Last month, after a year of a friendship/business relationship, my business partner and I parted ways. The details of this split I won’t share here, suffice it to say the differences between us we’d hoped served as a complement to one another no longer held up, and the fissures in our personalities and work styles became more ever-present, until there was an explosion, and then it was over.
And it’s fine, really. I’ve spent enough time mourning it to understand that it really is fine. Running a business without any prior knowledge taught me a lot, and importantly, set me on a totally new path that I hadn’t known (or believed) that I could explore. I’ve gotten better at photography, have a deeper sense of what makes good design (after always admiring both of these from afar), and am on my way to learn how to code so as to better apply the skills of good design. It will be certainly challenging, and something I wouldn’t have ever considered if you’d asked me in my twenties. But yet here I am, applying the logic theories I learned in high school and never thought I’d revisit, learning to code.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Not exactly, anyway. I want to talk about identity, and how we have become more than accustomed to equating our work as our singular identity. I’m guilty of this, too: from about 2010 through 2017, I would only identify as a writer. If you’d asked me, I’d tell you it was the only thing I did, period. And it was mostly true; my work and my creative life were separate, but my work was also as a writer. If I wasn’t teaching it, I was doing it — legal briefs, marketing content, and grants. At the same time, I was attending grad school for creative writing, writing my first (unpublishable) and then my second (admittedly better) novel, and publishing my short fiction and essays. I was a writer, writer, writer.
And social media only emphasizes this. Instagram wants us to have a “brand.” To be able to summarize our multitudes into one quirky bio line meant to tell everything anyone is supposed to know about you. (One of the funniest things I’ve seen all year is this greeting card by Emily McDowell Studio, where a frazzled woman realizes that suddenly, shit, she forgot to create a personal brand.)
So, my brand was “Writer.” And I was a writer. Right up until I wasn’t. Or, until I wasn’t that only. I was that, and.
It happened slowly, I think. It was August 2015, and I had spent two weeks in the middle of Nebraska furiously finishing first draft edits of my novel. When I returned home, I was certain what I had was solid. I submitted to agent after agent and received several rejections punctuated (thankfully for my sensitive ego) by some interest. One agent, my current agent, had taken to the novel, but wanted a full revision. In the spring of 2016, I dove back in for another solid six months. I feel like I barely talked to anyone during those months. I didn’t have the headspace or capacity to write in the evenings, so I was waking up god-awful early before my full-time nonprofit job to get in at least an hour of revision. I don’t think I saw my friends. I wasn’t very kind to my boyfriend. But I did it, because I was a writer (!!!!)
But the beginning of 2017, I was exhausted. The previous months of carefully writing what I hoped would be a strong (and satisfying to my agent) revision had been emotional. I was both thrilled that I had interest and yet had to constantly battle the voice telling me I wasn’t good enough. And I was creatively drained. Every idea, every character I loved, had gone into that book. I felt like I had nothing left. And so, I stopped writing, and stopped, too, identifying as a writer. Instead, I started a business, and tried to take on a new identity as an entrepreneur. But that definition never quite fit.
Even though I did fall into the trap of identifying myself solely by the work I did, I had always been uncomfortable with the idea. In the summer of 2009, right after graduating college with a degree in English, I was floating, meandering, with no job prospects (hello, recession) and no clear path forward. I never knew how to answer the question, “What do you do?” which, we know, means more of “Who are you?” than “How do you spend your waking hours?” My waking hours were spent mostly scribbling lines into a notebook, bartending at *the* divey-est dive bar, and eating pita and hummus.
I remember during this summer of floating, I spent three weeks living with my cousin and her family in Portland, Oregon. I was being introduced to lots of new people, and I still hadn’t quite figured out my personal pitch to the “What do you do?” question. But then, a neighbor of my cousin’s completely flipped this question on its head when, upon meeting me, he opened with: “What do you like to do? What are your hobbies?”
I don’t actually remember what I said. At the time I was 22, so I can only guess my answer was something like this: “I write creative nonfiction and I’m trying to learn to play the guitar and I’m figuring out if I like Bikram yoga and I drink too much white wine and I’m trying and mostly failing to be vegan.”
Which, I’m declaring now, is going to be some version of my new answer when asked “What do you do?” Because that’s the point, right? We’re not meant to have just one thing encapsulate our entire identities, and we’re not meant to hide away the parts of our life that don’t neatly fit into the box we’re presenting to the person who’s asking the question. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, and to be okay with it. But I’ma shout it. Because, damnit, I contain multitudes. And so do you.
And so. Here I am: an early 30ish woman with a graduate degree in Creative Writing and a published novel (if all goes well) on the way, with an interest in photography and design, who is terrified of climate change and has a strong desire to contribute positively to the world in some way during her short tenure on the Earth. She eats vegan most of the time, has a daily coffee habit, sometimes over-indulges in red wine with her friends, enjoys art and red lipstick and vintage clothes, is conflicted about marriage, worries about the education system, wants to raise a feminist, is constantly trying to learn Spanish and is always just about to leave Philadelphia for good, even though part of her still kind of loves it. She can jam out to both Otis Redding and Drake, and she misses the old Kanye. She can be excited and sociable, but also recharges with quiet and solitude. She still writes stories when she can, and is pursuing a career in tech at the same time.
She’s complicated, like everyone. But mostly, she will never be able to devote her entire self to just one thing, because life is short, and there’s just too damn much to explore.