What does it mean to be a writer? What function does it serve in our lives?
Around fifteen years ago, as I was beginning to pay attention to the part of me that longed to be an author, I attended an event in which prestigious British novelists were interviewed by psychologists. I was particularly struck by the way in which AS Byatt spoke about being a writer both as a style of thinking about the world and as a role that enabled her to escape aspects that didn’t suit her. Reflecting on her childhood, she said
I was terrified of … the fate of women in my generation. I was terrified of being shut in a kitchen with a washing tub … of the repetitiveness of ordinary things, which can be made to seem glamorous in a novel.
Since then, as I’ve progressively embraced my identity as a writer, I’ve pondered what that means: what it gives us that might be otherwise missing from our lives and what it enables us to avoid.
Although I’ve been scribbling stories since I could hold a pencil, I never considered myself a writer as a child. But, looking back, I can see that, alongside a love of fiction, I wrote to give myself a voice which was otherwise silenced within my family and culture. Even if no-one else read my stories, creating them affirmed my right to self-expression and a mind of my own.
Fast forward into middle age, and I reduced my hours at work to have an entire day to write. It seems an ordinary decision now but felt an enormous gamble at the time. What if this dream I’d quietly nurtured turned out to be based on sand? Yet, before long, I relished this me-time: a space carved out for selfishness within a career – as an NHS clinical psychologist – based upon meeting others’ needs.
Then came redundancy, and early retirement; a blow that became a blessing. While the transition from stilettos to slippers can be stressful for some, I wasn’t losing the support and structure of the workplace, but gaining a room of my own to write. Asked at my leaving party how I’d fill those empty hours, I told my soon-to-be-former colleagues that I planned to finish my novel. I wasn’t surplus-to-requirements if I had another kind of work to do.
Meeting new people a few years on, they tend to ask the more general Do you work? rather than What do you do? I like that I can answer in the affirmative; I like it even better if I can sell them one of my books. In a culture where women, as we age, are increasingly invisible, I’m relieved that there’s more to my identity than volunteer, old hag, or one of those ladies who lunch.
Of course, I write because I love words and stories, not because I want the author badge. But I notice how much my writer identity matters to me whenever it comes under threat.
When a splurge of rejections, or a one star review, penetrates my protective carapace, I’m a little girl with no right to a mind of her own. On the days when writing brings no pleasure, I’m a public servant who ought to be doing something more useful with my time. When I struggle to focus, flitting between tasks, I’m a lost soul with no meaningful occupation. And when, at a book fair, people walk past my stall without even pausing to admire the gorgeous covers, I’m a worthless old crone.
Your own identity as a writer might serve other functions. Perhaps, amid the demands of friends and family, you need permission to close the door. Perhaps, if the day job treats you like an automaton, you need to remind yourself and others you’re a creative soul. Perhaps, like AS Byatt, you need to know you’ve avoided the restricted gender role presented to you as a child. Whatever it is, I think it’s worth having some insight into your own motivation, if only to be better prepared for those odd moments when that hard-won identity comes under attack.
About the author
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity launches on Facebook on November 23rd, 2018, where the more people participate the more she’ll donate to Book Aid International. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a particular interest in fictional therapists.
Find and follow Anne
What shapes the way we see ourselves?
An administrator is forced into early retirement; a busy doctor needs a break. A girl discovers her sexuality; an older man explores a new direction for his. An estate agent seeks adventure beyond marriage; a photojournalist retreats from an overwhelming world. A woman reduces her carbon footprint; a woman embarks on a transatlantic affair. A widow refuses to let her past trauma become public property; another marks her husband’s passing in style.
Thought-provoking, playful and poignant, these 42 short stories address identity from different angles, examining the characters’ sense of self at various points in their lives. What does it mean to be a partner, parent, child, sibling, friend? How important is work, culture, race, religion, nationality, class? Does our body, sexuality, gender or age determine who we are?
Is identity a given or can we choose the someone we become?
Join the party!
An online party to celebrate the publication of my first short story anthology, Becoming Someone. Drop in at your own convenience wherever you are in the world, I’ll be here to entertain you from morning coffee to pre-dinner drinks. The more actively people participate, the more I’ll donate to Book Aid International.
Sugar and Snails promotion
Anne’s debut novel is discounted to 99p or equivalent (Kindle version) throughout November viewbook.at/SugarandSnails
Launching a book?
If you are a writer, artist or photographer…If you have a poem, story or memoirs to share… If you have a book to promote, a character to introduce, an exhibition or event to publicise… If you have advice for writers, artists or bloggers…
If you would like to be my guest, please read the guidelines and get in touch!