art family history pragmatic historian writing

Becoming a Writer

Several of John Scalzi’s essays/blog posts in his book “Don’t Live for Your Obituary” are sticking with me such that I want to bounce off them with my own blog posts.

One such post is called “Imposter Syndrome, or Not” (page 395-401 in the book, dated January 30, 2016 on his Whatever blog). Scalzi opens the post discussing how so many writers suffer from Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that they’re just not good enough at writing and at any moment someone’s going to call them to the mat for it and their lives will be ruined. Artists and other creative types tend to suffer from this, too.

Scalzi then goes on to discuss how he has never had Imposter Syndrome, which he says “isn’t an accomplishment, mind you, or something to brag on. It’s just an observation: at no point in my writing career did I ever feel like I didn’t deserve to be where I was, doing what I was doing.” (pg. 396) He then goes on to list the reasons he feels he never developed Imposter Syndrome. (Scalzi likes numbered lists and provides 6 factors he credits with his not feeling like an imposter as a writer.)

This led me to considering how I, too, have never suffered Imposter Syndrome as a writer and how I became a writer. Unlike Scalzi, I did not know when I was a kid that I would ever identify as a writer. I saw myself as an artist first and foremost, which seemed far more tenuous than being a writer while I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. As Scalzi points out, at that time you could get a job at a newspaper if you wanted to be a writer, but I was well aware of the starving artist stereotype at the time.

Artists were considered to be flaky and terrible with money. In college during the ’80s, when I was earning my BFA degree in visual arts with a weaving (yes, weaving!) concentration, we weren’t taught anything about how to turn your art into a business. That came later, when my oldest son was in high school and college. (He attended the Perpich Arts High School during his senior year and got some artist-as-entrepreneur training there, including haveing to write a grant, so this wasn’t your typical high school art department experience, but still, the instructors understood the importance of not letting artists starve for lack of practical money-making knowledge.)

Instead, I learned business stuff, like how to do bookkeeping and read profit & loss and balance sheets, just out of college, when my husband and I took a program through a local community college on how to start a small business that led to us getting a loan to start a neon sign shop. Erik, my hubby, had taken a 6-week course in making neon signs, so he made the signs while I handled the bookkeeping and other practical matters. Come to think, I was the one who wrote the business plan during our course, too.

I see that I have to back up in my story just a bit and explain how I came to see myself as an artist. I have an artistic family. My Grandpa Jens was a landscape painter. He had hundreds of large landscapes that he had painted stacked in his house when he moved to a nursing home. When we’d go visit him and Grandma Bea, he’d show us his paintings, taking them out of the stack one-by-one and setting them on his homemade easel so we could get a good look at them. He was primarily self-taught through correspondence courses. He would have preferred to be a portrait artist, I think, because he loved people, but it was hard for him to find people who would sit for him. Bea would occasionally and we’ve got sketchbooks where he had drawn her portrait.

Grandma Bea herself was also an artist, making dollhouse dolls and furniture and the like. She could also draw, which we found out after both she and Grandpa had passed away. We found a collection of famiily stories she had written that was illustrated with her drawings of her siblings.

Bea and Jens were my dad’s parents, but my mom’s side of the family was artistic, too. When you’re surrounded with artists, it’s pretty easy to become an artist by osmosis. I was drawing and doing fiber arts and painting all through childhood and was never discouraged from doing so. In fact, my artistic pursuits were actively encouraged by everyone around me. This was John Scalzi’s experience with writing as a child, one fo the factors he thinks kept him from Imposter Syndrome. I would say the same goes for me with being an artist. I was steeped in art; I was encourage in art; I became an artist.

Was there any question I’d get an art degree in college? Nope. Or that I’d take a concentration in weaving, which was dying as a concentration when I attended St. Cloud State University? Nope. I was interested in it and had a natural aptitude for it, therefore that was what I was going to do. I did not worry about how I was going to make a living from my weaving degree.

Straight out of college, literally my last quarter at college, I was pregnant with our first child, our oldest son Ian, who was an artist as soon as he popped out of my womb. You may laugh at that and think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. In between crying continuously from colic (that turned out to be a milk allergy), he would stare and stare at an ornate light fixture in Erik’s parents’ house, where we were staying at the time, taking it apart with his eyes. By the time he was 4, he was drawing intricate drawings that were beyond most 4 year-olds. By first grade, he was incorporating foreshortening in his drawings, a skill that is often beyond art students in college. The art is strong in this family and I’m pretty sure Ian has never suffered Imposter Syndrome either.

As I was having our 3 children and mostly being a stay-at-home mom, I kept practicing my art because I enjoyed it, because I can’t go without making something for very long, and because I wanted my children to grow up seeing their mom had a life outside of being a mom.

Between the births of our daughter and youngest son, I took a part-time job with the local tourism bureau, where I had an opportunity to do some work-related writing. I did not think of myself as a writer at this point, though I had done well enough on most of what I had written through high school and college. I got an A+ on my final research paper for the challenging Research Paper class I took in high school. I was very pleased with this result, but I had also worked my butt off to get this grade.

While working the tourism job, I noticed (or it was pointed out to me) that my writing was too stiff and academic for trying to encourage people to visit the area. I needed to loosen up a bit. My mother-in-law gave me just the right piece of advice to shift my writing. She said I needed to paint a picture with words. As an artist, that metaphor made perfect sense.

I didn’t start thinking of myself as a writer until I had been working several years at the local historical society, which involves constant writing. This was a process that unfolded over many years. While I was writing at work and discovering that it was one of my favorite parts of work, I was reading a lot of books on writing. I also started a blog, which led to many other blogs over the years and an ethic of constantly creating written content. And I determined that as much as I love creating art, I was never going to be an artist who pumped out enough pieces to produce a significant income, nor did I want to. But writing allowed me to make a living while being endlessly creative in a condensed form with very few supplies. Plus, I was fast at it and got pretty good feedback on what I was writing.

All of these factors contributed to my coming to think of myself as a writer, however, something I read in one of the many writing books I had devoured really clinched it for me. You are a writer when you decide you are a writer and actually do the work of writing. It is as simple as that. It doesn’t matter whether you are published or anyone else likes your work or even reads your work. You can call yourself a writer and as long as you’re writing (and, I might add, enjoying writing), voila!, you are a writer!

For me, the fact that I came to writing through years of work and encouragement and after being an artist who never felt like an imposter seems to have kept me from developing Imposter Syndrome. I’m grateful for that.

I’m going to end this long post with a link to one more of John Scalzi’s blog posts. It’s on page 461 of the book “Don’t Live for Your Obituary,” where it is simply called “Writing.” He captures so well the essence of what the act of writing means to him, but it’s also what writing means to me. He says,  “… in the act of writing I have been able to define myself, to myself and others.”  Yup, that sums it up.