Because I write poetry, for most of my life I thought of myself as a poet. And because poets don’t make a living simply writing and publishing poetry (even the most famous ones supplement their income with teaching, speaking and lecturing), I resigned myself to a fate of scribbling poems in the margins of my life while I got paid to do other things.
Then a few years ago, I took Christina Katz’s platform-building class where it dawned on me that the scraps of margins I’d been filling year after year added up to pages, even books. Through the exercises in that class, I discovered that somehow under my own nose I had already built the framework of a platform; I just didn’t know it. And I certainly hadn’t claimed it.
As it turns out, my primary love of writing poetry was fueling many secondary activities and accomplishments: publication, awards, writing residencies, teaching, public speaking and running a reading series. For the first time, I also understood that the marketing communications business I’d founded more than a decade ago-the one that pays the bills-is also a part of my poetic process. Being paid to write in the corporate sphere has honed my ear and kept my pencil sharp.
In short, I discovered that “poet” was far too limiting of a descriptor for what I do. “Writing the life poetic” felt more inclusive of how I live and work; I claimed this phrase as the umbrella platform of my writing life. By stretching my own self-definition, I started to see the work I was doing in my community through a new lens. Suddenly, so much more seemed possible and within reach. Within months of this realization, I was circulating a newsletter, had updated my website, had been invited to read and speak at several conferences and events, and had pitched a book. A year later, I’m putting the finishing touches on my book Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books. The old idea that being a poet doesn’t pay has been kicked to the curb.
What I learned from this experience is that the name we assign to our writing work and our writing life can be a cage or a limitless field of potential, depending on what kind of lens we’re looking through. How have you named your writing life and your role in it? Might you be seeing yourself too small-and as a result selling yourself too short? What if you were to take a wide-angle view and give yourself a little more room to move and grow? You just might find that as your identity expands, your writing repertoire and audience will expand proportionately along with it.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.