I am a Writer

An excerpt from my dialogue with Paul McAleer on our podcast Designing Yourself, Episode #8: Sam I Am (originally aired September 24, 2013), with minimal editing for readability.

I was a Professional Writing major in college — after I switched from Computer Science and before I picked up Human-Computer Interaction as a double major. Writing has always been my first passion and my greatest passion.

But it was never the thing I was very good at. It was never the thing I was encouraged to do. It was actually the opposite of all of those things. It was just what I loved to do, even though for a very long time, I was told I wasn’t very good.

I didn’t think I would ever be able to do anything professionally with it, so I kind of just put it aside. Instead I learned to find my place in the field of technology, working on the human side of technology, and that has been a tremendous passion as well.

As a professional, I wanted to call myself a “designer,” a user experience designer, because I wanted to be perceived as someone who crafted solutions. That even though I have a specialization in user experience, I am still just as legitimately a designer.

That was really important to me early in my career. It was only recently that I felt this urge to really be called a “writer,” that being known as a writer, seeing myself as a writer, was more authentically me. I had only wanted to be seen as a “designer” because I thought that that would take me somewhere professionally, and quite frankly, it did.

But at the end of the day, I never cared what side of the page the box was on. I never cared about the details of the interaction design. Over the last decade, when I was exposed to interaction designers who truly cared about these things and who were so fantastic at making these decisions and transforming an experience through their work, I realized, guess what? That’s not me.

I love talking about this stuff. I love speaking about this stuff. I love sharing my insights and my lessons with a broader group of people outside of just my organization or my clients’ organizations. That’s what I want to be a part of. I want to be a part of the evangelism. I want to be a part of shaping what this field is and its relationship to related fields.

Okay, Whitney. You’re a writer. Call yourself a writer. You don’t just write, but you are a writer, and it’s not the third thing on the list of things that you do. It’s the first thing. That’s really how you spend your time, and that’s what you love to do the most. So, put that out there. Be true to your true identity.

I struggled with it for so long because I kept telling myself, I can’t really call myself a writer because I don’t get paid to write. I get paid to do client work, and my client work involves helping companies to improve their product designs.

Now I might be doing that through workshops. I might be doing that through presentations. I might be doing that through training. So okay, I’m not getting paid to write, but I’m also not getting paid to design, technically speaking. So, what do I call myself then? Am I just a consultant? What am I?

This whole thing recently of needing to own the identity of being a writer became really challenging for me. I shared that with a small group of friends, and one friend said that she has been a travel writer for a decade, she’s been paid to write for a decade, and yet she can’t claim the identity of being a writer.

So here’s someone on the totally opposite end of the spectrum from me in that she gets paid to write and only gets paid to write. Yet, she doesn’t feel like she can call herself a writer because she thinks a writer is someone who defines their own subjects, who writes from their soul, who writes creatively, and that she’s only been writing based on the assignments that were given to her by her employer.

Everyone has their own definitions of what is allowed within the confines of an identity. If we’re going to say that being a writer is an identity, I think how you define that, how I define that, how she defines that, they’re all very different things, but meanwhile, we all want to apply the same label to ourselves.

That’s where it gets confusing, where identity – as you define it for yourself – is a very, very challenging thing to communicate to others and have it be perceived as you intended it.

An excerpt from my dialogue with Paul McAleer on our podcast Designing Yourself, Episode #8: Sam I Am (originally aired September 24, 2013), with minimal editing for readability.

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