Who am I?

by Pari

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all existential on you. Leave that to Camus . . .
But I have been thinking a lot lately about what I write and why I write it.

Up until the Master Class, I always introduced myself as a mystery writer. End of story. Let people draw whatever conclusions they wanted. I knew what that meant. However, a weird thing happened during those two weeks in Oregon. All of us wrote well more than 30,000 words. And guess what? Of the three short stories, the ten or so book proposals, and all the other assignments, I came up with exactly one thing that had to do with the mystery genre. Yep. One measly four-page book proposal.

Of course, I didn’t write anything funny either. But that’s probably due to the fact that I was so tired I skipped over being slaphappy and went straight into morose.

What the hell?

The mystery thing, the lack thereof, seriously messed with my mind. I’d established myself with writing traditional mysteries. That’s where I’d garnered nominations, met other writers, relished spending time with readers. And I was abandoning all of that?

Skip forward nine months. I’m writing daily again. Short stories for now. The pieces I’ve worked on so far are all over the place – in terms of genre – horror, fantasy, mainstream, literary. Notice anything missing?

It seems that my identity as a mystery writer has somehow morphed into something far simpler but much more problematic.

I’m a writer.
C’est tout.

From a marketing/public relations perspective, this is a disaster. Conventional wisdom dictates that once you’ve established an audience, you should keep writing works that audience expects/wants. That way your readers can find you. But screw that!

I don’t want to be consistent right now. I don’t want to shove myself into any category – not even fiction vs. nonfiction. I just want to write, damnit! I want to have fun, to explore where my creativity wants to go next, to see what’s around all those twisty turns in my mind.

So where do I go from here?

Hell, I don’t know.
I’m just going . . .

(More food for thought: Toni Causey’s excellent exploration about writers and joy and joy in writing from yesterday — right here in the ‘Rati. Go there immediately if you didn’t read it. Go on. I’ll wait . . .)

My questions for discussion today:

1. For everyone: Has your personal myth, the one you repeat to yourself and the public, ever changed unintentionally?

2. Readers: Should writers stick to their successes, write what they’ve written at least some of the time, to keep growing audience? Is it a betrayal when they don’t? Should they use pen names to give readers/editors a clue that they’re going in new directions?

3. Writers:  Have you ever had these moments of redefinition? How have you handled them? Have they brought you joy (thanks, Toni) or caused misery?

37 thoughts on “Who am I?

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I don’t have any answers, really, to the question if writers should stick to their successes. Sometimes readers follow an author anywhere. Sometimes authors should finish what they started and laugh all the way to bank — I’m thinking of JK Rowling, what if she stopped in mid series? But I suppose mostly I think that a writer should do whatever they feel is right. Readers will follow or won’t, the writer can’t control that and shouldn’t get wrapped up in what they can’t control.
    My personal myth has changed a lot. When I was 19 I became "PK", a truly different person than before. You could also say I changed again when I got married and instead of an "I" it was suddenly "we" and affected everything I did and thought. Career-wise, I’ve had a lot of jobs and my persona changed with them — being a manager versus a cog in a wheel affects how I present myself and even think of myself.
    Which brings me back to your writer dilemma. I’ve changed jobs a lot, why can’t you? You’re still a writer, just differently if you choose.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, am I looking forward to the comments on this one. I didn’t use a different name for my paranormal that comes out in the fall and am wondering if half my regular readers are going to hate me. But if paranormal readers cross over to read me, why shouldn’t I cross over to write for them?

    I am writing two other things that are out of my comfort level, and had to start a third book just to feel I was delivering SOMETHING in my established mutliple cross-genre genre. But I read for the author, and I’m always interested in what comes out of a particular author, as long as they’re committed to the story they’re telling, and that’s just part of the job.

  3. Vicky

    I’m a fan of John Grisham and read his books as soon as they were available. But one seemed to have slipped under my radar and I happened upon it by accident. It’s called "A Painted House" and was a complete departure from his normal lawyer based stories. A novel written from the perspective of a young boy growing up on a dirt poor farm. In my opinion, it’s the best work he’s ever done. So glad he strayed from the expected to write this.
    A good writer writes good regardless of genre.

  4. Spencer Seidel

    I don’t mind at all as a reader when an author tries a different genre. If it’s a genre I like, I’ll check it out for sure. As a writer, I struggle with this. My debut is a mystery/thriller, but I’m dying to work on a horror novel, which is next in my writing queue after another mystery/thriller. I may try to sell it under a different name. Not sure yet.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Thank you, Pari!

    I’m especially interested in whether there is an absolute need for a pen name, or if the cover is different enough from the writer’s covers in another genre, is that sufficient warning to the reader that this is a new type of book?

    Great questions — I’m looking forward to seeing the discussion today.

  6. Kaye Barley

    If I enjoy a writer’s writing, I really don’t pay any attention to the genre. I’m sorry, but I just hate all those tags, and sub-tags, and sub sub-tags – there are so many of them they’ve lost meaning.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I applaud you for writing from your heart, Pari. It’s a harder battle. I think you should write what moves you.

  8. Fran

    As a reader, if I like an author, I want to know it’s the author’s work despite genre. I don’t read just mystery, so why would I expect my authors to write just mystery? I think that authors have to stretch themselves and their skills. Otherwise you may as well fill out a form with different names and towns and write the same damn book over and over again.

  9. Rebbie Macintyre

    Pari, it’s just damned scary, isn’t it? But your writing self is telling you what you have to do, so congratulations on going for it. I love the sentiment of Dashiell Hammett–and I’m paraphrasing here. He supposedly was talking to Lillian Hellman: "Being published and being famous is great, but it’s only a paint job. It’s got nothing to do with writing."

  10. anonymous

    Louise? Get a new mirror. There is something wrong with the one you have. You’re a wonderful mythical woman writer. Ask anyone who has ‘read’ you. So there.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    Wow. I had an appointment with my daughter and just got back. Thank you for the comments so far.

    I like that admonition for writers not to get wrapped up in what they can’t control. That’s such good advice and so incredibly difficult to follow.

    And those changing personal myths — yeah. Wife . . . Mother . . . and for me at least, now, Crone <g>

    I think that the two genres you’ve worked in so far are fairly close in many ways. I bet you won’t find a lot of hostility for the jump. I am VERY interested to know what you’re writing that’s out of your comfort zone. I guess I can’t imagine anything . . . well, except maybe regency romance or something like that.

    Thank you. That gives me hope.

  12. pari noskin taichert

    I’m with you about following the writer if I like the genre. Donald Westlake wrote funny and dark and I gravitated to the funny. Didn’t like the dark stuff at all, just not my bag no matter who the author might be.
    I’ll be interested to know what you decide with the horror novel and a pen name. Keep us posted.

    Good point about the cover art. It might be enough. But I’ve got to say that I’ve picked up books by authors where I thought I was getting one thing and ended up with something quite different and resented it. Sometimes the cover art is more about selling the book and the reader be damned (sometimes <g>).

    Thanks, Louise.
    And I’m with anonymous here — BUY A NEW MIRROR!

    I’m with you on this. I think the hyperlabeling we’ve fallen into as a society is creating meaninglessness.
    Perhaps that’s the goal?

  13. Dudley Forster

    My personal myth usually changes gradually, like when I was in law school and was taught to be amoral (left law so I am me again). There are, however, three times when there was a sudden change; when I left home for college, when I got married and when my first child was born.

    As a reader, if an author is on my must read list then I will follow her to any genre I like, so don’t write romances (shudder). I think if a writer is writing in a genre just for the bucks it will be reflected in her work. There is one author that immediately comes to mind whose early suspense novels were fantastic, but in her later work jumped the shark. When I read those works it was as if a light had gone out, her heart was not in it anymore and it was apparent that she was either writing to satisfy some multi book deal or just for the money. So if the writer in you is pulling in a new direction, go for it. Just don’t write romances.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    It is a harder battle as far as getting published, I think. I’m not complaining. I’ve made some difficult decisions during the last nine months that will affect my career and my relationship to it. But we all walk these different roads and I’m finding that being true to myself is really important at this stage in my life.

    I adore you.
    Thank you.

    I hadn’t read that quote . . . or the paraphrase before. And I love it.
    I continue to think that creativity in our society has been so commoditized that we no longer honor nor nurture it. It’s a dangerous trend when we think *anyone* can write a book, make a movie, dance etc etc etc — when we put prices on it and judge success only in terms of monetary gain.

    Oh . . . man . . . I could go on forever on that one.

    Anonymous? YEAH!

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Those sudden changes happened to me too. Same periods in my life. Other huge ones happened when my parents died. I completely reevaluated everything. We’re talking seismic shifts.

    As to that light in a writer’s work, I know what you mean. Some books read like formulas, the authors seem to be more in the background . . . eating popcorn and texting and driving rather than concentrating on the work at hand. I’m always dismayed when I start one of those.

    So you’re not a romance reader? Well, I don’t know what to say. One of the books I’m thinking about writing is a romancy-historical-suspensey-mythicy thing. I’m scared to commit to it because it feels like it’ll be soooooooooooo much work. But it’s also the first idea I’ve encountered that just won’t leave me alone. I even dream about it.

  16. Robin McCormack

    I’m an eclectic reader so enjoy a variety of genres. I love it when writers I love to read branch out and try different genres or change voice from story to story. There are some writers (none here) who use a formula in every book and after a while it gets boring and I quit reading their books. So I say mix it up, surprise us.

    I’ve just started growing my writing wings and have to say if I had to stick with one thing, I’d never grow. Listening to my imagination and experimenting with stories is a learning experience. I know in business they say to find a niche and fill that niche. But it also has to be unique. I was just asking someone the other day if there was a bootcamp for writers and he told me about Dean Wesley Smith in Oregon. Synchronicity!

  17. Judy Wirzberger

    Just back from spending four days with Jacqueline Winspear, John Lescroart, Don Winslow, Cara Black, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Katherine Neville, and Elizabeth George – Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. (missed you Louise and Cornelia). One of the great lessons scratched on my mental blackboard is to write with your body rather than your head. When something feels wrong, it probably is. So if you want to take a break from what you’re writing, do it. Your agent and your editor will be there to guide you, but more importantly, your family of supporters, friends, relatives, readers and writers. Also, there should always be an element of fun in the process from thought to the reader’s hands. And for the mass of prepublished, every one of the above talked about their writing insecurities. Do painters feel that way? By the way, I had a consultation with Michael Pietsch and walked away smiling from my lips to my toes.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Interesting post!

    I’d love to write in other genres – supernatural, graphic novel, sci-fi, screenplay. I read some authors specifically for certain series and not others, and some authors I’d read their shopping list if I could get hold of it, because any words they put down on paper are worth reading.

    If this story is invading your dreams, go for it!

  19. pari noskin taichert

    I’m delighted you had such a wonderful time at Book Passage. The idea of writing with your body is a good one. I like the images it evokes.

    Do you want to share your good news with us? Or maybe you’re waiting?
    I’ll see about the story. From the outside, it just seems like so much work. Dang. That might be all the more reason to try it.

  20. Cornelia Read

    Pari, my personal mythology changed when I actually finished the first draft of my first novel. I had a reputation in my family as "the one who’s talented but has no follow-through and will never accomplish anything." Which sucked pretty hard.

    And then my life just turned so awful for several years that I went deeper into writing–my marriage was falling apart, my husband and I had both lost our jobs, my daughter’s handicap became more and more daunting and sad. I was absolutely flailing in the world, and I think that first book was actually nostalgia for when I’d first met my husband, and still had a sense of myself as a person.

    It was a blessing to get published, but it also drove a stake through the heart of that relationship. In a good but terrifying way. I’ve met wonderful people, who’ve helped me weather some pretty scary shit over the last few years. I’m having a very hard time writing–and have had for the last year–but my life is still so much more profoundly better than it had been in decades.

    I just wish I weren’t so scared I’m going to fuck it all up, I guess.

  21. JT Ellison

    I’m a big believer in writing what screams at you to be written, not what the market wants. And I think many, many authors have had success doing just that. I don’t see this as such a big deal, though I know others will disagree, and they’d probably be right. All I know is I try to write a completely different book every time, because if I wrote the same thing over and over I’d get bored. I like to change it up, and if that’s what’s speaking to you Pari, then that’s absolutely what you should do. Follow your heart. Genres are just a label, like everything else. Don’t box yourself in, and think of all the people who love your writing regardless of whether they’re getting the same kind of story again. You know?

  22. pari noskin taichert

    You won’t fuck it up.
    There’s a big, beautiful future awaiting you. I feel it in my bones.

    Yeah, I know.
    That’s why I’m letting myself go with it. If I didn’t, I’d be writing against my heart and that would result in sheer crap. So, here I go.


  23. Alafair Burke

    I know this is a little hippie-dippie for some folks, but I believe writers find the stories that are presented to them. All a writer can do is work with that material to try to write the best book she can write at that moment. It’s up to publishers, marketers, publicists, and booksellers to come up with labels.

  24. anonymous

    I had to take a long think on your question to readers. Let me say that I just love a really good story. You guys have blogged on that subject before. Everyone has preferences for certain reads. When I find a good author I don’t necessarily care if she writes the same ‘story’ over and over again……as long as it’s GOOD.

    Sometimes I am in the mood to read dark. Sometimes humorous. Sometimes non-fiction. I will read books about a region if I am going to travel there. I will admit that I read Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell because I know what to expect. Cornwell wrote other books that were not Scarpettas and didn’t use another name. I never understood why Ruth Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine.

    What’s the word I am looking for here, like anthropomorphizing but not…. I don’t necessarily think that the protagonist is the author’s alter-ego, even though many times this can be true. So if an author wants to write a completely new character, maybe a dirty bitchy ignorant racist lying slut character, I won’t think that the author has gone through a mid-life crisis. So why use a pen name? I just don’t know. I guess I think pen names are confusing to readers.

    Are you trying to decide if you will drop Sasha altogether? Then that WOULD be a disappointment to your fans. ; – } But, on the other hand, maybe you will develop another character that is just as compelling. Maybe, after years of experience, you will write a BETTER stand alone if you are really excited with your new direction. You have to love what you do or else, why bother, right?

    Example: Louise, whose abusive mirror was probably purchased where my myth breaking mirror was (where the hell do ya get one of those ‘who’s the fairest in the land’ ones?) wrote three completely different novels. Different characters and different ‘moods’. I actually thought Liars Anonymous was really dark. It made me very sad. BUT. It was so well written that it didn’t disappoint.

    Keep your name (everyone has finally figured out how to pronounce it so don’t go changin’) and just write another good story because that is all you know how to do. There ya go.

  25. pari noskin taichert

    Eloquently said. I believe you’re right.

    What a wonderful response. Thank you for taking the questions seriously. I’ve heard so many opinions on the pen name thing and still haven’t come to a conclusion.

    And you’re right about Louise and her works.

    One advantage for a pen name is that some writers who don’t sell through their print runs get a sort of negative rep with publishers . . . and so they use a pen name to combat that. Or if someone who wrote gory novels suddenly went straight to unicorns and rainbows, there might be a problem.

    I’m not sure what I’ll do. I AM probably going to drop the "Taichert" when my fiction is printed next because I’ve found that "Pari Noskin" is a lot easier for people to handle than the three names together.

    As to dropping Sasha completely . . . I thought I was going to, but now am a bit unsure. I may bring her back eventually.

    For now, I’m happy to be writing and getting better at my craft. That’s good for the moment.

  26. pari noskin taichert

    Don’t worry. I’ll do it for sure. That’s one of the pleasures of writing this blog . . . staying in touch with a larger community than my little world here in the rainy southwest.

  27. Catherine

    Yes my personal myth has changed unintentionally. I’m still reformatting my image of myself as a consequence of that period of my life. At the time it was all a bit of a rude shock with some of my self discoveries and the reflected views back from people around me. Now I’m on the other side of it I can see the benefits of what sometimes felt like brutal transformation. I think that’s sometimes the hardest part… having an inner knowing that ultimately this will be good for you, but not knowing when you’ll actually start seeing the results.

    As a reader I’m not sure if I’m an idealist or being realistic about writing. From what I’ve read here over the last few years I would imagine that just to keep turning up to the keyboard is a challenge when you love where you are being lead.

    So it begs the question why would you make the process harder for yourself to fight against your muse?

    I would imagine that it would mute your creativity and reduce something you’ve been drawn to, to a grind.

    In reference to Toni’s post yesterday…why would you want to create a situation where you suck the joy out of creating?

    You may bring readers with you across genres, you may not. You may bring onboard other readers. This is all out of your control.

    From my understanding in the life cycle of book there are a lot of people involved. However at the time where you initially create a story, before other people assist, that idea is yours and yours alone.

    I think there is a possibility that too much analysis of undetermined future events may erode your writing energy. So um stop it Pari. Less worry, more embracing the fun and the twisty turns of writing.

    The above comment is meant in the nicest bossy way possible.

  28. toni mcgee causey

    I have to answer Catherine’s question, because I think it’s a fair one. You asked, "In reference to Toni’s post yesterday…why would you want to create a situation where you suck the joy out of creating?"

    And my answer is: Well, it wasn’t obvious at the outset that it was going to suck the joy out of it.

    I know in my case, I was trying to do something that I knew I loved doing, and I knew I’d had some success with that genre, and I knew that there were editors who were actively pursuing me for that genre (including a very big-name editor from a different house), and you put all of that together, and you think, "Well, duh. Of course I can do that."

    Professionals show up and do their jobs. As a civil contractor, I don’t get to say to a client, "Ya know, I just am not ‘feeling’ the concrete pour today. I poured so much yesterday, I need to recharge, rethink my plans. How do you feel about limestone instead?’ " And when you’ve created expectations (whether it’s with your audience or your agent or your editor/publisher), there’s a certain element of the fact that this is a business and we don’t whine and we show up and get the work done. It really cannot always be about where the muse takes us–because what if we’re in the middle of a contracted book and the muse suddenly wants to switch genres? That happens… and the professional writer recognizes it for what it is–a method of procrastinating–and stops that nonsense and gets back to work.

    So it’s not always easy to look at a path that you’re about to go down and realize that there lies the wrong path. We’ll often assume that it’s procrastination or a short-term feeling of inadequacy masking itself or ennui. Or any of a dozen other things, because we want to make the other professionals around us happy.

    It’s much much harder, in my opinion, to have an editor actively pursuing you for one genre, someone who is a dream editor, and then saying to yourself, "I can’t do that right now, because this other book is burning a hole in me, I have to get it out." That is when you wonder if you’ve sort of lost your mind–because you could be potentially derailing your own career. Until you start down that path, and realize, no. No, this is exactly what you were supposed to do, because you just learned all kinds of things you wouldn’t have learned down that other path. And so when you do go down that other path, you now take these new skills with you that will make that dream editor happy.

    At some point, you finally realize that everything is a risk. Staying in the same place can be a risk. Sometimes a bigger one than change would be.

    Which is kinda freeing, really.

  29. pari noskin taichert

    Awwww, Catherine. I’m laughing here. Of course too much analysis sucks it all out. But I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately, about what I want to do, want to write etc. A bit of self-analysis isn’t going to kill me.

    Don’t forget that I AM writing every day. I AM doing it and following my muse (though holding off on the book that scares me even before I start it — and WILL probably end up writing it b/c it’ll become too annoying to keep rejecting <g>). So I am fine.

    Thank you. Well, well said.
    I’ve started taking all kinds of risks lately. And it’s scary. It is.
    I think I’ll write about one of them when next I post. It’s about giving up my fine agent. I did. Not out of anger or upset, but because I have to AND want to take more responsibility for my own career and writing.

  30. Catherine

    Through my reformatting of myself, I’ve learnt that I can exist comfortably not making waves, but to truly feel alive I need to push my way through uncertainty and a lot of really awkward uncomfortable feelings to live my life fully. Some of that involves sometimes speaking or writing without understanding all of the ramifications of what I’m putting out there. Well at least it reveals the gaps in my knowledge and provides ample space to learn.

    It’s funny when I mentioned Toni’s post of yesterday I thought of it as an example of how to follow your joy…admittedly down a scary path, with a pretty wild ride, but still finding a way to embrace that joy of writing.

    Thanks Toni for expanding my knowledge.

  31. Catherine

    Pari thank goodness you’re laughing.I’m really glad you’re fine and writing daily.

    I think I may of somehow incorporated a lot of my own fears in my comment. Writing scares the crap out of me …not literally but I do feel quivery and probably as anxious as all get out…


  32. toni mcgee causey

    Catherine, you’re a good sport, letting me pounce on that question and expand that side of the point… it was probably way more helpful for me to think it through and write that out to you, than for anyone else to read it. (grin)

  33. pari noskin taichert

    And let me add, Catherine, that through Murderati and our private emails, I know you to be a thoughtful person . . . someone who really examines issues carefully. I appreciate your candor.

  34. Lea Wait

    I love this stream of thoughts! I’m someone who stumbled into mystery writing, and who now has a label. I also write "other things." Yup. Did before the mysteries, and continue to do so. It is some sort of mystery in itself why the label "mystery writer" (as does "romance writer" for some people) gets affixed with very sticky glue, and for some readers seems to eliminate any other possibilities. But, then, I can say with certainty that there are other writing worlds out there. Because I write in more than one genre, there are actually people who (sh….) don’t even KNOW I write mysteries! Kind of like the old Roman masks of comedy and tragedy. (And which will I choose to put on today?) Remember — it’s your life … and all the masks are of your own design ….


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