Good question alert: Can you be a “serious writer” while also just being yourself?

The daughter of a friend is taking a summer journalism course, and one of her assignments was to interview “a journalist with international experience” about their “career choices and future goals.”

One of the questions she just sent me was so excellent that I am reprinting it, alongside my answer, below (with permission):

Q: Your byline has been seen in many internationally significant publications and you regularly comment on current events. Today I read your comments to Yahoo Sports about Russia’s doping scandal. Also today I opened your blog and read a song about “shrieking demon heads” that you wrote. Is there a contradiction between your professional persona and your artist persona? Has it affected your work? What would you say to someone who wanted to follow your example?

A: What a great question. I will be honest, I think I would have had more professional success as a journalist if I played it straight – as in not had a blog that featured songs about demon heads, nor posed for artists in my spare time, nor written plays about sunken ships and haunted bureaucrats, and so on.

My generation grew up on the mantra that you should “be yourself.” This rarely works out well. For a woman it can be especially hard to “be herself” and not experience career setbacks. And forget about being taken seriously if you’re also seen as a kind of “sex object.” Serious journalism, of the kind I’ve always been interested in, is a macho field, and if you don’t play by its rules, people are going to be weirded out by you. And when people can’t put you in a box they’d rather not deal with you at all.

On the other hand, songs about demon heads, poems about sex, and plays with ghosts in them are also part of my professional life. They’re also just an intrinsic part of who I am.

Over a decade ago, I received the shock of a lifetime when my cousin was killed in a car accident. She was a talented pianist and singer and just weeks before she passed away, she and I had an argument about me becoming “who I really am” eventually. I was leading a pretty strait-laced existence at the time and she saw right through it. She told me that I was a “crazy artist type” no matter what I did. I was not prepared to listen. We parted on an awkward note. I never saw her again, unless dreams count.

Her words stayed with me. No matter how much I tried to fight her vision of me, deep down inside, I knew it to be correct. I think I would have escaped a lot of disappointment and drama had I accepted that she was right much sooner.

Any meaningful life choice involves a degree of sacrifice. So you do what you must. And you give thanks for being disliked, because, honestly, most people in the world won’t care enough to dislike you in the first place.

I consider myself a serious writer, a serious journalist (though I barely work as a journalist anymore, tbh), and I think it shows in everything I do, because I try to do it well. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be able to do what I love. Were they justified? I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know, since you can’t draw conclusions until your life is done. And who knows what my loved ones will eventually come to say about the choices I’ve made.

So, should you be like me? No. Be like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of being like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of not being like yourself. Whatever you do, try to do it well (and I include crap you do to pay the bills in that category too). Don’t let anyone, no matter how well-meaning, decide anything for you – because owning your screw-ups is sometimes even more important than not screwing up in the first place. Let your heart hold fast and good luck.

Q: P.S. Did you come up with phrase “tornado of shrieking demon heads” yourself?

A: Of course not. I got it off of Twitter and annoyingly enough can’t remember whose account that was.

P.S. I owe a word of thanks to WordPress Discover for featuring this post. I’m glad so many of you found it useful. This blog continues to exist due to Discover support, due to your support, due to me very much needing an outlet, and due to the occasional tip, which you can send here, if you wish:

For Natalia's stories

Owing to her young age, the author of the question that prompted this post would like to stay anonymous, but I’ve let her know that you guys have been reading, and she wants to say she’s glad that she inspired this post and this discussion ❤

128 thoughts on “Good question alert: Can you be a “serious writer” while also just being yourself?

  1. I was very impressed with a quote from Braque who was questioned about Picasso He said that Picasso was a pretty good painter until he became a genius.

  2. I am a computer science student and I (kind of) like what I study. But I also (kind of) write, and a few days ago I wrote my first-ever story. I had never felt so fulfilled in my life. So, there is the “real job” prospect ahead that I am okay with and don’t hate, but it doesn’t compare to the thing that makes me feel very human and fulfills my soul. I only recently realized I would have to make a sacrifice. So thank you for this. I couldn’t relate more.

  3. Life is a story whom the author is yourself, adversity always prevail if u put your mind to it. You can definitely write being yourself because everyone has a story to tell

  4. I think that was very thought provoking, considering it really helps you realize that it is important to understand yourself, and own up to the consequences that come with the choices you make. Or else, how would you become responsible? How would you become willfully independent, and thrive as your own? Be yourself or else when you reach success defined on other people’s terms, it is quite possible to be restless & disconnected from being inauthentic.

  5. Great post. It really resonated with me as I learn to be more authentic in my writing. I especially liked your comment about owning your screw-ups being more important than not making any. Part of the process of becoming a more authentic person is accepting yourself — flaws and screw-ups and all. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. I love this idea of being “clear-eyed” about oneself and the consequences of being oneself, such great advice! Similarly, learning from ones mistakes or as you word it, “owning your screw-ups is sometimes even more important than not screwing up in the first place” is equally great advice. Nice post.

  7. As a new blog, I find it difficult to find my “voice.” I feel torn between being authentic and being myself, but also writing in a serious manner so that the blogosphere and other bloggers/partners take me seriously. I don’t want to think I did all this for nothing. I really enjoyed your post, and I think I’ll try writing more authentically. People enjoy hearing you, not a robot.

  8. Thanks for this. As a woman who recently got her journalism degree that also has a blog I’ve been struggling with this, and with finding my ‘voice.’ I love the idea of being ‘clear-eyed’.

  9. As a new blogger, I felt this was a helpful post. It does make for a tricky balance. I know my own “voice” is unique but I also feel torn in the need to provide “real content”. Thanks for the thoughtful point of view!

  10. I love everything about your answer and relate in my own twisted way. I spent time selling my soul for more money only to walk away to be myself while building a career in a slower fashion. Let’s just say, I have a less-cushy bank account but I sleep well, secure in my choices.

  11. Great post! I am an amateur blogger and I’ve always been trying to find the perfect way to write. Being myself is hard to do for me on the internet, since my blog is about science and health. Thank you!

  12. Loved your answer. Try to own it. Even if others have their own opinion on the matter.

  13. “Be like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of being like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of not being like yourself. Whatever you do, try to do it well (and I include crap you do to pay the bills in that category too). Don’t let anyone, no matter how well-meaning, decide anything for you – because owning your screw-ups is sometimes even more important than not screwing up in the first place. Let your heart hold fast and good luck.” Well said. Love it. 🙂

  14. A certain amount of caution must be included in acknowledging how badly one performs in various efforts to explore one’s capabilities. I started out in life fully expecting a reasonable amount of success in quite a few directions. I have lived a very long life and all these explorations have convinced me that there are certain very basic functions that almost everybody else has to integrate easily into human activity that are missing from my personality. I don’t think I am particularly stupid but I have yet to achieve any satisfactory success in any direction I have attempted. I am finishing my life finding sufficient satisfaction in merely enjoying being alive and still healthy but with almost no human contacts and no successes to back up any personal optimism. I take no joy in watching the terrible things that current civilization is inflicting on the general mass of humanity but see nothing I can do to ease this growing catastrophe.To withdraw and maintain myself is very unsatisfactory but it seems my only alternative to frustrated attempts to participate and be vigorously rejected.

  15. Bingo. Why do we torment ourselves through years of twisted dramas, disappointment, stubbornness and therapy, before the light of our true selves begins to shine through – and often only via the loving insistence of others? There is still so much to be thankful for, when one does finally come around and acknowledge that which we’ve insisted is not ‘there’…and one can go on, begin anew and mmmm, breathe easier 😉

  16. As an actor who is just finding a voice as a writer, I find this so useful.
    As with any art, it seems, writing takes a meticulous combination of fearlessness, commitment, and self-awareness.

    Thank you for sharing.

  17. Very true , I have started to be myself these days and value my desires about more. It’s really important to be the way we want us to look like rather than anyone else deciding it. I am more confirmed now after reading your post.

  18. I guess the only good thing one can do is be themselves in all honesty ’cause you can never be perfect at the rest as there’ll always be room for further improvement and flaws for the world to point at. However, if you can’t even be yourself than it’s all pointless. Easier said than done! But then again, we as people have a tendency to overthink and over complicate our lives. Nice article.

  19. There is a close possibility of being good at writing while being an international journalist because, of the exposure and knowledge that one otains. However; artistically elaborating the thoughts and at the same time being diverse in corelating with a perception so intense is remarkable. Artistic attributes are developed but one is born with a knack for it. You possess them and trust me you are blessed.

  20. Interesting post. It reminded me slightly of something I read in the introduction to an edition of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. Phillip Meyer, the writer of the piece says: [Great artists (which I suppose includes serious writers)] follow their inner voice into places other will not understand; they work knowing they will be ignored and misunderstood.”

  21. There is a lot more to being a good writer than being a living human being. To write well one must have a huge stock of material at hand and being able to communicate coherently those elements that fit into a created pattern that captures a reader’s interest and imagination. I am aware that I retain a decent vocabulary and my imagination can automatically come up with potential ideas but I lack basic elements of understanding deep human motivations and how they are expressed through personalities that differ from my own. Just as a good actor has the talent to imitate the way someone else of a different culture and experience so that he or she , in effect, becomes this different person, so a good writer can become an appropriate character to create the necessary dialogue out of that understanding. This is way beyond my capability.This involves memories of speech and gesture and language all bundled into a different human being. Beyond that to weave events into a pattern manipulating these pseudo living beings is a magic also outside my skills. My memory of people and events and conversations fades very quickly and there remains only a vague foggy impression of my past to work with. The elements of that skill simply do not exist in me so I am well aware of my limitations.Whatever skills I have lay elsewhere..

  22. Honestly, the tittle of the post attracted me more. Being a writer, I was keen knowing the other aspect. Well, I would like say wonderfully written

  23. Sorry, this was a comment on a friend’s blog & completely irrelevant here. Strangely, it showed up on the correct blog, too, so perhaps it was a WordPress glitch. Or…as I mentioned, I was up to my eyeballs in second grade math mountains. Please forgive the mixup. 🙂

  24. “Be like yourself.” Donald Trump, from his latest tweets, appears to agree with you. Perhaps Trump should have been an artist rather than a failed politician:)

    The more serious lesson is: If you want to be an effective write, don’t write as though you’re selling a product. Effective writers are willing to risk losing market share, or even an election, rather than compromise.

  25. We are all writers but the talent is enormously varied. I can hang a few sentences together and make a shot at punctuation but I’m a dabbler rather than a writer of lasting talent. Journalists are a step much better , they can create interesting articles and provoke thought..
    Yet newspapers are binned at the end of the day.
    Walk into a large bookshop and see the shelves of novels bigger than some libraries. Ask yourself how many of these will be read in one hundred years from today? That does not make them worthless but only a few will pass the test of time. Time tests all human endeavour .
    ‘ My name is Ozymandous King of Kings ‘

  26. I’m with you on writing expertise. I get a few tempting concepts that might be properly developed by a skilled and talented and experienced writer but I’m way off the spectrum of producing a decent piece of work. One of the comments pointed out that a good piece is probably not assembled who only aims at reader satisfaction but nevertheless I doubt that goal can be neglected totally.

    There is a fundamental blockage to the earnest creator of fascinating unusual work by an economic system that discourages stuff that a publisher sees as not fitting the current market plus the market system that demands a reader surrender a good piece of money so that both the publisher and the writer can earn enough money to sustain the business. Copyrights were originally conceived, much in the way patents for inventors were created, to see to it that the designer and writer got a proper reward. But the current trend to extend copyrights even beyond the life of the creator does real damage to creativity that is native to the entire human species. Copying is a basic function of the process of evolution wherein small variations on a basically successful enterprise permits all sorts of success in the life process. The economic system, no doubt, still does fairly well in this area, but we all learn with copying as a fundamental strategy of becoming successful. If all those unread books could somehow be freely put into digital form and archived for free use, all sorts of wild and fascinating and even useful results could be forthcoming. If this could be managed without punishing publishers or artists it could be a major advance culturally for the entire reach of civilization. Public libraries are a small step in this direction and even illegal pirating has a function for this effort but somehow the damage to the financial rewords for the creative effort must be taken into account.

  27. Great post and spoke true to me. I am 33 and just now deciding to be who I have known myself to be. Folks, we’ve only got one life and don’t let it end at the end of the rat race.

  28. Reblogged to with text: An excellent blog my Natalia Antonova on being your authentic self. Thank you

  29. You are quite right I understand what you mean. I know nothing much about publishing and have no plans in that direction being quite content with blogging in an amateurish way. Money does make the world go round in many ways. I’m just a layman with no higher education and aged 75 so I have time to dabble around.

  30. This was such an important read for me. Working at a student newspaper in college and feeling such a strong sense of needing to conform and go by the books is hard. I am a creative, artistic person who simply loves to write. Thank you posting this.

  31. I have problems with words. They are not sounds nor small strings of letters on a page. They are living things that spring out of the darkness when I awake at night. They have odd relatives, synonyms or rhymes or crowds of strange meanings that beg or growl or sometimes scream that I write them down. They carry scents or sense or merely comments on how lovely he universe can be or they are soaked in tears out of the terrors of misery or sometimes they they are a golden haired little girl who wistfully smiles at me in a sun drenched summer day, a beautiful creature that came to me in a dream a decade before I met my wife. Her name is Suvi and she never was born but we both are so, so sorry she never appeared.

    I try to write poetry because it is short and a kind of wild creature that, once in a while comes and licks my extended hand and looks at me with wide friendly eyes. A few people like a poem here or there but the knack of getting all my words to behave and sometimes sing a melody comes not easily to me. I am 90 years old and frightened at what I see going on and I wish it would somehow work out but my sun is getting towards evening and there are things in the night that look very unpleasant.

  32. I am a serious writer all the time, it is a passion I have as well. With that being said, I can say for me I am being my self whether it’s writing or doing anything else I like or love to do. I say you can still be yourself.

  33. That’s a fine piece of prose and a wonderful confession. Poetry is surely the greatest of all written feelings since it is condensed purified prose.
    I greatly admire Emily Dickinson with her short exquisite polished pieces. Phrases stick in the mind long after novels are lost in the past.
    You are right about ‘things in the night’ , as we approach the brink more closely we meditate more about it.
    ‘Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me!’

  34. Whenever I hear the phrase, “be who you are,” I get reminded that what used to sound like “be yourself” is now more synonymous to “be the version of you that the world wants you to be.” Reading this made me think that, you know, fuck it.

  35. Perfect question, if there can be one. Totally agree, own our screw ups, and live authentically. I didn’t know what those meant until I had some age on me, lol. Your honesty is inspiring, appreciate this!

  36. This is truly a great post that gives a lot of interesting meaning behind an otherwise cliche sentiment. “Being yourself” is incredibly hard in the current cultural landscape that’s somewhat defined by the need for popularity in this age of celebrity. I think you have a good understanding on the true importance of it thoug, and make “being yourself” far more than the rhetoric it tends to be. You earned yourself a new follower!

  37. Well, Im new here. . .
    I dont know much of u guys…
    but this post really caught my attention..
    i loved tht question though. of being a serious writer while being yourself…
    That pops up a question- who is a writer? According to me, He’s just an ordinary ,simple person..who dares to see something extra ordinary in everything he does. . . .
    Yes, many a times we ourselves arent aware about who we truly our. . And i guess, thats d reason why we are here. . . The thoughts n ideas n experiences that beautify our imagination n reality we get it down here..So its nt really d question of being a serious writer while being yourself….
    I would rather say. . . .Each one of us hv a hiden writer within us. . . .coz our life is like an untold story…only a few decide to tell it…while d others…arent even aware about it….

  38. Any creative effort benefits by understanding the problems and challenges and by understanding what principles are involved. This effort can of course, be dangerously suppressive of originality but it also can stimulate an effort to be original. I doubt there is a anything that can be damaged by effort and good criticism but there are dangers in authoritative nonsense, Since I don’t consider myself a writer I only comment from my experience in other creative fields which have similar problems.

  39. Interesting thoughts – I feel like finding a balance is so difficult and “serious” really is only a certain perspective that shouldn’t completely define you and your writing style

  40. “Don’t let anyone, no matter how well-meaning, decide anything for you “. This is what I always believe in and slowly and gradually learning to turn down people around me to take decisions for me.

    It was a great and worth reading your blog.

  41. As someone who writes mainly about a subject surrounded by stigma, I have struggled with writing as I would like to. It is refreshing to see that successful writers suffer the same turmoil.

  42. This is a great post! =D When I first decided to post my writing online and still worried about how I was going to build an audience, I refused to use any type of slang because I didn’t want it to take away from how “serious” people thought I was. And that meant I kept a lot of jokes to myself or deleted tweets because I couldn’t spell every word “properly” in the 140 character limit.

    “…honestly, most people in the world won’t care enough to dislike you in the first place.”

    I wish I’d realized this a lot sooner.

  43. As an aspiring journalist this helped open up my eyes into what it really is like to be a journalist and the toll it can take on someone’s mental. I love this idea, your response & your work!

  44. One of the comments pointed out the tendency of a writer to sell his/her article like a product. Sell like that and chances are he/she would be willing to compromise just for the sake of maintaining a market share.

    I agree.

    I’m afraid we could easily measure authenticity of a “serious writer”. Another question that could have been asked is: “Just by being yourself, could you not bring serious trouble to your writing profession?”
    Seriously writing a piece doesn’t necessarily mean one becomes a serious writer. The moment he/she loses character, he/she needs to immediately stop making write-ups. He/she has to prioritize getting back to his/her old true form.

    In my case: For several months I was sport enough to withdraw from exercising my Ability to write, because of the Unavailability of my heart for my readers.

    These days I once again write and talk about my write-ups not because I’ve found myself, but because I’ve been found by God of second chances. If truth be told about me, writing isn’t an acting job. DCA

  45. Really enjoyed reading this. There are so many people out there who still question “who am I?” And it is as if you’re living a dual life, one for the public and one for private viewing.

  46. “My generation grew up on the mantra that you should “be yourself.” This rarely works out well.”

    As someone who is in horizon-view of 50, and who spent the better part of 4 decades “denying” his creative self, I can tell you that no generation is immune to this forsaken mantra or its effects. If I could go back and shake young Tom and tell him, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 44, to follow his particular talents and eschew the rest, I would. If he listened, all the better.

    A really touching piece, and one I wish I would have read, and listened to, years before. 🙂

  47. Love this short, but inspiring & insightful blog. My first day & I come across something true & meaningful, but hits right to the core. 😊😢🤘🏼💞🦄 I cry a lot……but thanks for this little bit of confidence boosting.

  48. I’ve always been the odd one and gotten used to not being liked or accepted for my choices. Strange perhaps but I found this post to be very comforting.

    “Any meaningful life choice involves a degree of sacrifice. So you do what you must. And you give thanks for being disliked, because, honestly, most people in the world won’t care enough to dislike you in the first place.”

    Love this sentence, thank you for this great post.

  49. The part that will stick with me personally in this was to include all the crap you do to pay the bills. That is just as big a part of you as your aspirations and imagination. It was truly something I can personally relate to. Thank you for this!

  50. so inspiring….i hope my blog too “Karina’s Way” like yours would go a long way.

  51. Wow. What a crazy coincidence, I found this post when I was just beginning to ask myself a very similar question. Thank you for this.

  52. I want to take a writing class again. I was myself once and nobody understood what I wrote. ☺️😁

  53. Great advice! How many people lead miserable lives because they’re trying to be something they aren’t? I’m glad to be who I am, weird quirks and all. If people can’t appreciate me for the *interesting* person I am, so be it. There are others who are willing to look at the person inside.

  54. An amazing confession. I must confess my inside person, who is far more talented and wise that I could ever be has evaded my introspection all my life. There is the temptation to suspect it is an outworlder who uses my life the way a reader moves his finger under a line of type to focus his perception of reality but reality scurries off in unpredictable ways and that line of type fades and reforms continuously to murmur new mysteries.

  55. Forthright views from a journalist turned writer.I like it very much, because, I can also take many things from it for me, of course without the permission of the author and from whom the answers were meant for.I hope both of them will not mind it.

  56. I find it most strange, all these declarations of self knowledge. I have lived long enough to experience much of the life of this social era and yet myself remains a complete mystery.I am unable to do many of the things most people do easily yet do many things which seem beyond my capability.

  57. For me, it simply came from YEARS of counseling, after finally being sick and tired of making stupid decisions, not liking the repercussions, and not moving forward in life! I woke up one day and realized I didn’t like myself and it was time for a change. I put in the work to make change happen.

  58. It was with much relief that I read ‘nobody will care enough to dislike you’, that means I don’t have to give a damn anyway! Love the post and a special thanks to jiisand who echoes a lot of my own sentiments.,

  59. I loved this. Thank you!! I’m new to the ‘blog world’ but not new to expressing myself. I have always loved writing and more so have always loved being a little bit ‘out of the square’. My children call me a ‘hippy’ mum – they are now well and truly grown. One day soon I will ask them what they meant by this. But as you have said in your blog – I have always taught them to be themselves. Let’s see what their future brings 🙂

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