Sometimes I grow tired of myself. I grow tired of the doubt and insecurity. Exhausted by pride and fear and love and desperation, I am cautious when I want to be curious, I am still when I want to be wild, I speak when I should be listening. I am a walking contradiction.
I write, but I struggle with calling myself a writer. The idea of calling myself a writer aloud is enough to ignite the butterflies of my innards. Despite writing almost every day, it is a title I feel I have yet to earn, a vocation for which I do not feel worthy. Maybe it’s because I don’t do it for money. Maybe it’s because I’m not starving in Paris in the 1940s and I write on my laptop. Maybe because it has never been something I choose to do, it just is something I do.
It was a brisk night in Berlin and these contradictions weighed heavy on my shoulders. Why is the mind so hard on itself? Why are we so often our own biggest obstacle? I stepped off the metro in the Kreuzberg neighborhood and took a deep breath. Beneath the graffiti musk of the city was the scent of something big and white and a little damp, the eau de December that fills your lungs all the way to the top and sends crystalline drops of anticipation through your blood, the smell of snow not here yet but undoubtedly on its way.
I passed office buildings and kebab kiosks—hurrying because I was late but stopping frequently because I had no idea where I was going. I was hoping to sit in on a community choir rehearsal for my research on how people use music to tell stories. However, in a new city with a new language and in the dark of night, you really just have to cross your fingers, resist the tantalizing odor of sizzling falafel, and hope to stumble into the right place.
Luckily, I did manage to find my intended destination: the basement of a church. During the rehearsal break, I was delighted to meet a diverse group of people who come together each week to just sing—businessmen and kindergarten teachers, yoga instructors and computer programmers. In a culture that is so insistent on dividing the performer from the observer, and the talented from the tone-deaf, it was refreshing to be in a place where those barriers relaxed and dissipated—where the divisions between people didn’t seem so important anymore.
As is often the case in a room full of new acquaintances, I found myself attempting to gracefully answer the age-old question: “So, what is it that you do?” Normally, this is where I’d pause, or look down, or have a (hopefully brief) existential crisis. I might say “I’m a writer, sort of, but …” or “I’d like to be a writer someday …”
After all, it’s difficult to know where being a writer begins. For me, learning the magic of writing was an awakening, and playing with it continues to be a quiet journey toward freedom, without an absolute beginning or end. My friend Amanda talks about being a writer as a daily practice—something to wake up to and meet in the morning. I look at the black etchings on a white page and see endless possibility. I use words to communicate, to explore, to laugh, to get at the heart of what it is I’m experiencing. For those of us who have always loved words, it is how we make our world, or at least how we make sense of it. Does that make it my job? Or is it bigger than that?
On this brisk night in Berlin, I realized how tired I was of squirming around who I am, what I love, and the question of what it is I do. Who am I if I don’t have the courage to define myself, contradictions and all? If I don’t say it aloud, who will?
The woman standing across from me wore thin-rimmed glasses that magnified her chocolate eyes. “So, what do you do?” she asked, pleasantly.
“I’m a writer,” I said, reveling in my three-word declaration free of anxiety and self-deprecation.
I’m not sure why that day, of all days, was different from the rest, but in that room, cupping a steaming mug of black-tar coffee in my hands and inspired by the coexisting contradictions and dissolving barriers I had witnessed within that community choir, I wasn’t asking for permission or approval. I am a writer. That is what I do. It is so because I say so and I make it so.
To my surprise, she didn’t scrunch her nose or laugh or interrogate me on all my published works. Instead, she smiled big and said, “That’s great! I work for a small publishing house here in Berlin. We do poetry and nonfiction. You should come check it out.” Once my surprise wore off, my enthusiasm nearly bowled her over. As the choir rehearsal commenced, she and I sat in the last row of seats, scribbling our favorite writers down on pieces of paper to trade at the end of the night. We promised to stay in touch and meet again later that week.
Funny coincidence, right? But it seems obvious now, that there is an undeniable power in naming what we want and putting energy into what we hope to become. My inner critic can go right ahead and squirm herself silly, but from now on, I will name my craft with confidence and without apologies in the hopes that the right people will hear me. Doing what I love is hard enough. Why make it harder by keeping it a secret?
Being a writer is what happens when you wake up in the morning and greet another blank page. It is a daily practice. It is a little slice of magic that happens between you and me, accompanied by all of the sounds and shapes and scribbles that lie in the liminal space between us. Being a writer is collecting stories. It is endless possibilities.
Later that night, I walked out of the church to find fat snowflakes slowly floating down to earth, enveloping the city with a soft, white blanket. In some small way, the world felt new again. And I couldn’t wait to write about it.
Photos (top to bottom) by Florian Klauer, Sylwia Bartyzel, and Hide Obara