A figure is illustrated holding notebooks and wearing a name tag that reads "Hello, my name is: Writer."

The Precariousness of Taking On a Name

When can you call yourself a 'writer'? Or an artist? Or anything else?
August 15, 2021
6 mins read

Often, when reuniting with friends post-COVID, the first question asked sounds something like this: “What are you up to this summer?” Here, I always falter. After months spent as a staff writer at Study Breaks, I am faced with a conundrum. How do I respond? I can downplay my position as a staff writer/summer intern, instead touching more heavily on my job as a baker. Or I can choose the most terrifying option: calling myself a “writer.”

This phrase, when I attach it to myself, suddenly seems to take on an enormity that is both crushing and uplifting. The word itself connotes Chang-rae Lee, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien and Virginia Woolf. To name myself a “writer” feels disingenuous. Whether or not I technically fit the bill, the writers I imagine as setting the standard of what the name implies — my literary idols — seem to be looking down on me, telling me with every word and article I publish that I cannot measure up. There is a precariousness to taking on a name, and when referring to things one cares about, this precariousness is all the more tangible. Something about the leap between participation and final acknowledgment of skill is both intimidating and exhilarating.

This phenomenon doesn’t only hold true in the realm of writing. In many activities I love, I am or was slow to dub myself a true practitioner, instead verbally hedging against the possibility of being seen as some sort of “poser” or fraud. Even if I have delivered the goods or am passionate about these things, claiming the name feels off. Something about the power of description eludes me. This is ironic given my position as a writer — perpetually naming, pointing at things and giving opinions on a weekly basis, all while afraid to point at myself. The ease with which I can praise or critique an album or facet of culture comes from the laziness of my gaze. I do not have to delve into the tiniest minutia of cycling culture or consider every bar of an album to write a thousand words on it. Although I strive to do so each week, in my equally consistent failure I recognize that, despite my shortcomings, I may still produce a somewhat cogent opinion on the topic at hand.

When looking inward, speaking toward or naming myself, however, I am not afforded this luxury. The hours I spend considering my each and every move force me to take into account every blessing and curse, gift and shortcoming with which I approach writing, climbing, cycling, hiking or school. When I call myself a writer, I base it on far more than a glance; I base it on the totality of my skill as a writer from the grammar book till now. I remember horrific prose in science fair reports and creative essays. I look back upon angsty slam-poem projects and timed AP Literature quick-writes. Although I am in no way the same writer I was in those moments of ill-fated creativity, when asked if I am a writer I, in a split second, tally up every positive and negative in my imaginary portfolio and hesitate. Am I a writer?

This self-doubt has recently become mainstream, as the term “imposter syndrome” has entered the public consciousness. I hear the term often in school, on social media and when conversing with friends. Although I am often loath to assign pop-psychology terms to myself, sometimes I wonder if my hesitance to lend descriptors to my work has something to do with this commonplace feeling of being an imposter.

For years now, my sister has credited me with possessing a “supreme confidence” most likely inherited from my mother and her father. But where this confidence seems to falter is in between the known positions of beginner and expert. When I am set in my place as either a learner or a master of a skill, I feel solid and unwavering, but in between, I begin to wonder how to consider myself. In some fields this is an easier fix than others. I labeled myself a pianist when I could play pieces I had found on YouTube and enjoyed for years. I called myself a cyclist when I started riding four days a week, and I thought of myself as a swimmer when I qualified for the state championships. In other fields, it is harder for me to discern. I fear calling myself a writer even when I am being published and am still slightly uncomfortable referring to myself as a climber even though I attempt climbs I once saw as unthinkable.

Although I am, at times, shy to name myself climber, pianist, cyclist and writer, the moment in which I do provides a confidence-inducing rush. Responding to the query of what I am doing over the summer, I answer: “I’m a writer.” As the words come out of my mouth, something about the admission convinces me that it is true. Like a mantra I can repeat until I believe it to be an indisputable fact, each time I say it, each time I utter that almost magical phrase “I am a writer,” it seems to be more and more correct.

Although I may never be Chang-rae Lee, Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf, it may be enough to be a writer in a less grandiose sense of the word. I do not have to be a professional to be a cyclist or climber, and I do not need to upend industries and cultures to be a writer. Despite nagging anxiety or doubt, all I need to consider myself any one of these things is enough will to say it forcefully, and enough effort to will it into being true.

Mason Cannon, Columbia University

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Mason Cannon

Columbia University

Hailing from the Southwest, Mason is an avid baker, recreational cyclist and committed indie-head. Although he is unsure of what he will study, he is interested in writing, math, computer science and English.

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