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Is Your Work Who You Are?

If you’re anything like me, an ambitious and neurotic New Yorker, it’s likely that your job has pretty much taken over your life, or it’s constantly trying to. Pushing its heavy presence against your weary resolve daily, and you either push back, or give up and let it become not only an expression of your identity, but who you are.

The first question people are usually itching to ask after a name exchange is: “So…what do you do?” And if they don’t, it’s likely because they’re pretending; choosing not to ask in order to minimize its importance. In my 20s and into my mid-30s, when I was climbing the Hollywood ladder, the answer to “What do you do?” was everything, like two dogs sniffing each other’s asses in the dog park. The subtext being, “Who are you? Are you somebody who has value to me? Are you worth further conversation (or moreover, an actual meeting)?

For fourteen years, my identity was determined as “Producer/Screenwriter” (or to my Mom and Dad, “a movie person doing that movie stuff”). So when I left that life, on the heels of my divorce, my identity shattered. I took up producing for an Advertising agency, followed by representing directors for a production company, while writing and creating new work on the side. My identity had changed, but it felt fractured, like a split personality. Today, when people ask me, “What do you do?” there is almost always an imperceptible hesitation. If I’m meeting clients or ad industry folks, “I’m the east coast rep for a production company” is the answer. If I’m at a book reading, a writing conference, or commenting in a private Facebook writers group, I’m an author with an agent, a blogger, and a published essay writer; an artist with demons and moods and anxiety-ridden uncertainty about what comes next.

Which one am I? Which one defines me? Which one reflects the “true me”? writing-freelancer-1

But as my therapist and my husband (that’s two different people by the way, the latter often being both) have repeatedly pointed out, why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t I integrate both personas? Why can’t I be both the sociable businesswomen, and the scattered creative with a bottomless need for the expression of feelings and ideas?

This last month has been laden with shifts and challenges in my job, and when that happens, the writer-me suffers. The writer brain shuts down from work overload, save the little voice that screams out for attention. “Hey! Hey you! Ef you for turning your back on me. Get back here and feed me.” It doesn’t give a hoot what else I have going on, and I’ve given up trying to mute it.

To be honest, I don’t want to. When I heed that voice, I create. And when I create, I’m happier and more productive – in my personal interactions and in my work. A few weeks ago I wrote a TV pilot, a half-hour comedy in the spirit of early divorced Cougel (and boy was she funny. As in, an absurd hot-mess). I didn’t think I had it in me to write in script format again – it’s been almost a decade – but it came back to me in an instant, like my native language. After I finished, I was bopping around Manhattan with boundless energy and positivity, not knowing what to do with myself (It wasn’t pretty on the outside, but it felt pretty on the inside).

And then, a little light bulb went off. The TV show’s setting and some of the characters and experiences – they’re inspired by my advertising life. By the other-me. The advertising person that I was and have been for seven years infuses this me – the writer-me, in subtle but powerful ways. And with the time and distance, I am finally able to look back on that mess of a me with affection and compassion. Because she IS me.

I guess that’s called living. Living a creative life and creating a life that begets creation. Or, as a couple of eminent writers once said:

“We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I’m going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
― Stephen Fry

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”
― Ernest Hemingway