By Jesica Carson Davis
The identity of a writer can be a slippery, tricky one. For years, I hesitated to call myself a poet, even though I was writing poetry. Really though, it’s pretty simple: if you write, you’re a writer.
One thing that can help a writer to own that identity is to establish a regular writing practice. It doesn’t have to be every day — having time, space, energy, and ability to maintain a daily writing practice is a huge privilege — but finding a way to make a habit out of creative practices can drastically affect a writer’s output, as well as their sense of self. I always feel more me, in touch with more layers of my secret selves when I’ve been writing because it gives me a chance to work through and out all the impressions, fears, and wonder that swirls in my head.
I first developed a writing practice the year I moved to Berlin to process the death of my best friend. It was still cheap then (2006), and I’d saved up enough money to take some time off work. Once the initial shock wore off, I’d sit at my desk every weekday and write for five or six hours. Showing up to that practice was the first time I really felt like a writer — because I was writing almost every day. I was showing up for myself, actually doing the thing I always wished I had more time for. I learned that the act of writing, detached from any outcome, makes me happy, makes time disappear in an almost magical way: even when I’m struggling with a piece, I can get lost in word choice, a quest to find a crystalline expression, forgetting myself to become more myself. When I look at the clock, hours have passed, as if hypnotized by concentration.
However, when I came back to the United States and started working again, my writing time slipped away to just few hours a month. I was living in Brooklyn, and even though I was taking workshops at The New School, NYU, and Poets House, my writing practice was sporadic at best. I stopped introducing myself as a poet; as the practice faded, so did my link to the identity.
Things changed when I moved to Denver in 2013. Suddenly isolated from many of my old friends, I had more empty hours to fill, and writing was one way to do so. It helped me feel less lonely, even if I was just communicating with myself. I began spending four or five hours every Saturday at my desk, and more started coming out. The practice helped me to remember who I was (a poet who used to extensively, someone with a huge family both blood and chosen) even though I was far and detached from what had been my life up till then. I wrote about formative, older times as well as my then-current sense of displacement until they eventually wove together to reconcile disparate identities.
When I finally settled into a regular writing practice, I was fed up with myself for wasting time scrolling the internet and watching too much TV. (I still do these things; everyone needs down time, but now I do them in smaller amounts.) So I made myself a quick, handwritten sign and pinned it over my desk: “Make yourself do stuff.” I also printed out the squirrel of judgment and tacked it up next to my sign. Once again, I began to tell people that I was a poet, but more importantly: I felt like one.
Writing regularly, for me, can be a self-reinforcing act. If I’ve worked on a poem or read some poetry in the morning, my day takes on a poetic cast; I’m much more receptive to seeing kernels of potential poems, and more likely to jot them down in a notebook to act on later.
Two years later, that sign I made for myself feels much less urgent; I do and make things pretty regularly now. But the sign stays up; it’s good to have reminders. Michelangelo would agree.
Still, there are times when, no matter how long I sit, the writing just won’t come. It’s important for me to maintain the practice, even when not feeling creative, so during those times, I:
Through establishing a writing practice, one with a structure that suits my physiology and schedule, I’ve established a discipline that makes me proud. The concept of publication doesn’t matter much to me (OK, it does a little, most writers want to be read), because I’ve grown to love the practice itself.
It reminds me of the power of language, that I can believe in myself as a poet, even on the tough days when words just thud, because I have faith that if I hold the practice, the flow will come back; it reminds me of what I can do: alchemize words, thoughts, and images into a piece that (hopefully) conveys something, perhaps a fleeting feeling, that lives beyond the realm of ordinary communication. And that’s magical.
Showing up to my writing practice taught me that I can show up for myself. I’ve learned to trust that though I have bad days, uncreative slumps, if I keep working at it and hold space for the practice, they will pass. The point is to keep practicing it. As Alexander Chee remembers Annie Dillard’s advice:
“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”
When you get down to it, the practice of writing is an action. You do it, or you don’t, and either way, you learn something about who you are. My writing practice taught me that doing what I love makes me happy, regardless of outside judgement; what does yours say about you?