“But what do you REALLY do?” Thoughts on being a writer
For a short time just after I attended my first residency of grad school, I confidently and shamelessly told people who asked that I was “a writer.” It felt wonderful to say it. The words hung in the air, the secret truth of myself finally exposed. I was fueled by the encouragement and comradeship of residency, high on the tangible dream of my future writing success.
Most of the time, the people who asked were friends of my roommate or neighbors, and they all worked in the entertainment industry. Once they learned I was unpublished and agentless, they assumed I was just like all the other aspiring actresses/directors/writers they’d met in LA, usually transplants from out of state, writing spec scripts at coffee shops and paying rent with a cubicle job at a credit union. “Yes,” they would respond, “but what do you really do?”
I wanted to protest this notion. I learned to hate words like “aspiring.” I wasn’t aspiring; I was writing. Hard. Every day. What could I say, though? With none of my writing out in the world, and only the words “I’m a writer,” to show for myself, was I any different than the cocktail waitress awaiting her big break?
This is not to put down actresses or anyone who works in a creative field—in fact, it’s the opposite. In LA, you meet people everywhere who’ve become comfortable working at bars and coffee shops, places they never intended to stay longer than a few months. As time goes on, the auditions and meetings become less and less frequent. It takes a ton of willpower and determination to stay on track, to keep motivation high, to continue to be creative, to put yourself out there again and again. I’ve seen people do it, and I admire them so much. Because it can take years before it begins to pay off. Decades, even.
You probably wouldn’t think someone like Danielle Steel still gets flack for being “a writer.” I recently came across her blog and this post, titled “Are you still a Brain Surgeon?” where she talks about what it’s like when people (mostly men) ask her about her work.
It goes like this, I run into a man I know or meet at a dinner party for the first time in a long time. After hello, they open with, “So, are you still writing?” Hmmm…. this immediately suggests to me that they have not read the NY Times (bestseller list) in many years, the Wall Street Journal, or maybe they don’t read at all. Yes, I am STILL writing. What this does is that it immediately puts my writing into the category as a hobby. As in, are you still taking piano lessons, doing macrame, have a parrot? I don’t have a huge ego about my work, but let’s face it, for me it is a job. A job I love, and I have been doing it since I was 19 years old. I have been in the Guinness book of world records repeatedly for having a book on the bestseller list for more weeks consecutively than whoever. Yes, for Heaven’s sake, I am still writing. It’s my work, my job, how my family eats and went to college. People said that comment to me when I was 35. Now when they say it, I get even more insulted because I think they’re suggesting I must be too old to write, but it’s actually not about that. (And I’m not that old yet). The comment is an immediate put down. It is a way of suggesting that what I do is really not very important.
Wow. I mean, if Danielle Steel feels like her status as a writer is belittled, what chance do the rest of us have?
I’m sort of kidding. I don’t think it’s that bleak, and I’m sure this doesn’t happen to all successful writers, or even most. (Also, I don’t know that it’s necessarily a put-down when someone you haven’t seen in a while asks if you’re still doing what you were doing the last time he or she saw you, especially if that person is not in the same world—in this case, literary—as you are.)
What I think Danielle’s outrage shows is that even for highly successful writers, the stigma that creative work is somehow not as important as other work still pervades.
I’m curious; how many writers feel this way?
When someone asks me what I do now, I hesitate. I’m never sure how to answer. Before I got my MFA, I’d say I was a grad student in a creative writing program and mumble something about having a few stories published. Now, I suppose I could say I work at a school and take freelance editing gigs and do some writing and have some stories out, but that doesn’t really encompass what I do (and it takes too long to say).
What I do is write. So why don’t I feel like I can say that? By not saying it, am I guilty of buying into the stigma? It seems ironic that I had more confidence in telling people I was a writer when I had absolutely nothing published and no degree, than I do now.
I’m realizing that I shouldn’t treat my writing like a secret hobby. In the spirit of recapturing my initial post-first residency writer’s high, I want to tell the next person who asks, with full confidence, that I’m a writer.
We shouldn’t have to defend ourselves to others. Our creative work—whether it’s writing or acting or making art—is valid. Not a hobby. Not a phase. So next time you meet someone at a bar in LA and she tells you she’s a writer, please don’t ask her what she really does.