This past week, I read in the February 2017 issue of The Writer an article about how to deal with that often terribly uncomfortable question. Writers who also have day jobs don’t always feel discomfort at that question because they can simply cite their day job as what they “do.” But what about the freelance writer who works fulltime at it? Or the creative writer who’s able to write fulltime because of decent book sales or a large inheritance? How do you answer this question?
The freelancer who wrote the article began with his answer and how he’d crafted it to show how successful he was at writing on a freelance basis. In other words, if you’re financially successful as a writer, flaunt it. If you’re not, talk about something else. We all know writers get no respect, not like doctors, lawyers, dentists, and just about anyone else who works for someone else. Of course, if you are employed by a magazine, newspaper, television or radio station and your job is writing, you’ve somehow managed to make it into respectability.
When someone asks me what I do, I usually say I’m a writer. The next question usually is, “What do you write?” Now, I could reply a lot of different ways here, because I write a lot of different things. But I usually take the intention behind the question is to find out if I’m a published and known writer vs. unpublished and unknown. When someone asks a doctor what he does, they usually don’t ask what do you doctor? They don’t ask a lawyer how she does her job, although they might be interested in the type of cases she takes on. But with artists, there is this question of legitimacy, and what confers legitimacy? You got it! Money, usually via publication.
A couple years before my father died, I made my annual Christmas visit to my parents’ house. I had quit my fulltime job with the intention of changing careers, and I’d already realized that I wanted to write. When my father asked what I planned to do, I told him. “You can’t write,” he responded. I almost laughed. As if he truly knew what I could or could not do or had some sort of control over what I did. A few days later, my older brother enlightened me. “In the family, we view writing as a form of prostitution.” Ah, so that’s it. And this from a family of book lovers and readers.
I went on to earn money as a freelance advertising copywriter while I also wrote fiction. But my family never accepted my writing or that I was actually doing it well and gaining valuable experience. What they said to me, though, prepared me for what other people would say — my family showed me the worst right away. So, when someone asks me what I do, I’m happy to tell them I’m a writer, that I’m published, that I write a lot of different things, and yes, they can read my work online. After that, I mention my other job in an office, working for someone else.