What do you say when someone asks, “And what do you do?”
When someone asks what I do, I say I’m a writer, or sometimes a novelist, but I never say I’m an author. Most writers I know are the same way. It sounds humbler, I suppose, more like what we do instead of what we are. And yet perhaps there’s more to it. To be an author, after all, means to have authority. Doesn’t it?
Years ago, I sat next to a well-respected literary publicist at dinner. When I introduced myself as a “beginning writer,” she gave me a piece of advice: “Act like you’re already the successful writer you intend to become.” Her words were revolutionary to me—how could I do that, when it was all in my own head? Then, in 2007, my first novel came out and suddenly I had not only a book but also a new persona as published author. The hard physical evidence of a book conveys authority unlike anything else, makes it easier to speak to a group of students about writing or answer questions from the audience at a reading—or even tell the person next to you at dinner that you’re a writer. But as I work on a new novel I’ve come to realize that the struggle for authority is not only a question of publication, but is in fact present every time we sit down to write. Each act of writing is an act of self assertion.
There’s a famous story of Toni Morrison telling an audience of writers, “If any of you feel you need permission to write, I’m giving it to you.” The problem is this permission, this authorization, isn’t something you receive once; it must be claimed over and over. Writing is such a strange thing to do, sitting alone in a room, making stuff up. There are no guarantees, of any kind. And no matter what you’ve already accomplished, with each new project you must start afresh. We need authority when we begin to write, but we also need it to continue to write when we get stuck or lose our way or our confidence.
Recently I found a group of my old stories. Well, the beginnings of them. Each story ended abruptly about a page and a half in. I was surprised, not because they were well written (though they were fine) or because they were compelling (though I did want to know what came next), but because each had a distinct tone of authority. These stories had the right to be told. But they were truncated, I knew, because of my lack of confidence, my insecurity about my status as an author. I didn’t feel authorized to tell them. As a young and inexperienced writer, I sometimes confused the act of writing—the hard, uncertain work of inventing—with the ease of reading. I thought stories should just come. Now I know better, and I know the process better.
The motto for my MFA program was, “I will try.” My friend and I cracked up when we discovered the words written in gold on the back of a Windsor chair in the lounge one night. How unassuming, how un-ambitious, how, well, pathetic, we thought. And yet. It’s not a bad motto for a writer. Authority isn’t always about force or might or conviction. It’s also about faith, in the process and in oneself. It’s about doing what feels uncomfortable, acting as if you’re confident when you’re not, continuing the scene or story or novel even when you’d rather read someone else’s beautiful, seamless, apparently effortless (and already published) book.
Alexandra Enders worked as a magazine editor and writer before getting an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. She has published stories in iBOMB, Hunger Mountain, and Critical Quarterly, and is the author of the novel Bride Island. She lives with her husband, daughter, and dachshund in New York. Visit her at her website www.alexandraenders.com.