I Have a Novel Coming Out, But I Feel Uncomfortable Calling Myself a Writer

While I am truly proud of the work we produced, the fact that I've co-written a novel has yet to make feel like a "real writer."
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Sarah Sahagian
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While I am truly proud of the work we produced, the fact that I've co-written a novel has yet to make feel like a "real writer."

I've wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old. As a little kid, I wrote on any surface available to me. In elementary school, I composed poems in a Hilroy notebook underneath my desk when I was supposed to be learning fractions. Most of these poems have disappeared with time, so I can't locate them to adjudicate their quality with adult eyes; however, I do remember rhyming "rug" with "hug" in one of my odes to movie theatres. I think that says enough.

After a decade and a half of writing regularly for myself alone, I abandoned obvious rhyme schemes and found a broader platform for self-expression. Like most 21st-century people who want to be writers, I used the internet to create a space all my own shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree in gender studies. A group of friends and I started a now-defunct blog called Broadspot. It was a proudly feminist cooperative of writers who loved intersectionality, political debates, and television shows geared toward teenagers. It was our digital slice of heaven.

My fellow bloggers and I mostly used Broadspot as a way to procrastinate on revising work for graduate school readings. None of us knew how to code at the time, so the site didn't look very professional, but it felt good to express ourselves in a forum we controlled. We didn't have many readers, but in a way that was liberating too. We were free to develop our voices without much scrutiny. Would I still espouse the same opinions I advocated back then? Well, some of them. But over the years, my feminism has become more informed and nuanced than it was when I was 22. At the same time, I'm happy my friends and I created a place where no one could tell us what to say. It was an outlet that comforted me through bad days, breakups, and my general state of sorrow over the world's suffering, and I hope the blog provided the same sense of solace to everyone who wrote for it.

The entire time I wrote for Broadspot, I never dared call myself a writer. In fact, I hardly even referred to myself as a blogger, even though I was blogging on a near daily basis. I spent hours writing about my disdain for then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper while using green tea to fuel my tirades. (On good days, I wrote fun things, like a "Gossip Girl Feminist Index.")

Despite putting thousands upon thousands of words onto that blog, I dismissed all my efforts. I felt it didn't count as "real writing." I told myself that I'd be an actual writer once someone paid me actual money for my words. At the time, I felt I needed external validation.

A few years later, I received the opportunity to write for a satirical Canadian newspaper called The Beaverton. I wrote what I thought were humorous pieces about the Plan B pill and couples replacing sex with Netflix. Happily, at least a few readers found my work amusing, and my Beaverton byline opened doors for me at other websites I admired, such as She Does The City, and this very website, xoJane. Around the same time, I found myself contributing to a few feminist academic anthologies. Suddenly I had achieved my goal: I was getting paid to write things!

A book for which I wrote a chapter.

A book for which I wrote a chapter.

Don't get me wrong, I was not — and still am not — making enough money from writing to live off these funds alone. I teach to supplement my income, which is no hardship, as I genuinely love the field of education. The fact that I am regularly paid for my writing makes me feel somewhat more professional, but I continue to bristle anytime someone calls me a "writer." I keep telling myself I'll feel comfortable with the title when I become the writer I want to be, even though what that means keeps changing.

I assumed the thing that would finally make me feel like an honest-to-goodness writer was publishing a novel. I wrote my first novel — a Jane Austen rip-off called Wealth and Royalty — on my family desktop at the age of 11. I wish I still had it, but it ended up in a landfill along with the desktop it was written on. My literary dreams, however, survived.

A full two decades have passed since I took my first stab at writing a book. I kept plugging away and eventually found some success. It brings me great joy to say my debut novel, Good Girls, is about to be published by Inanna Press in September. This book is a product of half a decade's worth of work. The project came about when Shalta Dicaire Fardin, a fellow former Broadspot blogger, and I realized we wanted to read more feminist-friendly YA. We spent nearly six years writing and editing the manuscript before we dared show it to anyone.

When I sent a finished draft of Good Girls to our publisher for consideration, I said a prayer despite not being sure I believed in God. When the publishing house emailed us back to say the answer was "yes," I wept. It was the most joyful moment of my life so far. Our beloved little book was going to make it out into the world! You would think, after pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into a soon-to-be published novel, I would finally embrace the idea of myself as a professional scribe. And while I am truly proud of the work we produced, the fact that I've co-written a novel has yet to make feel like a "real writer."

A picture from a promotional shoot we did for Good Girls. 

A picture from a promotional shoot we did for Good Girls

One way to explain my situation is that I have imposter syndrome, a problem that afflicts countless other women I know. Even Pulitzer Prize winner Maya Angelou admitted to feeling like a fraud sometimes, and she is one of the most important American authors of all time.

Perhaps women writers in particular are vulnerable to imposter syndrome because, for so much of literary history, women literally had to pretend to be other people to get published. Remember George Eliot, the author of such canonical 19th-century texts as Middlemarch? Well, she was born Mary Ann Evans. Fearing she'd become a punchline for sexist literary critics who didn't believe women deserved to pick up a pen, she published under a man's name. We also can't forget Charlotte Bronte, who did publish under her real name; however, the poet Robert Southey tried to discourage her from writing at all, asserting no one wanted to read about women's lives.

More recently, JK Rowling was pressured into not publishing the Harry Potter series under her given name, Joanne. It was thought going by her initials, instead of a woman's name, would attract more male readers to the series. The literary world evolves at a terrifyingly slow pace, it would seem. To be clear, I do not for a minute flatter myself into thinking I have a fraction of the talent of Rowling or Eliot. Still, when your literary role models were at point forced to change their identities to succeed, it is difficult to claim the title of writer for oneself. Plus, at the end of the day, if Maya Angelou felt like a fraud, who am I to put "writer" in my Twitter bio?

Sadly, my insecurity feels like an indelible part of me. It comes from that nagging place that tells me I am never good enough at anything. It is the place that believes in body positivity but sometimes wishes I could lose 10 pounds. It is the place that feels a little less like a person anytime someone calls me a "cunt" or a "bitch" on social media. It is that person who worries she'll lose friends if she expresses controversial opinions. Self-doubt is something I have always had, and yet I know I would feel healthier without it. It occupies a terrifying amount of space inside me, like a cancer determined to consume as much as possible.

This is me, and I don't feel comfortable calling myself a writer.

This is me, and I don't feel comfortable calling myself a writer.

Of course, there are times when I do call myself a writer out of necessity. For example, in the interest of staying financially solvent, I have been known to do so on LinkedIn. But every time I claim this title in front of others, it feels false, even absurd. I choke it out, like a child saying a swear word she knows will get her into trouble. "Writer" seems like a preposterous, presumptuous label to give myself, as though I am claiming something as obviously untrue as saying I'm the mother of Brad Pitt's twins. When I hear myself say, "My name is Sarah, and I'm a writer," it feels as outlandish as telling people I'm the Duchess of Cambridge.

On an intellectual level, I understand my reluctance to call myself a writer is plain silly. Writing is what I spend much of my time doing. I am comfortable using this verb, and yet, its noun unsettles me. Sure, there are things I would like to do to improve my craft. At the same time, I have several male acquaintances who blithely call themselves writers, even though their portfolios are less developed than my own. Most of the men I know who self-assuredly self-identify as writers are formally educated and well-to-do. As such, they have many literary role models to look up to, to motivate them to claim the title of writer without shame. After all, Ernest Hemingway didn't have to change his name to get published.

I have been insecure for as long as I can remember. Having said this, I do not wish to be so forever. As I write this article on a floral couch that once belonged to my grandmother, I hope it will be a cathartic process. I hope it will change me into a self-confident dynamo with no hang-ups about anything.

Ideally, as I write this piece, I will purge my insecurity. The truth is, however, that I doubt this will happen. I will keep writing, because I love putting words on paper the way a monkey loves bananas. I will keep seeking publication, because I have an insatiable thirst to share my ideas with the world. Even though I am not always proud of myself, I am proud of my stories, as if they are my children — things that come from me but are independent of me.

I am a person who writes. I am a person who loves to write, who writes as much as she possibly can, and who plans to write for the rest of her life. I can say these things with certainty. Less certain is whether I will ever find the nerve to call myself a writer without feeling like an imposter. I hope one day I will.