What does it mean to be an accomplished writer?

To me, being accomplished means having a recognizable voice. It means feeling at least a moderate comfort level with nearly any topic, even politics. It means being able to write about how I feel about Donald Trump’s presidency, and how it makes me want to poke my eyes out and run into the street screaming, in such a way that someone who may inexplicably feel some kind of loyalty to him can understand where I’m coming from without hating me and wanting to poke my eyes out themselves. I think what I’m saying is that an accomplished writer is fair, and writes in an evenhanded fashion that doesn’t make people hate him or her, overly.

I like to think an accomplished writer is not as bothered by fear as I am. Not as worried about whether people will like what I put out into the world. Not as paranoid about Donald Trump (though as you can probably tell, I do think a certain amount of that paranoia is warranted).

My friend BG, a warm, lively man from Africa who drives the shuttle from the parking lot to campus and greets me with a good morning, professor! every time I see him that makes me think he reserves that special wonderful greeting just for me, put it this way as we made our way to campus yesterday. It was sunny out and he wore a really lovely bright green and white button-down shirt with pictures of trees on it, like a cotton version of the Quiana shirts people used to wear to go disco dancing in the 70s, and he was rocking it. The sun glinted off his bald brown, head. He has a bright, beautiful smile.

“I want to put out there how I feel about him, I do,” he said, his head swiveling back and forth to check for cars as he turned the corner.  “But I’m afraid he will see it!”

Yep. That covers it.

I have made certain strides while in my MFA program. I am well on my way toward that recognizable voice. When I workshopped a piece about how my mother and brothers and I pretended for years that one of our cats had special magical powers that allowed her to materialize out of nowhere and walk across the ceiling, my fellow MFA students called the voice “Vintage Kim.” It was a good moment. Before the MFA, I didn’t feel like I knew how to write about myself at all. Before the MFA, my work felt heavy-handed. It felt humorless. There were no cats dancing across the ceiling for any reason. I like them in my life now. My MFA work gave them to me. 

I think there’s a definite difference between being an accomplished writer and a published writer. My husband’s father Ray MacQueen, who I never got to meet, seems to have been a prolific wit whose work was only made sharper by the fact that few outside his family circle got to read what he wrote.

I’ve worked with plenty of clients who tirelessly reworked their material to hone it to beauty for years before they considered it ready to be published. But I’m not sure those clients, until they actually are published, think of themselves as really accomplished. I bet don’t they think of themselves as “real writers.” I know that’s how I feel unless I remind myself that that’s exactly what I am. It just always takes a lot of reminding. To this day saying to someone “I’m a writer” feels like putting on a wig and trying to look like somebody else. I really, really like that wig, though. It looks good on me.

My publishing experience has been, probably needs to be and will always be, limited. Because everybody needs limits. I’ve had essays and stories in a few magazines. I’ve self-published books. How much of that “really” “counts” as “publishing?” All of it? Some percentage? None? Depends? It’s like I’m afraid people will movethe bar up every time I hit it, so I just move it myself to save them the trouble.

I wonder if the difference between being accomplished and successful comes down to this: I think accomplishment is how much a writer does. How many books, published stories or essays, how many awards won or cool parties invited to. I think the best definition of success is that which the writer bestows on herself. It probably has something to do with not caring too much whether any amount of publications is enough, or if those publications were in prestigious-enough magazines. It probably has something to do, also, with going out into the street and not worrying that somebody’s going to come poke out your eyes.

Creepy Cat image courtesy of broadly.vice.com.

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