So there’s the name you are bestowed at birth, the one on that certificate with the curlicue border that you can never find when you need it for some official purpose.
Then there’s the name you get from your mother or your older brother or your cousin that highlights some attribute that only they see, or maybe, their rhyming abilities – like in my case, Ellie Bellie, Ellen Ellen Watermelon or, my personal favorite, Ellen Blum the Sugar Blum
For whatever reason, these are the names we are given.
And then there’s the name that, when the time is right, you give yourself. It’s the word you highlight on your resume, business card, or office door. It’s the one that follows your signature on your email, declaring who you have chosen to be in the world rather than what others have chosen to call you. It announces, with authority, how you spend your days, and perhaps even hints at what you see as your purpose in life.
For me – and I’m going to guess it’s also true for many of you – that name I wanted to claim for myself is writer.
But even though I’ve written almost every day since I could first hold a crayon and scribbled über-derivative Dr. Seussian rhymes and my feelings into diaries, wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, amassed a bunch of bylines and even published a book of essays, I couldn’t comfortably call myself writer until three years ago.
Let me explain.
To watch me at a keyboard or with a pen and yellow pad in hand, I looked like a writer, but I felt like an imitation. When people would ask me what I did, I’d say, “I’m trained as a journalist,” or “I work in publishing,” or “I’m a writer for hire.”
Some of this comes from being raised by parents who were invested in me earning a living. I know I’m far from alone on that score.
The reason I couldn’t call myself a writer, in spite of the fact that I was always writing, is because I thought being a real writer meant being someone who uncovers and reveals truths about herself and her life. I’m a lifelong journaler, but that writing wasn’t for publication or money. That writing felt more personal, like breathing myself onto the page. This should have been a clue to me, but clearly I wasn’t seeing what I wasn’t seeing. To me, being a real writer meant opening veins, spilling blood and showing the fleshy undersides. I was more comfortable dressing it all up.
About being drawn to the page, Joan Didion wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I remember reading that line and screaming silently to myself, thinking, “Wow, Joan! Life is already hard enough. Why choose this?”
I was a writer who couldn’t call herself a writer until I saw myself reflected back…in another writer.
But it wasn’t her words on the page.
It was her flesh and blood personhood.
Lee was a colleague at the university where we taught freshman composition. Though I had a masters degree in journalism, she had an MFA, and though I had pages of bylines that pop up on Google, she had several short stories published, one earning the title of “Notable” in theBest American Short Stories series.
To me, Lee was the real deal. Her work was truthful and personal, but she was also funny and self-deprecating. We became fast friends. During school breaks, we’d head out of town for a few nights of self-imposed writing retreats at monasteries or low-rent motels, she to work on her novel and me on my essays. We wrote and wrote, and over meals in-between writing jags we talked about structure and detail and voice and process. I became more practiced in the art of talking about my work, and providing constructive feedback for another writer.
When Lee and her husband bought a house in western Illinois and invited me for writing weekends, I felt what it was like to write for long periods of time. It was scary how comfortable that felt. The time flew and our work grew and our conversations became more layered. We’d joke that we were writing at Ragweed, a less posh version of the writer’s retreat in Lake Forest called Ragdale: a place I’d always dreamed of going because that’s where thereal writers went.
Lee rooted me on- and I, her. She turned her novel into a memoir and a chapter of it was published as an essay in The Sun, later named “Notable,” again, this time in Best American Essays.
Together we had created a small but mighty writing community, a safe space for ourselves allowing the work to get better. It made me feel brave. Crazy brave. Enough to dive into a personal story that I had been lugging around for most of my life, the one that really wanted to be told- a story about feeling silenced after an auto accident when I was 12. It was raw, personal and angry, and that’s when the windows and doors blew open, and it began to feel like an emergency to get it all down and tell it just right.
And so I applied to Ragdale.
And I didn’t get in.
I revised it, and the memoir morphed briefly into a short story, then into an essay and for a brief period, a poem, then an even shorter essay and then, I applied to Ragdale again.
And I didn’t get in.
Not a writer, I thought. Not yet.
By then, I was reading more essays and memoirs and teaching the form at Story Studio Chicago and writing. There were days I thought, what the hell am I doing? All this writing, all those missed sunny Saturdays, to get all of these rejections?
But it felt like I’d been bitten by a tick and some glorious virus had entered my bloodstream. I was afflicted with this overwhelming desire to tap my fingers on black and white keys and revisit a frightening childhood time, then try to make sense of it and turn it to art on the page.
I revised it again, applied to Ragdale a third time and that was, indeed, the charm.
I was the right kind of ready then. For two weeks, I wrote, read, and shared work and meals with writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians. My people. Some of you know this already and some maybe not, but you need your people. Writing is such a solitary business. A competitive one, too. You don’t have to go to Ragdale to have this experience- it was simply an extension, a magnified version of my overnights with Lee.
This must have been part of how Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Miller benefited from having one another to talk about process, and share their work in those Paris cafes.
I was writing what I came to call a marker story- the story that changes everything for you. It was writing that wasn’t about money, assignment, or corporate mission. It was simply about itself.
Those weeks confirmed my deep joy in traveling by fingertips from a position on my behind. How lost I could get in the writing, how powerful it was to make art from one’s life for its own sake, not about commerce or pleasing others, but about taking risks and doing something for the sheer love of doing it. How deeply and how far it can touch people and leave one’s mark in the world but more importantly, how it can help us discover something about ourselves, and find meaning from our life experience.
When I returned from Ragdale, it actually felt as if my DNA had been reconfigured. I was altered. More whole. Not just because of the confirmation that I could be so happy sitting and writing for long periods. Not only because I had pages to prove it, and not only because I connected with my community. But because I had utilized my skills to address my own story, break a long silence, and get some truth out onto the page.
The Old Saxon definition of writer includes the words to tear, to scratch, to carve or cut. That’s what I did at Ragdale: tore, carved, and cut my way to the truth. It unleashed my best work, some of which has since appeared in literary publications, got me on storytelling stages, earned honorable mentions, and led me to launch my own literary magazine.
Interestingly, the story about the accident never got published, though some threads of it have appeared here and there. On October 18th, 2015, I told it at a Story Sessions show at The City Winery. It’s not lost on me that my story about being silenced was told on a large stage using the voice that was, so long ago, silenced.
That unpublished story has since become my mission statement for writing, and has informed my teaching. I’d been carrying it around for so long, and it wanted to be released. Once I faced it, wrestled with it and earned its trust, it gifted me with the name I’ve been seeking my entire life.
I started a new job in August, a dream day job producing content for a school of communication at a large university – my alma mater – writing for the website and alumni magazine. But the job title doesn’t have the word writer in it. It has words like communicationsand coordinator in it, instead. I find this very ironic. I finally own the name writer but my employer, who hired me to do just that, won’t give it to me.
Which is why we writers need to do it for ourselves.
Ellen Blum Barish’s essays have appeared inBrevity, Literary Mama, Full Grown People, The Chicago Tribune and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She blogs about craft, creativity and the writing process at EBB & Flow http://threadliterary.com/ebbflow/Ellen has taught writing at Northwestern University, StoryStudio Chicago, Ragdale and Off Campus Writers Workshop and has told stories from her life at Story Sessions and Essay Fiesta. She is author of a book of essays, Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Lifeand editor of Thread: A Literary Publicationhttp://threadliterary.com/.