I am a writer.

When asked, upon meeting someone new, “What do you do?” these four words are tough for me.  Lately, I’ve been wondering why.

“I am a writer,” sounds silly, whimsical, not quite, “I’m a circus performer,” but close.  They are fine words, even great, when I am in front of my computer, or when I close my eyes at night and wonder what the hell I’m doing.  I tell myself, “I am a writer.”  It’s what I do, but it doesn’t seem to ring glorious and confident out in the world, the real word.

The declaration, “I’m a writer,” is often met with, “Ah…” or “Really!?”

See?  Sort of the circus performer or the ballerina response.

After the initial surprise, the next step is what I call The Legitimizer.  People need to know if I am really a writer, a legitimate writer, and that always revolves around…you guessed it.

“Are you published?” and “What do you write?”  I’ve even had someone ask me, “How many copies have you sold?”  This part of the conversation is fascinating.  It’s where people decide, based on their own criterion, how cool I am or whether they should slowly back away.

What if I were to say, “I’m a doctor?”  I might get, “Oh, what kind?” but I would never get, “Really?  Who are your patients? When was your last surgery?  Was it a success?”

When meeting a doctor people rarely say, “How big is your practice?  What are they paying you these days?”

Being a doctor is authenticated because people are comfortable with the title.  They know doctors go to school, they are professionals with frames on the wall, and there is a certain accepted salary, status.  Even if I was a doctor working in a small clinic making little money, it doesn’t matter.  Society sees “doctor” and knows what that is.

Writer, not so much.

If I said, “I’m a reporter,” that might be more comfortable.  If I went with, “I’m a technical writer for a software company,” that one could work too.  People can box it, fill their minds with the details of the title and move on.  The general term “writer” throws most and I wonder if it is because it’s considered creative.  Similar to dancer or painter, sculptor or…weaver.

Maybe “What do you do?” isn’t at all inquiring about what I spend most of my time doing.  It most likely has nothing to do with my life’s work, my purpose, my passion.  Maybe “What do you do?” means, “How do you pay your bills?”

If I say I’m a doctor, people assume I make money.  If I say I’m an insurance adjuster, they may not know how much money I make, but it’s a satisfying answer.  They can relate, they know other people doing something similar.

Creative endeavors are different because most people associate creative success with fame or fortune.  It seems writers are lumped into pipe dreamers or celebrity and even though the vast majority of us are in the middle, it doesn’t matter.

So, it’s about money?  It must be because when I tell people I’m a writer, they almost never ask, “Oh, what are you working on?” and they always ask, “Can people actually get your books in a store?” or I get some dismissive gesture that indicates I’ve answered the question incorrectly.

If I were to say, “Yes, I’ve been on the New York Times Bestseller List for twenty weeks now,” eyes would light up.  They know what that is, and I would become a doctor.  Legit.

And that’s the problem.

So many creative people run themselves ragged searching for legitimacy, the acceptable certificate, title, so we can take our rightful place in society.  So we are not subjected to odd head nods or rude intrusive questions.  In searching for our coveted lunch table spot, we threaten that which makes us creative.  The part of our kooky soul that tells us there is value in stringing together words, putting paint on a canvas, making something out of a blob of clay.

That lovely part dies when we try to shove ourselves into a doctor, lawyer, accountant box that will never fit.

Writers, wordsmiths, storytellers, poets, painters, dancers, and the like, are undefinable.  We come in so many shapes and sizes, there will never be a category that tells society who we are and what we make, our worth.

It’s interesting because those same people, the box makers, need us.  They love us because when they are in the mood, when they crave a break, we take them away, show them what’s in our fairy dust minds.  They just aren’t sure what to do with us at cocktail parties or in a conference room.

I suppose that’s okay.

Vincent Van Gogh never sold one painting.  Henry David Thoreau was considered a nut and he died penniless.  When Emily Dickinson’s life was over, only seven of her 1,800 poems were published.  Even Galileo was a laughing stock.  None of them thought, created, for the money or the certificate.  They did it because they had to, it was their place in this world.

Box or no box, check or no check.  Creative flow doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t.

My thoughts from the laundry room.  Night Owl.

Art crazy life passion thoughts work writers writing

28 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I love this Tracey, I’ve had so many conversations about this since I started university. I have a friend called Alx whose studying neuroscience, and although eventually he thinks that he might become a doctor, at the moment most of what he does is research. So when is he allowed to call himself a ‘scientist’? At what point does that become as valid an answer as ‘doctor’. I think it’s interesting to see that it’s not only writers and artists that have this problem.
    Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. I think when people hear, “writer” or “painter” they think it’s the very thing their mother and father told them not to be. So in part, maybe the curious head-scratching looks are really, “how did you get away with that?” The reaction I sometimes get is, “oh, I’ve never met a writer before!” Sometimes that feels good and sometimes I feel like I’ve just been likened to an alien. You are so right about them needing us! Love this post.

  3. Ron, this is a superb summation: I hope you will submit it somewhere – eg the Times Literary Supplement, or to be a bit more realistic, Writer’s Digest.

    I try to say I am a poet and a quilter but that’s no good either. I suppose Retired is more comprehensible to a stranger.

  4. Yes
    Yes yes yes
    Thank you for this post.
    I try to make it a point to NOT ask people “what do you do?”
    i hope when people ask you this, & you let them know you are a writer, each time it is spoken from your tongue, that roots are sent downward from your heart, firmly planting into the earth
    A steady, knowing place where you indeed stand.

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