Moving to a new city, meeting new people, it all means that question is bound to pop up. The ‘What do you do?’ question. The one I dread people asking. Because I’m very much a part of Generation Slashie, having multiple jobs rather than one distinct career path. I work for a charity/as a consultant/as a journalist and drumroll please as a playwright. But I never feel justified in saying that last one. I never call myself a writer, and spend my whole time blushing when I’m introduced as one.
My friend noticed this recently when we were at a party together when all I said in response to the ‘what do you do’ question was a vague mention of a charity. She asked me why I don’t say that I’m a playwright, and I replied matter-of-factly that I’m not, despite having had five short plays staged in London last year, being part of a theatre company, on the SOHO Writers’ Lab, and I’ve co-written a one-woman crime noir show, Double Infemnity, for the upcoming VAULT Festival. Even just having written that down, I have the immediate instinct to type: ‘But that’s nothing, I’m not a proper playwright yet.’
Though, objectively, that’s exactly what I am. Yet I’d never say that when I’m introduced to someone. I’d feel too embarrassed about my small feats that pale in comparison to anything a ‘real’ writer has done. Because being a playwright is a strange profession. It’s one that you’re frequently not paid for and depends on the validation of others through applause and reviews and tiny gold stars.
That means I feel like I need to wait for a standing ovation from a packed theatre, or receive a fancy award, or even just have playwriting make up a significant part of my pay cheque before I feel allowed to call myself a writer. And this fear in thinking that if I say I’m a writer, someone will automatically tell me “no, you’re wrong”, is shared among many female playwrights I know.
Now, I will add me saying that is from the small sample of people I know, but it has been found that women are more likely to experience Imposter Syndrome than men. In a study last year, it was found that a third of millennials experience self-doubt at work, with 40% of women saying they felt intimidated by senior people, compared to 22% of men.
Women are raised to be self-depreciating, even taught that it is an attractive quality. But, if you want to be a playwright (or in fact do well in any career), self-deprecation is going to be the thing that holds you back. For the upcoming VAULT show I co-wrote, we have seats to fill and we’ve got to be the ones marketing the show. I need to be spreading the word, not cowering from the fear that’s someone’s going to call my bluff when I say I’m a writer. As a friend recently pointed out to me, there are plenty of men who write one rhyming couplet and declare themselves a poet.
In regards to VAULT, it has felt intimidating knowing there are so many other shows going on, and shows written by people I am much more likely to consider writers. Yet VAULT itself is not a competitive place, it’s a wonderful community of writers (yes, we’re all writers) supporting each other. It’s taught me the importance in valuing your own work and made me realise that actually calling yourself a playwright, even if you don’t feel like one yet, is the best thing you can do for your career. Mentally, it puts you in a much better place, enabling you to feel more confident in both applying for opportunities and sharing your current work.
It’s not cute to be self-deprecating. And if someone thinks it’s cute, they’re not the person for you. Now I’m not saying we all need to swan around thinking we’re God’s gift – writing is about constantly learning, and learning from others – but you are a playwright, and should view yourself as one. Even if you’ve not had a commission yet, or won an award. You’re still a writer. I’m just starting out what I hope will be a long career as a playwright, but I need to start calling myself one if I wish to progress any further. So if we ever meet each other, that’s exactly how I’m going to introduce myself, and I hope you’ll do the same.