Verso: My So-Called Writing Life by Susan Wagner
People ask me all the time what I “do” and I have been wondering, recently, when exactly I will be able to say to people, without laughing
or cringing, “I’m a writer.”
Because really,what does that mean? I am a writer.
Everyone writes. When I was a teacher–an adjunct, actually, which
meant that I taught in universities but did not have a full-time,
benefits-and-tenure-included, position–when I was a teacher, my
students were always a little baffled on the first day of class when I
would talk about how this particular course would focus on READING, for
example, or WRITING. Because they were in college, after all, they
could all READ! and WRITE!
But there is more to reading and writing than just putting letters together to form words.
Reading is all about identifying your lenses–what is it about your
own experience that colors the way you see the world, or the way you
experience a text? Does it make a difference to you, for example, that
I am female? That I am white? That I am affluent and educated and
unemployed? Because those things may very well color your reading of my
My students would acknowledge this, grudgingly at first, but then
with more and more enthusiasm. Of course, they would say, different
readers will focus on different parts of a text! It makes perfect
sense. But writing–come on, Ms. Wagner, we can all WRITE. We learned
that in, like, elementary school. Or high school, at the latest (there
was always the one sad student who would say, “But HOW can this be a C
paper? I ALWAYS got As in high school!”).
And I would tell them: because really GOOD writing is about more
than just stringing words together. It is about identifying your
audience and deploying the appropriate rhetorical tactic to win them
over to your side of the argument. It is about identifying common
ground or playing on shared fears or overwhelming them with your
expertise. It is about logos and pathos and ethos!
I was a good teacher of writing. But I never thought of myself as a
writer–I am the one who walked away from my DISSERTATION, for god’s
sake, after three years and two chapters! My husband and I giggled
about our peers–graduate students, at first, and then later our
faculty colleagues–who were a little too quick to identify themselves
as “writers,” primarily in the context of the happy hour meat market.
What did it mean to be a “writer”? It meant you were middle aged and
male and clearly overestimating your attractiveness to young women who,
on another day, might be your students. Or your daughter. To say “I am
a writer” was to acknowledge a certain level of sexual desperation. It
was, frankly, a pickup line (and a bad one, at that).
But then a funny thing happened. I left my beloved teaching job and
had a baby. And then I had another baby. And while I loved my babies (I
still do) and appreciated the luxury of being home with them (I still
do) I began to feel isolated, both physically and intellectually,
because I missed all that reading and writing. And as my first baby
became a little boy, I began to worry that he was different from other
little boys his age and that I was a bad mother, or at least an
unprepared mother. I began to worry that while I could read and write,
I couldn’t raise this child. And so I started to read, everything,
about babies and toddlers and their expected courses of development,
but nothing described my son. And eventually, in a kind of desperation,
I started to write about his differences and I began to feel less
isolated and frustrated, because the writing itself was calming and
And then, without meaning to, I started to write about other things
in my life, like my husband and my other son and my hair, and
THEN,somehow, I started to write about the world at large. And then
my web site was nominated for an award. And another. And then I had
something published in my local paper. And then I was invited to be the
media critic for ANOTHER web site, one with far more traffic than my
little site. And I was writing more and more, and people were
responding to what I wrote, to ALL the things I wrote, even those that
seemed, to me, the most mundane.
But am I really a writer? It’s still hard for me to know. On the one
hand, I am surrounded by people who value intellectual work (by which I
mean work that takes time but does not generate money) and who are
respectful and supportive of all my recent writing ventures. On the
other hand, for practical reasons, I do a substantial amount of my
writing in the bathroom, at night, while my sons are in the bathtub,
and while this may not be the typical picture of How Writers Work
(perched on the lid of the toilet with my iBook on the counter and a
preschooler swimming in the tub), it is effective; my sons are old
enough to play peacefully in the tub without needing to be entertained
but young enough to require constant supervision near water, so SOMEONE
has to be in the bathroom–why shouldn’t I work during the bath? Then
again, much of my writing is about these same children and my life as
their mother, so I suppose there is a certain synchronicity to this
But am I a writer? Am I a writer? Or am I just someone who writes?
And has her writing read by other people? And occasionally earns enough
from the writing to buy a new pair of shoes or pay for dinner in a
nice-ish restaurant? And what, exactly, is the difference?
I don’t really know, but I do know this: last night, when I was
putting my three-year-old to bed, he said, “I need to do some work.”
“Really?” I responded, humoring him. “What work do you need to do? Are you going to make some food in your kitchen?”
“No,” he said, “I’m going to do REAL work.”
“And what would that be?”
“I’m going to type on my computer. You know, REAL work. Like YOU do.”
And for the first time, I had the tiniest sense that yes, maybe what I am doing is REAL work.
Maybe I am a writer.
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- March 27, 2006 / 3:39 am
- The Writing Life