On my first day at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Anne Waldman gave all of us a talk. And as she spoke, she made it clear that we were writers who had a point of view, a voice, and a message for the world.
"Oh dear," I thought, somewhat embarrassed. "I seem to have fallen into the wrong place. I'm not a writer... I'm an aspiring writer. My perspective, my voice, my message--these are things I hope to get while I'm here. She's not talking to me. She's thinks I'm already a writer. I probably shouldn't even be here."
I could have quietly gone to the registrar and withdrawn at that point, apologizing for the mistake, and gone off to find a school that was looking for aspiring writers, not actual writers. But that would have involved more pride-swallowing than I really wanted.
So I resolved, right then and there, to impersonate a writer and make it through the program. Point of view, message, and voice: these are things no one speaks about in detail, even in the midst of a writing program. Of course it will come up quite often in a general way... a writer should have those things, be generally aware of them, develop and cultivate them. But the program emphasized staying in the moment rather than being especially analytical about them. And I think that was wise--nothing spoils the things that make writing personal and unique like overthinking it.
But the school's approach made it incredibly easy to pretend I had all these qualifications. No one was going to demand my manifesto, nor expect it to be consistent. In the meanwhile, I was able to work through the classes. Sure, there were moments where some of my disguise would wear thin. I remember creating whimsical little experiments to practice certain forms and techniques--nothing I would want to publish or develop further, just an exercise in the skill being taught. I was learning technique and playing with ideas, but there was no particular part of me there.
So time went on and more was written, but then one day I realized I could self-identify as a writer without irony or self-deprecation. I had worked on giving the impression that I had a point of view for so long that it was no longer a lie. I knew that a good writer should have a voice, and so while trying to do the things I thought good writers should do I had found mine... not by looking for it, but by faking it so long and so well that it became real. Discussing the messages other people were trying to communicate, and contrasting them with each other, and trying on various messages I might communicate, I suddenly found that I had a message.
This process ultimately got me in trouble. Our thesis was meant to be a refinement of the work we had done during our time there, but my work was just a series of technical exercises and demonstrations. I didn't want to try to improve that. I wrote a whole new novella.
My thesis adviser told me I was insane, and gave me almost no support in my doomed project. No one writes a novella from scratch in a semester. I'm not going to say that it was the great American novella, but I did. I was pleased with it, at least at the time (though I admit to being scared of reading it today). My thesis committee accepted the work and let me graduate, but I'm not sure if that was a "well, it was pretty good for a fool's errand, and we can't fail him now" or a real endorsement of the work.
But the entire time I was writing it, I was absolutely sure I was a writer. So by that measure they were right to let me graduate.
Today, when I'm writing almost nothing, working a technical job, maintaining a house, enjoying my marriage, and raising two kids it seems kind of odd to call myself a writer. I hesitate to do so in conversation.
But if I were to decide to commit the time to re-engage in writing, I would start by doing the things I think writers should do. I would find time to be alone, preferably in nature, someplace quiet*. I would find places to develop ideas in notebooks, perhaps in the aforementioned quiet places, or maybe in diners or bars. I would get up early, or stay up late, to steal time. I would write, everywhere, at any opportunity, in various formats.
I wouldn't do these things out of some particular inner call to do them. I'd do those things to try to be a writer again, to do the things I did when I was a writer, before, and to do the things I think writers should be doing. Through the course of it the exact things I did would change and become more personal and less affected. But the affectation would be where I'd start.
So that's why I think the forms of religion are useful. Even if it's just going through the motions, pretending.
*Note that the impossibility of this first step in my life explains why I'm not doing it. The luxury of a long stretch of time with no responsibilities somewhere away from the house seems so selfish, it would have to come at the expense of any social life or I'd spend the time wracked with guilt.