Delighted to welcome Annie Dawid to the blog today with her very lovely and thought provoking post on defining ourselves as writers.
Annie lives and writes in South-Central Colorado. An English professor and director of creative writing for 15 years at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Annie left full-time teaching for full-time writing. She founded BloomsburyWest, a retreat for writers and artists, in 2006 and shuttered it in 2012. She teaches creative writing at Arapahoe Community College. Find out more on her website.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….”
So wrote Walt Whitman in 1892, his voice full of joy, confidence, passion. Ever since reading “Song of Myself” decades ago, I thrilled to Whitman’s cadences, braggadocio – his ego.
Is it ego, after all, that allows the writer to proclaim so boldly: I am a poet!
I am a novelist, essayist, playwright, an author of short stories. Over the years I have written poems and book reviews, seen my plays produced, one novel and two collections of stories published, and last month, a chapbook of poetry. Does that make me a poet?
In a 1965 interview, Bob Dylan – lyricist, vocalist, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature – said, “You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets. I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.”
Unlike Dylan, I know I’m not a trapeze artist: I’m a writer. Does that title encompass all necessary variations?
Virginia Woolf and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) wrote everything – in every genre they required. One idea came out as an essay, another a story, another a novel, etc. Did those great literary women feel the need to define themselves? To limit themselves to one genre, as the announcement “I am a poet” seems to do? I now have a book of poetry but hesitate to call myself a poet.
Anatomie of the World (spelling circa 17th century, courtesy of John Donne) is my newest book, published this spring by Finishing Line Press. Priest and poet Donne hovers over all my work, prose and poetry alike. The epigraph to my first book, York Ferry: A Novel, 1993, is from Donne: “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow.”
My failed (and fortunately never published) novel, One Little Room an Everywhere, also takes its name from a Donne poem; even in the 21st century, he shows up everywhere. Last Sunday, on the tennis court, a church bell chimed and a man I didn’t know chided his opponent: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” At 8,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, in a tiny ranching town, I hear Donne’s words singing from the mouth of a stranger, enchanting me in the most unlikely of circumstances. Donne is my spiritual patron, four centuries after he put pen to paper. In addition to his poems, he wrote voluminous sermons, the words flowing every week at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The bells tolling, “no man is an island” – these memorable lines came from his orations. Donne, too, expressed himself in prose and verse.
As long as we find the courage to sing, does it matter what we call ourselves?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Thanks so much for visiting the blog, Annie. I always just call myself a writer if people ask and invariably I then get asked ‘Yes, but what do you really do?’ – as obviously being a writer is not a real job!
What do you think of the questions Annie poses around defining ourselves as writers? How do you describe yourself?