A writer's identity rules. Since I frequently interchange terms, I'll also say that an artist's identity rules. I don't mean "rules" in the sense that a writer's identity, or character, outshines the personality of all other people. That is probably true in my case, but I don't want to generalize. Instead what I mean is that a writer's identity must rule the writer's lifelong project.
For the past few months, I have had a one-track mind. This one track has often derailed my train. What has the one track been? Trying to finish a book about ball hockey that, once I started it, I definitely did not want to write.
I love ball hockey. I grew up playing it, was amazing at it, and wish that I had continued playing the sport now that I know there are world championships and other really cool tournaments. There's a part of me that will always want to write a book about the sport because the sport is a part of me. But that part of me is not who I am as a writer. In this case, it truly sucks, excusing my language, because I had promised some old hockey buddies of mine that I would write this book... and that promise enabled me to extract some of their assistance in researching the book. Yet I can't deny that after the first month of researching and writing, the only motivation I had for continuing to write the book was that I had made a promise. In some cases that motivation is and should be a very forceful motivation. All of those cases, though, involve deadlines imposed by publishers: if you make a promise to a publisher that you will have written something, then you darn well better write it, even if you don't care about writing it. Deadlines are entirely other than the promise that I've made. Good thing, too, because now I've learned a lesson about what I should promise to write and what I shouldn't promise to write that might come in handy when actual publishers play a role in my life, if ever.
Why did I even start to write the book, then? Well, as I said, I wish I had continued playing the sport so that I could take part in international tournaments--some old friends of mine had the opportunity to represent Team USA--I'm sure that I could have, too, but that's beside the point--and I thought that was just so cool. Suddenly I was on a ball hockey kick reminiscing how great the sport is and wanting the rest of the world to see how great the sport is.
Why is that book not part of my identity? As much as I may want to in this case, I don't write histories. I'm not a biographer. And I don't write about sports. Perhaps I may use ball hockey as an example of some larger, moralistic or religious concept in an essay, but I can't write about it for a book. And that's the thing: the book that I wanted to write on ball hockey could not simply be about ball hockey; I kept struggling with making it into something more than that, and then being totally dissatisfied with the result. I write humorous short stories that also prove the futility of living poor, unfocused lives; I write religious/political/philosophical essays that point to every individual's powerful, divine nature; I write to urge us all to live intentional lives, lives that revolve around a carefully crafted center. That's my identity as a writer, and ball hockey unfortunately does not fit into that.
Why does any of this matter? As I've said, the half-desire to write the book on ball hockey has narrowed my mind into a one-track mind. Whenever I have had time to do anything writing related, I've tried to work on the hockey book. At first the going was slow. Then the going was crappy. Then it was slow again. Then it was utterly frustrating. Then the going was not going at all. When the going stopped going, I didn't stop worrying about the book and didn't stop feeling burdened by it. Through it all, I had to manage the self-publication of my first book, the first official book release, and beginning to work with a publisher on my second publication. I am fairly certain that all those life events suffered because I was working, sort of, on something that was no more than a burden to me. Maybe you could also deduce that I have not written anything for a long time. It's not for want of trying. It's for want of writing the right things. I have a lot of projects to work on that are actually part of my lifelong project, the lifelong project that suits and furthers my identity as a writer, but I haven't worked on any of them because I've had the notion that I should finish the hockey book first. More or less it's been four months of useless activity. Now I must scrap the hockey book project.
Through it all Danielle and I have discovered that the project of building a ball hockey rink is indeed part of our identity. That is something that the both of us would enjoy doing and operating. But writing a book about ball hockey? No, not for me. I will probably feel endless regret when the sport grows, and it is growing, to the point that the first historian of the sport will receive lots of accolade for his or her work. "That should have been me," I'll say. I will have to remind myself that, no, it should not have been me. That job is indeed for someone else to take up.
Through it all I have discovered that knowing one's writing identity must rule what projects we undertake. More than that, if we undertake a project that doesn't suit our identity, being aware of and sticking to our identity will help us have the strength to scrap that project. And trust me, scrapping a project that doesn't suit us is much better than struggling and/or drowning in self-loathing while working on projects outside of our identity. Just writing this post a few hours after finally deciding to move past the hockey book and revert back to the projects I had been working relieves me more than you could know, and in that relief I once again feel the power and joy of writing. I had feared that I would never write anything good or of value ever again. In all seriousness, walking away from my identity for even a few months sunk me in writer's despair, a despair I hope not to experience again any time soon. I feel so much better now, after deciding to move on, that I'm cutting into my sleep time to write this post: I had to share the good news with someone, anyone, and Danielle was already asleep.
All writers have an identity. Some writers are more diverse than others, meaning that they are capable of working in more diverse mediums and in more styles, but those more diverse and probably more talented writers still have an identity. All writers have an identity, a project. Following through with that identity maximizes the writer's potential with each and every effort; following through with that identity maximizes the writer's sense of joy and accomplishment; following through with that identity limits the risk of failing miserably; following through with that identity is itself a success. If craft a good identity for yourself and then let yourself be ruled by that identity, you are well on your way to being a good writer.
(Unfortunately I must end this post with an apology to all those whom I promised a completed book on ball hockey. The best I can do is build a rink, further grow the sport, and hope that in a few years' time, our stories will be told by someone more fit for the task)