I have a friend who writes, records, and mixes his own music, often with multiple instruments. But if you introduce him to other people as a “musician,” he’ll be quick to correct you. “I just like to play,” he’ll explain. “I don’t make a living from it.”
It’s a familiar story: Perhaps you write, but you’re reluctant to call yourself a writer. After all, you add, you haven’t been published, or you don’t write every day, or you aren’t earning a living through your written work. You need to write, of course—it moves you, helps you make sense of the world. But if you tell people you’re a writer, won’t you be discovered as an imposter?
Nouns do powerful work this way: They prescribe an identity to a person, whereas the safe and trusty verb suggests a mutable state of being: “I am a writer” versus “I write.” But declaring an identity can be a meaningful form of empowerment, and it’s often the first step toward acknowledging and working toward the goals that matter most to you. At StoryStudio, we firmly believe that if you write, you’re a writer. And you don’t need a degree or a fancy certificate to make your writing career work for you.
I came to this understanding when I decided to get an MFA in creative writing several years ago. I’d felt stuck in that loop of “I love writing, but I’m not a real writer,” and needed permission to expand my writing life. Even so, the experience wasn’t seamless: I got accepted to a program, moved to New York, and then quickly realized how hard I’d have to hustle to afford living there. So I got a full-time job and worked at it intensely, carving out time for my classes on the side. There were no writerly parties; no immersive campus community. “Is it worth it?” some friends asked. Yes, I said. “But is it necessary?” they added. Not to find fulfillment, I acknowledged. Here are the top three privileges I experienced in my MFA program that can be nurtured without being part of one:
Finding your community. Some of the best connections I’ve made as a writer have come from classes I’ve taken at StoryStudio or through writers’ conferences, not to mention people I’ve met at random office jobs. Find the peers you connect with and stay in touch, either as accountability partners (“Let’s send each other work every Thursday!”) or to enliven your habit through exquisite corpse activities or visual prompts sent in the mail.
Developing your voice. You already know that extensive writing and reading is what truly refines your voice over time. Any workshop can help, too, as you’ll typically be exposed to authors you hadn’t known about or yet read; discover elements in your drafts that amuse or confuse; and take risks. Development is all about invention and growth. Read weird or unusual stuff even—or especially—if it’s outside of your comfort zone, and experiment with genre.
Permission to write. No one is going to tell you it’s time to log out of Netflix or put down your phone or get out of bed an hour early but you. Even if you only have ten minutes each day to write, it counts. Amid all the responsibilities you have to other people, this is one way you can be kind to yourself, too.
But first, repeat this mantra: I’m a writer; I’m a writer; I’m a writer.
Emily Buckler is the studio manager of StoryStudio Chicago, where she oversees creative programming. Previously, she was the senior publications editor at The Council of State Governments Justice Center, a criminal justice nonprofit in Manhattan, and the editorial project manager at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, in Washington, DC. She has taught English and creative writing in the U.S. and South Africa. A graduate of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA program, her work has been featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts program; The Southampton Review, Open Palm Print, and The Volta Blog, among others.