“So, what do you do?”
It’s one of the first inquiries after an introduction, and for me, it’s one of the hardest to answer. Variations include:
- Where are you working now?
- What do you do for a living?
- What have you been up to?
And despite the tone, whether it’s casual or professional, the awkward silence in the wake of the question remains the same. I feel the color rise in my cheeks when I reply, “I’m a server.” I usually stumble through an excuse like “it’s sort of a stepping stone while I figure out which direction I want to go.” Between the lines, that translates to: “this is not where I’d planned to be at this stage in my life.” But, it pays my bills. It’s my “real job.”
When I started this blog, my first post was called Authentication: The Moment We Choose To Define Ourselves. It was a pivotal point for me when I shed the title of being an “aspiring writer” to simply being a writer. I’d been writing for years, even finished a couple novels. I was well beyond the threshold of “aspiring” writer. “Aspiring published author” was still accurate, but not writer.
Then why, two years later when asked the question “what do you do?” would I still provide an answer other than “I write”?
I think the root of that response was the silent addition I subconsciously tacked onto the end of that inquiry: “what do you do…to earn a living?” And writing to date has not paid a single bill.
But as I develop as both a writer and a person, I’m learning to redefine that question. Publication certainly helps a writer’s credibility, but a lack of publication shouldn’t diminish years, even decades of hard work and dedication.
Last weekend, I returned to Purdue to say farewell to a professor who was retiring, which meant I was destined to cross paths with peers and faculty from my landscape architecture days. And that inevitably meant “what do you do?” was going to be rearing its ugly head. I prepped myself all day.
“I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.”
I mentally reviewed my recent accomplishments: “I’m a freelance blogger. I just had a short story published in a literary journal. I’m seeking a literary agent to represent my science-fantasy novel. I am a writer.”
But when one of my professors asked me what I was doing these days, I faltered. “Oh, um, well, I, I’m a writer. I just had a short story published. And then I’m starting a new job on Monday….” And the ramble continued. I skimmed over the writing aspect to sell my “real” jobs—that is, the steady jobs that paid.
Although I applauded myself for finally being brave enough to say “I’m a writer,” I silently reprimanded myself afterward. I should have owned the writing part of my life—the most important part of my professional life. I should have done exactly what I’d practiced beforehand and stared my professor in the eye, held my head high, proudly proclaimed, “I am a writer,” and left it at that.
The next night, I went with a friend to a bar. While we nursed our drinks and caught up after half a year apart, we met a pair of women in friendly spirits who struck up a conversation with us. You can guess what question came up soon into the introduction. When the woman asked me what I did for a living, I panicked and said, “Oh, well, it’s complicated…so what do you do?”
She laughed and said, “Well, that was an obvious deflection!” She gestured to her friend and answered, “She’s a flight attendant, and I’m a software designer. Now let’s try this again…what do you do?”
I swallowed, looked this stranger in the eye, and finally stated, “I’m a writer.”
“Oh,” she said, “really? That’s cool! What do you write?”
I went through my list, mentioning my new job as a freelance blogger for an event planning company based in Washington DC, my latest publication in a literary journal, and my novel. The woman nodded and asked if I had a link to a website where she could read my work. “Yes,” I said, surprised and thrilled that I’d remembered to slip a few business cards in my pocket. I handed one to her.
She stared at it, then beamed and said, “Wow, you really are a writer!” as she showed her friend and added, “Look, she’s also a photographer and an artist.”
I smiled, relieved that I’d finally owned what I was. It’s on my business cards, on my social media pages, on my blog. Why is it so hard to say out loud?
I AM A WRITER.