A pink fountain pen on a page of a spiral-bound notebook covered in blue handwriting

Who You Are, When You Are

One day last week, it was brought to my attention twice that as an artist, a craftsperson, a creative person, that you can only be who you are, when you are. When a concept snags in my mind like stringy algae on a stick in a stream, I tend to swirl it around in the mental waters for a while, figuring it must be related to something else I’m thinking about. I’ll get there eventually, but I’m trying something new by swirling the mental waters in public.

The first mention was on the We Can Do Hard Things podcast, when the musician and producer Brandi Carlile was speaking of her admiration for Tish Melton, a singer-songwriter who has just released her first album at at eighteen (Carlile produced it). Carlile mentioned that one of the things she admires about Melton and her cohort of current young performers is their ability to write and sing about the things that are real to them in this moment, at this age. They’re not pretending to be older or writing from a middle-aged point of view; they’re singing about calling a friend’s mom or the struggle of maintaining a friendship when you’re maturing at different rates or just growing apart.

The second mention was in I’m Not There, the Todd Haynes movie about the many facets of Bob Dylan, each played by a different actor. (I have mixed feelings about the movie, but that’s another essay. Or just ask me about it.) Early on, the young Dylan’s persona is embodied by a Black actor hopping trains and telling people his name is Woody Guthrie. The eleven-year-old musician in baggy pants and suspenders meets a family who jam with him on the porch (Richie Havens!) then invite him to stay. During dinner, the mother gently criticizes the kid for singing about trains and hobos and Depression-era leftist nostalgia, then advises him to turn his talent toward the current moment (1959, she says) and its struggles.

I am neither an eighteen-year-old musician nor a young Bob Dylan. But I think the thing that is caught in my mind is the idea of inhabiting the person you are—which encompasses many facets or personae—and the time in which you live. Even here, solidly in my middle age (if all goes well this is the middle), I’m assembling all my parts and personae into one human. It’s an ongoing project that will take up my whole life (again, if all goes well). New facets, like learning of my neurodivergence, pop up sometimes, and old facets, like being an automotive journalist, fall away. Some stick around pretty steadily, like reading voraciously and being a dog person.

The bigger struggle for me is inhabiting the time in which I live. Though I know better, and have known better for years, I cannot shake the idea of “the writing life.” You know the one: no job other than turning to the book at hand, no expectation of marketing, no household chores, no social media obligations or addictions. Definitely no Two Dots on my phone. Just writing and reading and long walks with the dog. Sometimes an evening of literary discussion with a friend or two, probably while sitting in wingback chairs. This has never been the writing life. It’s always involved hustle and struggle and side gigs or main gigs and finding ways to get your work into readers’ hands.

Even W. H. Auden mocked the ideal writing life in his poem “I have a handsome profile,” from 1932:

I’ll hire a furnished attic
A room on the top floor
I’ll spend my mornings writing
A book that would cause a furore
About a world that has had its day.

(Thanks to Ian Sansom’s excellent September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem, which quoted those lines.)

I think my way of inhabiting the time in which I live as a writer is in building that absolutely fake yet ideal writing life here on The Wingback. This website is where I (and you, if you like) can pretend we’re in those wingback chairs with coffee, or tea, or whiskey, or whatever you like, discussing books and creativity. This can only be accomplished because I live in a time with widespread, fast internet access. While the rest of the internet enshittifies (thank you, Cory Doctorow), we can build our small electronic havens. It’s only because I’m me, with all my perks and quirks, and because I live in this particular time that The Wingback is even possible.

I’m still working on both the vision for The Wingback and the actual website itself. Stick with me; I think it’ll be amazing.

Order KHG’s latest translation, Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion, available now as a paperback or ebook.