When people ask me, “What do you do?” I get all squirmy inside. I should really come up with a technically true but nevertheless evasive answer, like, “I develop and implement curricula for children learning outside the traditional classroom setting.” Or I could go with, “I read and write reviews about the classics of western literature,” or, “I spend my days repeating tasks only for them to be undone so they can be repeated again.”
Back in my college days and in my early 20’s, I would say with confidence, “I’m a writer.” In our writing classes, we were encouraged to say this as a kind of affirmation. “I am a writer!” And if I didn’t completely believe it, the evidence supported the claim. I wrote every day and then I workshopped my writing with other self-proclaimed writers. I did public readings and published my poetry and prose, if only in the campus literary magazine. The future was ahead of me. Surely I was destined to be published widely and appreciated in my own time.
These days—post-corporate career, post-self employment, post-birth and breastfeeding—I answer with only feigned confidence. “I’m a writer.” The response I used to get was, “Oh? What do you write?” to which I would answer, “Creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays, but I also write short stories and I’m working on a novel.” I could still use this answer because it’s all still true, but now the question is different. It’s changed from, “What do you write?” to “What have you written?”
I’m not sure when or why this shift happened, but I suspect it’s because the wrinkles around my eyes and the silver highlights in my hair mark me as someone who has had ample time to achieve at least some of her youthful ambitions.
It seems a particularly cruel question, but I doubt it’s intended that way. I should, I guess, take it as a compliment. I seem so capable and well-spoken, the questioner just assumes that if they’ve not seen my name on a book cover or in the byline of an article in The New Yorker, it’s the result of their own oversight.
I could just tell them, “I blog,” but I hate to disappoint them. Or perhaps it’s less about disappointing them than admitting that blogging isn’t really what I intended back when I first called myself a writer. It exposes the doubt I feel when I claim that I’m a writer.
But just like in college, the evidence supports my claim. I write every day. I give occasional public readings, primarily in front of my UU congregation. I even publish my writing, albeit in a venue that doesn’t involve getting past editorial gatekeepers.
In her book Writing the Sacred Journey, Elizabeth Andrew refers to writers who write because “writing brings them nearer to the ineffable essence of life.” I write for this reason, and I think this is why I’ve always written. I write for connection. To paraphrase Andrew, I write because it helps me birth myself. I write because I just do. If life tossed me a Robinson Crusoe and I was alone with little hope of ever seeing another human much less signing a book for them, I would still write.
I suppose if I wanted to stifle any follow-up questions about what I do, I could go with, “I write to birth myself.” It’s true, but it’s just not what people think of when someone says, “I’m a writer.” But for me, at least, I think it’s the part that has to come first. If I write from my heart and write the truth—even if it’s fictional—and that leads me to a life that looks more like what people think of as the life of a writer, with book signings and publicity tours and a Wikipedia entry with my name on it, then that’s fantastic.
But if not, I’m still a writer.