Thursday, February 09, 2006

Do You Call Yourself a Writer?

Twice this week I've had a casual conversation with a near-stranger. As is often the case, one of the standard small talk lines is "What do you do for a living?" So here's my question to you: Do you call yourself a writer? I've been writing for a long time, but the vast majority of the things I've had published wouldn't be known by Joe Average-On-The-Street. I do, however, write freelance now (or near full time, as I'm still working on my Ph.D. as well). It used to be I could say, "I work for NASA," and that would start up all kinds of interesting conversations, but in about three weeks, I won't be able to say that any more. Many people still consider someone who stays at home and writes all day to be basically a bum who couldn't get a real job. Even some well-intentioned folks betray that subconscious bias sometimes. For example, Betsy Lerner (The Forest for the Trees) reports a story she heard a writer who was seeing a therapist (a subject worth an entry all its own, I guess). The therapist only wanted to schedule the writer for morning appointments, since she saved her after-5:00 appointments for "people who work." The assumption is that since you work at home, you aren't really employed and so can make any appointment during the day -- never mind that your "peak writing hours" may be at midday or even from 9 to 5, the same as people with "outside" jobs.

There's no reason why non-writers should understand that writing is a job and that it takes just as much effort and work as any other job. We writers are guilty sometimes of wanting to make it seem like "magic" so we can enhance our mystique, as well. But when you are in casual conversation with a non-writer, you don't really want to take the time to explain all about the writing process and how much work it really is -- and you would be considered a bore if you did. On the other hand, if you call yourself a writer, but they haven't read anything you've written (or seen it published), then their suspicions are obviously confirmed -- you can't be much of a writer if you aren't getting published in the "major" magazines. Never mind that there are many, many very successful professional writers who neither have published in the "majors" nor are they seeking to. My education writing is in a very esoteric market, yet I'm highly respected within that market --but Joe Average has never heard of any of it, so that really doesn't matter, does it?

I'm proud to be a writer, and I generally introduce myself as such, particularly since I no longer have another "label" to use in small talk. But I still haven't found a really good, quick way to convey that in the positive sense that it is, and I'll admit to feeling just a tiny bit uncomfortable calling myself a writer to strangers. If I publish a book they can find in Borders, then I think I'd feel better about. But let's face it, that's just silly. You're a writer because of what you do, not because of what and where you publish. And yet...

How do you deal with small talk situations?

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