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Are You a Writer?

“Are you a writer?” “How do you know?” Actually, no one asks me if I’m a writer, but it’s a question I ask myself every time I think of Bodhidharma and the Emperor — it’s one of those koans which keeps on giving — where the question comes up, “Who are you?” These days, I find myself wondering, “Am I a writer?”

As this koan was percolating last night, I was rereading van der Wetering’s Glimpse of Nothingness, and I came across a passage where someone asks him if he’s a writer. He says he doesn’t think of himself as a writer. “But you do write?” Van der Wetering lived for a week at a Zen monastery in Maine, and he answers that this morning he was chopping wood, but he doesn’t think of himself as a woodchopper.

Very nice Zen answer. I laugh to myself. Of course, van der Wetering is a writer. A long list of published books is appended by the publisher to Glimpse. In my days as a detective novel reader, I had devoured his Amsterdam cops, long before I tumbled on his Zen memoirs.

I don’t think he’s just being modest. He’s working with Bodhidharma, working on his identification with the roles in his life. I have done that too and have done it over and over again. I have seen the light: the identification with roles leads to suffering.  There have been moments of letting go.

This morning my answer is different from van der Wetering’s. I write. Why hesitate to say I’m a writer? I don’t have to search far for an answer. Somewhere, lurking just beneath the surface, there is the idea that more people must be reading what I’m writing in order for me to be a writer. 

I keep blogging. I am not sure how many people read my blog, not as many as I would like, certainly not enough to make me a writer. 

I’m writing a novel suddenly, quite unexpectedly. I finished the first draft. Three close friends read the first draft. I have just completed the second draft, removed the pointless chapter which my first readers hated, wrote the sections which I thought were in the first draft but somehow got lost, and developed two subplots which were nascent in the first draft but neglected. Maybe half a dozen friends will read the second draft.

I expect there’ll be at least one more draft. I’ll try to pare down the adverbs, as my writing guru Steven King recommends, purge the cliché and do a better job of scene setting, all challenges which frighten me.

A real writer wouldn’t be afraid of these challenges. Well, I’m a beginning writer. Is a beginning writer still a writer? This morning, I think so.  

I remember that there used to be a category in my mind for “unpublished novelists”. Are “unpublished novelists” a type of novelist? Are “beginning writers” a type of writer?

I have my doubts. Fifty years ago, when I was looking for a dissertation topic, I wrote a long essay on complaints. It could have been the introductory chapter to my dissertation, but questions from my advisor took me in a very different direction. Sometimes, I wish I had written the ‘complaints’ dissertation.

I had done a riff on ‘just complaining.’ Was ‘just complaining’ a form of complaining? Grammatically, it looks like it could be, but, “No,” labeling someone as “just complaining” is a way of disqualifying their effort to make a legitimate complaint.

Are “unpublished novelists” novelists or are they just complaining? Does writing a novel which almost no one has read make me a novelist? A writer? What if I keep writing, averaging my two thousand words a day as King prescribed, not just first drafts but finishing them to a point where they are about as good as I can make them? What if I put these out to the world, and still no one but my friends reads them? Am I a novelist? Am I a writer?

My father painted all my life, oil paintings, mostly landscapes. He made custom frames for his paintings, and he sold some of them to his friends. He never made a living as a painter. None of his paintings will ever hang in a museum. There are more than half a dozen of them hanging on our walls, four in the room where I’m writing now.

After he died, my mother started painting. None of her paintings were ever sold. A few hang in our house. I love the one in the room where I’m writing.

Was my father a painter? Was my mother? They made paintings, and I love them. But does that make them ‘painters’?

Mom would have said, “No, my husband was the artist.” That was her personal insecurity. I could call it ‘modesty.’  Some of it was the residue of gender bias she’d grown up with. Maybe she didn’t paint enough, didn’t paint every day. Maybe if she’d painted every day, she would have been a ‘painter’.

If he didn’t duck the question, Dad would have said, “No.” He wasn’t an artist, or a painter, because he couldn’t make a living painting.

Am I a writer? I carry so much of my father. My father couldn’t really think of himself as an artist because  he couldn’t make a living as an artist. I can’t imagine that I am going to earn a living writing. Does that mean, no matter how much I write, that I am not a writer?

The funny thing is that I’m retired. Dee and I worked long enough and frugally enough that we can afford to retire. We can still worry about money if we want, but it’s irrational. I know that. Our financial advisor told us we could retire. We’ve done it. I can just write. Maybe just writing is enough.

Am I finally channeling my inner Katagiri. Dainin Katagiri Roshi, one of the first generation Japanese teachers to bring Zen to America, founded the Minnesota Zen Center by sitting in store front, doing his meditation practice, morning after morning, month after month, before the first student arrived. I have been marveling at this story since I read it the first time as a new Zen student. When I was sitting by myself with only two students our first summer at Mt. Manresa, I told Roshi Kennedy, “I am no Katagiri. If more people don’t show up in the Fall, I don’t think I will keep going.” I never found out if that was true. More people showed up.

But I am writing now every day. Does that make me a writer? I am afraid to say, “Yes.” Way too much chutzpah. I have a lot of my mother in me and no gender bias excuses. 

But I keep writing. I am tempted to dismiss it. “It’s my hobby.” That’s my mom talking.

I am writing, and I am happy when someone reads what I write. If I want that good feeling, I have to keep putting my writing out there even though it’s scary. What if no one reads it? I love it when someone writes to me that she liked my blog.

I keep writing. I am there with Katagiri in his empty storefront. When he was sitting alone, was he teaching? Apparently, yes. I am still carrying that teaching with me.

Am I a writer even if no one reads what I write? If a tree falls in the empty woods unheard, does it still make a sound?

Shouldn’t I be able, when I ask myself if I’m a writer, like van der Wetering, answer, “I washed the dishes this morning, but I don’t think of myself as a dishwasher.” Haven’t I been practicing Zen long enough to get this?

We Zen people are always looking for the Self to fall away, to find ourselves liberated from the burdens of identity and all the suffering that ensues. But there is another truth here, sometimes neglected in Zen talk. You need to have a Self before you can let it go. You can’t skip that step. No one is born with a Self. It takes time to develop. The process is not always easy and not always completed. 

Before I can let go of being a writer, I have to allow myself to be a writer. I am writing every day, but am I a ‘writer’? Until I can say “yes”, it is too soon to let it go. It is a bitter trap to use ‘Zen’ to try to skip over growing up.

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Writer? Is a published writer the only kind of writer there is? If a writer writes just one book, and only one, and that is published, but they write no more, Are they still a writer? Does a writer have to make a living by writing to be a writer? Depends on the premises that govern the answer, it seems. Prrmises,premises,premises.When I asked my Father what was the sound of one hand clapping he snapped the fingers of his right hand. Was that clapping? You wrote the question. So of course you are a writer having written what you wrote But then again that's my answer? The answer? Only God knows.

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