I still find it difficult to identify myself as a writer. I am a published and prize-winning writer, yet often, when people ask me what I do for a living, “writer” or “author” are not the first words that fall from my lips. I find myself, within the claustrophobic confines of polite conversation and small talk, reverting to the occupation which constitutes my “day job”, the career that pays the rent. When I reflect on why I do that, the answer is not a simple one. It is riddled with anxious insecurities, paralysing fears and a smattering of imposter syndrome.
My relationship with words began at the age of four when I taught myself to read, driven by a fervent curiosity to understand what was happening on those sweet-scented pages in the glossy, hardcover books. I could see the drawing of the tortoise, plodding along the path and I could see the hare with his arrogant grin. And, while my fiery imagination could easily decipher the graphic clues, I wanted to know what the words were; what the story was being told. And once I had decoded the letters and strung the words together to form sentences, an entirely new, never-ending realm opened up to me. I could read. And the ability to read, consume all the words available to me, meant gaining endless knowledge, attaining a sense of inexplicable authority, and the priceless ability to escape from any painful reality into several fantastical worlds of my choosing.
When I was nine years old, influenced by “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole”, I began scribbling my thoughts, feelings and experiences onto the page. Fickle and one-dimensional though a nine-year-old’s observation may be, I know now that I was experiencing a catharsis with every word I penned. And although I pursued this practice of journaling for decades, I never considered myself to be a writer.
As I continued to inhale the words of published, acclaimed authors, I measured myself, my writing, against theirs and found it lacking. I had always considered writing to be a burning obsession rather than an acceptable profession. Perhaps this was informed by a societal stigma that dictates that creative expression does not constitute a sustainable career? From a cultural perspective, a woman of colour aspiring to be an author was beyond indulgent and certainly not practical. But in retrospect, I have come to realise that many of the perceived obstacles to claiming my place in the world as a writer were (and are) not external but rather tautly knitted together by my own internal critical voice; my own contradictory fears of failure and success, of shameful rejection, of an overwhelming sense of not being enough in any way.
In 2013, I attended my first writing workshop, facilitated by prolific author and founder of the Life Righting Collective, Dawn Garisch. I vividly remember the life-altering exchange in which I moaned that I desperately wanted to be a writer. Her response was simple yet profound. “But, my dear,” she said, “you already are.” I felt, in that moment of unsolicited validation, the neurons in my brain spark like live wires and neural pathways that had been dammed and clogged up start to flow freely. I knew then, unequivocally, that I was a writer.
Why? Because writers write.
This may seem like an over-simplification but I realised that it was not my writing that needed to change. It was my mindset. Once I commenced writing, not for any specific outcome or projection of how my writing would be received or perceived, I wrote with a rejuvenating sense of freedom. I discovered that my words flowed freely when I disregarded my limiting beliefs and constant comparison with others’ writing. I had hidden my words as I had been taught to hide everything else in my life. I decluttered my mind space mercilessly and this made ample room for my authenticity to show up.
I created a blog and, nervously but determinedly, began posting my poetry and short stories. My writing resonated with readers in ways I never thought possible. There is great fear in being vulnerable but I continued to unveil my truth, layer after layer. I found that my voice, though shaky at first, and my truth, were more than enough.
I continued to attend writing workshops facilitated by respected authors. I started taking my innate talent seriously and chose to become teachable in order to hone my craft. There is so much untold richness and value in community and the support and encouragement it offers. I learned that I did not need the perfect journal or a specific pen or a conducive environment or a particular set of circumstances in order to write. I needed to intentionally carve out space and time, develop self-discipline and dump the excuses and justifications my brain had lined up to prevent me from writing. And I did, and still do. I write like a zealot. I am propelled by some unseen force to pour words onto the page. I bang the keyboard furiously, blurry-eyed at 3am, awakened by a thought, an idea, that demands expansiveness. I write in my journal, stream of consciousness, perpetually curious as to what the hell it all means. I write prose on my phone and I scribble thoughts on the back of my hand. And sometimes I don’t write; when life happens.
I first saw my name in print in 2018 in the Life Righting Collective’s anthology, “This is how it is.” It was a creative non-fiction story about a young girl’s experience of racial identification in apartheid South Africa. In the same year MFBooksJhb/ Jacana published my memoir We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. It chronicles my struggles with family dysfunction, addictions, afflictions and trauma. I cannot deny how thrilling it was to see my book, my words, on the shelves of major book retailers. Or to be contacted by absolute strangers expressing how much my authenticity, my lived experiences, resonated with them and offered them hope. And not a year has gone by since that I have not been published.
Yes, technically, this makes me a published author. But it is the intention of my words: to express a notion or tell a story in a way that evokes a visceral response or allows the reader to think or feel about something just a fraction differently, that defines me as a writer.
So, as we commemorate International Writers Day, I feel immensely proud and privileged to stand up and be counted as a writer, alongside my treasured literary heroes, heroines and influences. Not only because my words have been read by others but because my words have been written by me.
And because writers write.
Click here to know more about Desiree-Anne Martin
If you enjoyed this, you may like getting to know poet Aphiwe Magida here.
Tell us about your struggles and adventures with words.