The first time a friend introduced me as a playwright, I was so startled I quickly corrected her. “Not professionally, or anything,” I said. “I just—”
“She just had this reading at Berkeley Rep,” my friend interjected. “It was incredible! I didn’t know play readings were a thing, but it was so cool….”
And though a small part of me was flattered, I immediately started looking for a way out of the conversation and to another part of the party. All my little anxiety weasels were rattling my brain-cage, but what objection was I really going to raise, anyway? “I’m not a playwright, I just…..write plays?”
“Martha introduced me as a playwright tonight,” I told Win as we walked home.
“Well, yeah!” he said happily. “That’s because you are.”
“But, I’m not produced. It was just a reading.”
“So you’re an unproduced playwright. Still a playwright.”
Ugh. Why was no one indulging my imposter syndrome?!
But the more I think about that party, the more grateful I am for my friend’s introduction, because if she hadn’t up and decided to call me a playwright that day, how long would it have taken me to consider myself worthy of the title? First production? Publication? Residency? Something tells me I would’ve found ways to keep moving the goal post. Because in a society where you are what you do full-time — and you’re only as good as how much you earn doing it — identifying yourself as anything can feel like a form of hubris.
The most produced living playwright in America is Lauren Gunderson, and I’ve read most, if not all, of her interviews, hoping to glean some path of breadcrumbs to follow. In 2014, Lorraine Treanor of DC Theater Scene was brave enough to ask her if she was able to make a living off of her work. Gunderson’s reply was politic and perky: “Yes! Oddly enough. With theatre, it is hard to make it a consistent income. I’m lucky to be married to an incredible man who smooths out those low spots in terms of finances. But, yes, it’s a great moment when I think that without much help, I could do this on my own. Though I would probably be just about at the minimum wage.”
Translation? Only after 12 completed plays and incredible professional success did she feel that her work could sustain her financially, and even then, only at a substance level. Ouch. Aside from a searing indictment of how little we value the majority of theaters and theater-makers in this country, this hidden message really hit home for me personally.
When I read it, I was working three jobs and finding odd break times and stolen hours to work on my play. I’ll admit to having dreams of enough professional success to drop at least one of the part-time gigs and consider myself a “real” playwright, but after reading that interview, I had to sit with the very real possibility that I could work as a playwright for decades, even have success, and still never be able to make it my main source of income.
But could I still make it my main source of identity?
When introducing ourselves to strangers, many of us default to sharing our career title and, thanks to the puritanical influences in American economics and the ever-present hustle culture, tend to equate who we are with what we do. But not just what we do, what we do to pay the bills. One may be a skilled knitter, or a falconer, or a ballroom dancer, but if pressed to answer “What do you do?” will likely still reply with whatever occupation nets the biggest paycheck.
For millennials especially, who often grew up hearing that we can “be anything we want to be,” having a cool-sounding career is a badge of honor. If we have an interesting career, we must be interesting too. If our career is boring or average, we must be boring and average too. But as fashion icon and expert shade thrower Marie Calvet quips on Mad Men, “Not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” So many of us pack up our dreams in favor of something more “reliable” and spend the rest of our careers in varying degrees of resentment for what might have been.
Or, we can find a way to do it anyway.
The world can support quite a lot of ballerinas, actually, provided that some of them are accountants by day, or warehouse managers, or preschool teachers, and the world can support even more ballet subscribers, fans, volunteer ushers, and aficionados. Just because something can’t be a career doesn’t have to mean that it can’t be part of your life and identity. Just because we can’t be the best at something doesn’t have to mean we can’t be a part of it, or have loads of fun failing as we try.
I’m still working on my play, and I still want to build a career as a playwright, despite knowing that I will still probably need to keep a multitude of other jobs, and likely sacrifice other pursuits or dreams in favor of it. (The world can only support so many Lauren Gundersons and, tbh, it doesn’t even really support her.) But when I start to fall down the guilt spiral of spending so much time on something that won’t bring in a paycheck, or when I feel like a failure for not being successful enough yet, I think about what I want in my obituary. I hope that I will be remembered as someone who was generous and kind, as a member of my family and community, and as someone creative. And when I remember that the best way to be the creative person I want to be is to keep on creating, the fear spell loses its grip on me.
I get to decide who I am and how I present to the world, and I can reveal my identities in whichever way I choose. It’s true, I am what I do, and that has nothing to do with how I pay the rent.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.