Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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Vol. 99: Yes, I am a novelist; No, I have not completed a novel

Posted on 18 April 2014


So, I went to an event tonight and I was chatting up the presenter—an accomplished and well-awarded playwright—and I said “I’m a novelist,” and carried on the conversation. It wasn’t until I walked away that I was like, “Wait, I’ve never published a novel.”

That’s how deep in I am with my novel. Yeah, I’m still working on it, but it’s already done. I’m confident in its completion and the finish line is clear, which is a very different sensation from previous phases of working on a novel when I was just working interminably, hoping that my efforts led somewhere.

This strong and confident feeling I have of myself as a novelist provides me with another perspective on the “I’m not a writer” conversation. You know the one where people say: I’m not a writer because I’ve never been published. And the opposite conversation is also everyone. The one that says: “do it, be it, see it”; the self-help mandate that stats “act as if you are already there” and it will come true. This new place I’m in has some strange tinge of all of that. The truth is, I can’t be a novelist in the public eye until I am a novelist to myself. This is not really spiritual perspective, this is fact. By the time a reader gets a novel in hand, the author has completed a novel-length work. If no eyes ever rest upon that manuscript, that author is a novelist.

I think I called myself a novelist, not just because I’m writing a novel, but because I am crafting and completing a novel. I can feel the elements of craft rise up, I can feel the span and stretch of the novel, I can feel that I am no longer just writing a parade of words.

This whole conversation about naming myself a novelist reminds me of a metaphysical conversation I was having with myself years ago when I was not writing. I no longer wanted to call myself a writer because I wasn’t producing work. It is the exact opposite of what’s happening to me now. Now I’m producing a work the public has not seen: so I am a novelist to myself and not to the public eye. Back then, I was a writer in the public eye who had produced lots of stories, but I was struggling with calling myself a writer because I had not been writing for a long time.

Back then, when I tried to move through the world like I was not a writer, “It made for very awkward moments when I had to introduce myself. No one within earshot would accept me omitting my writer identity from my introduction, but then when it had been introduced, people wanted to talk about it—the writing that did not exist—and wanted to know what I was currently writing—nothing—and generally wanted to meet her—the writer who no longer existed.”

Thinking about this question of who a writer is when the writer is not writing, led me to make certain distinctions between the various functions a writer has. I wrote:

“The value of art for the reader/viewer/watcher endures over time. However, for me as an artist, I value the work of artmaking. While it is the fruit of the labor that makes an artist in the public eye, it is the labor itself that makes me feel like an artist. Therefore, if I am not laboring as a writer—not in the process of writing and publishing—how could I consider myself a writer?”

From that mental quandary, it struck me that the term writer was multifaceted and it meant different things depending on which side of the manuscript you stood. In other words:

“I realized that there are many ways the term ‘artist’—or writer, in this case—can be defined. A writer is a person who wrote the text the reader reads. That writer is timeless and never has to write another thing to be considered a writer. A writer is a person who commits her or his time to writing. That writer exists only in the present moment, and must recommit daily to writing. A writer is also a character, an image, an idea or a prototype that lives in each individual consciousness.”

I can so easily say I’m a novelist now because my daily work is crafting this novel. It is my laboring and deep engagement with the work that makes me not question my identity as a novelist. Without knowing what will happen on that other level of being a novelist—publishing a public novel-length product for an audience—my commitment to functioning as a novelist (ergo writing a novel) is so solid, that my subconscious has gotten the memo and proclamations of my identity as a novelist are just falling out of my mouth! Don’t you love the multiple levels of reality?

Absolutism serves no one.

Be well. Be love[d].

Kiini Ibura Salaam
Novelist