Checking in at a conference these days is a like checking into an all-inclusive resort.  You get a map, schedule of activities, meal ticket, satisfaction survey, and all sorts of other information designed to help you enjoy your stay.  One of the items in your goodie bag is always the dreaded nametag.  For some, a nametag might feel just fine clipped onto their lapel but for me it feels like a five pound out of focus snapshot hanging from my chest.  Whether it’s a clip-on, pin-on, stick-on, or lanyard I hate what has now become the equivalent of a resume.

Fortunately, when I arrived at my first-ever writer’s conference last weekend a nametag hadn’t been made for me.  The registration volunteers scurried to make one but I stopped them quickly and told them not to bother I’d be just fine without it.  This turned out to be a good decision because after three days of surveying hundreds of nametags I’m not sure what I would have wanted printed on mine.

The name part seems pretty simple but since my name has changed again which name would I have used?  I could use my legal name but if I was going to promote my writing perhaps I should use the name under which it’s been published?  A quandary for sure but the good news is that I wasn’t the only person with this dilemma.  I noticed quite a few nametags where first names had been crossed off and changed and last names had been hyphenated.  I even saw a man with a hyphenated name but I wasn’t brave enough to ask him about this.

Where you’re from is pretty straightforward but I noticed a few people who added details here as well.  The best was the tag that said, “Temporarily in Branson, MO.”  I got to thinking maybe the guy was a huge fan of country music and since the Grand Ole Opry is rained out he had to relocate for a while.

Name and place used to be uncomplicated but we’re a society on the move struggling to find our identity so what can you expect?  Where it got really crazy was with titles and this is where I went nuts people watching.  As hard as I tried I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone because I was so intrigued with all the titles that had been preprinted and/or added in.  Despite any effort to the contrary my eyes immediately went right to the nametag.

It seems for one conference participant it was very important to let people know she’d earned her Master of Arts degree.  She’d taken a Sharpie and added “M.A.” after her name.  I wondered which art she felt like a master of – art or fine art.  I looked high and low for an R.N. or M.D. in case I started feeling faint at the sight of so many labels but I couldn’t find a medical professional in the bunch.

Where the nametags became very puzzling was with the distinction between “writer” and “author”.  I understand the difference between a publisher and an agent even though both just essentially sell books but by definition a writer is an author so what gives?  It feels like a tomato/ta-mot-oh kind of deal but apparently quite a few of the Christian writers/authors in attendance were very concerned about being labeled properly.

Curious lady that I am I finally decided to look up both words.  Ahead of cracking open my 30 year old Random House College Dictionary I thought surely I’ve been confused all these years and a writer must do something different than an author.   Nobody would go to the effort to change their nametag unless the difference between a writer and an author was significant.

It seems, however, that for once I’m not confused and I do have it right.  An author is in fact a writer and a writer is an author if they actually write which they do.  A writer does need to produce something to be an author but that’s as far as the distinction between the two goes.  Now I was getting somewhere but just to be sure that time hadn’t changed things I looked up these definitions online only to discover that my Random House had proven reliable.  Time has not changed the definition of a writer or an author.

Why then were people so concerned about this?  I could only conclude it had something to do with ego.  To say you’re an author suggests your work has been published whereas a writer could simply be someone who has strung a few words together.  I guess this is why if you want to get your proper respect when someone asks, you can’t simply say write because that doesn’t sound nearly as prestigious as, “I’m the author of Gone with the Wind II”.

Labels, labels, labels, everywhere we go they follow.  Sometimes labels are useful.  A short word or phrase used to describe something can be very helpful.   It would be impossible to catalogue all the information we process during our lifetime without some labeling.  Categorizing things in terms of helpful, harmful, friendly, tasty, etc. brings order to our thinking.  People, however, are complex targets and when our labels shape our perceptions and stereotype them it’s not good.

Perhaps this is why the first time the word “autism” was mentioned to me with regard to my son I passed out.  I pictured Dustin Hoffman as Raymond in the movie, “Rain Man”.  I didn’t know a thing about autism beyond what this movie had portrayed.  From that day forward more labels have been attached to his life and mine than a widowed Orange County soccer Mom of four struggling to get by.  Just like that mother would be I’m as weary of labels as I am my life experience but I suppose it comes with the territory just like author, writer, publisher, and agent prevail at a gathering of wordy people.

It’s sad because our descriptions do more to limit our understanding than stretch it.  When someone refers to an autistic as “high functioning” what does that mean?  Does it mean they look more normal?  What does normal actually look like?  Does it look like you and the people you know?  With so many possibilities the circling begins and you miss the point.  If the casual observer thinks that life for a more normal looking autistic is easier than a child who is noticeably more impacted by autism they are mistaken.

Ask a mainstreamed autistic teenager trying to navigate the crazy social landscape of high school and they might tell you they would rather live in their own little world.  Having enough social awareness to understand that you are a fundamentally different person than your average peer is not such a great thing.  Looking like you fit in doesn’t mean you do and at times like that you can’t feel very “high functioning”.  Being more adaptable and able to function fairly well with your peers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The emotional wear and tear combined with hormones is a rollercoaster ride.

Perhaps this is why all the nametags make me crazy?  Yes they can break the ice and stimulate conversation but will it be anything meaningful?  Outward appearances are deceiving.  What you do isn’t who you are and how you are labeled isn’t what defines you.  What you do with what you’ve had says far more but even if you put your life story on your lapel nobody can read you with a quick glance!

  1. Please keep writing, authoring, mothering and being. You certainly are a gift in this day for me.
    Another label!!

  2. Excellent! Couldn’t be better. I hate labels. Hardly any work for me. If you want to shut down a conversation say you’re a school principal. End of conversation. Say you’re a writer. What do you write? Tell them some of your best writing has been for black magazines. End of conversation.

    For the future I’m going to go with this. “I’ve never worked. I’ve been managing and living on a modest trust fund since I was 21.” That should end the conversation.

Leave a Reply