art — it’s the same deal as painters and dancers and potters. Formal education CAN create an artist, but being self-taught is no less legit. But I agree with you, everyone needs to make that judgement for themselves, and if you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a writer until you get shelf space, you are entitled to that. And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that bookstores stick around so you can see your name up on that shelf. 🙂

  9. Thank you! Boy I needed to hear this far more than I realized. It is so damn easy to believe what others say we are. It is especially difficult when your self esteem is in the toilet.

    You ARE a writer and I can’t wait till have your books (yes, bookS, because you will write many) in my hot little hands.


  10. Lisa, I really enjoy reading your blog posts! If being a ‘writing hat’ means that you continue to post such fabulous blogs for me to read on my lunch break , then please continue being a ‘damn writing hat!’ – Louise x

    1. Hi Lisa,
      I’m not a writer, did I just define myself? How do you become a writer? Don’t you have to follow rules of grammer (I’m so bad at that!).

      Yes it sounds grimm but like the speaker you eluded to earlier that sounded boring. How does one avoid that in their writing?

      I would like to write engaging content and kind of like your stance and declaration that you are a writer and you made me laugh because you wrote really well and my comprehension of your writing was easy with your description of the “elbow patch guy” I thought was funny.

      I feel like an introvert in my writing, not so much around people perse.

      Any tips Lisa?


      P.S. No harm was intended on any spelling or grammer in the making of this comment! lol

      1. My grammar is far from perfect and spell check is my best friend! Mostly, I think you need creativity, motivation and a passion for words. I wrote a little bit about writing here –> http://wp.me/p3dZAE-bi so perhaps that will answer your question.
        Best of luck to you!

  11. Now that was a good read, totally agree. Kinda weird that I got Friends on blu-ray yesterday, decided to start watching from season one again, and you start quoting the pilot.

    Greetings from the Netherlands!

  12. I have only recently discovered your blog and thoroughly read each post. I must say, I love very piece you’ve written. And after having been encouraged by sister (and of course thinking of your blog) and created my own. So thank you very much for pushing me to make this first step. And thank you so much for encouraging to be braver.
    By the way, this is the link to my “work-n\in-progress” blog… Could you tell me what you think? Thank you, it is much appreciated!

  13. Well said, Lisa, and I agree completely! I am a professional food photographer as well as a culinary student and often new food clients will look at my photography work and put me into a certain “style.” It’s weird when people ask me, “what’s your style?” As an artist, it’s important for me to embrace new styles and to challenge myself. So, I always say: “I’m a photographer with an ever-changing style, but, one that evokes feelings through image.”

    At any rate, carpe diem and keep writing! 🙂

    Thanks for reading!

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