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"So what do you REALLY do?": Identity and the Career Writer

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I recently attended a work party with my mother. Like most moms, she's proud of her adult kids--never misses a chance to brag about my sister, the artist, who lives in New York City, or me, her youngest daughter, with a book due out next year. As she introduced me to her co-workers, she was excited to share my good news. Squeezing my shoulders, she told her boss how I write science fiction, continuing a family tradition of geek heritage started by my uncle in the 1950s. Her boss nodded politely, congratulated me. Then, later in the evening, with my mother out of earshot, he turned to me and asked, "So what do you really do?"

"What do you mean?" I said, trying my best not to sound defensive. "I'm a writer."

"Yes," he replied. "I know, but what do you do for a job?"

To be fair, he's not entirely wrong: writing isn't the only way I earn income. I also work from home part-time, at a job that's both very boring and involves non-disclosure agreements, so I can't really talk about it (and you really wouldn't want me to, either). But, though this helps pay the bills, is it what I "really" do?

Time spent working the day job often feels like time wasted. To be honest, well before I was getting paid to write, I felt much the same way. Time spent at work was often time spent counting down the minutes to the weekend, a time when I could be myself--and dedicate myself to what I really wanted to "do," which was to write.

If I can be cheesy, writing has always owned my heart, my passion. I work harder at it than I do at other work, which has often paid better. And I suspect it's my writing that will bring the greatest good to the world. I wasn't a very good waitress; I was a mediocre administrative assistant.

But I'm a good writer.

I suspect it says something about the values of our society that even when an artist is paid for his or her work, it's still not considered, you know, an actual job. Perhaps it's because the creative process is mysterious to some. Yet when I was an administrative assistant, I spent my time on tasks no less puzzling than writing; most of my time was spent with my butt in a chair, my hands on a keyboard. It didn't look so different from writing, except for the fact that I was wearing khakis and a button-down while I did it.

Maybe it's simply that it's an unusual job--rare enough that a career writer seems to be almost a mythical beast. We know about Rowling and Meyer, but how many people really know a writer?

Experiences like the above remind me of the importance of taking pride in the work of writing. Ownership over your career, and the identity you derive from it, help to dispel cultural myths about the working artist. Yes, it is possible to make money as a writer. Yes, if you work hard, you really can do it--it's not some distant pipe dream, something we need to dissuade our children from trying for the impracticality of it. 

It makes me wish that, years ago, before I ever started earning income from my writing, I'd owned the work I was doing, all those hours spent with my hands on the keyboard, my butt in a chair. It was the job I worked hardest at, the one that gave me the greatest pride and the strongest sense of the difference I could make in the world.

Maybe it's a fantasy; maybe there will always be puzzled individuals at work parties who press, "No, really, what do you really do?" But I'd like to think that a career is more than whatever brings in the biggest bucks, or whichever job you do that seems to most socially appropriate. If you ask me, a career is whatever passion you have that brings the greatest good into the world.

For me, that's writing. Maybe it is for you, too.

Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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10 comments:

  1. On the other side, I often find it interesting that some people with great sounding jobs don't do much of interest outside of work. I can't believe how many people don't read, they just run errands, watch tv and go to bed. They don't go to festivals and community things because parking is too much of a chore. When all you have is your job, how rich is your life?

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    1. I've heard the "I don't read much" response to my mention of any writing, and it's always struck me as a nonsequitur. If this person mentioned to me that he or she was a teacher, wouldn't it be weird for me to respond, "I don't have kids."?

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  2. Yeah, I get a lot of startled expressions when I say I'm paid to write, line edit, and proofread. Then folks ask how that works. Er, same way as any other service- or product-based job?

    To be fair, I've noticed that a lot of folks have "employee" mindsets, so the idea of running your own business—of figuring out what to do without being told or having instructions or guidelines or whatever—really freaks some people out. And that's assuming they can even grasp the concept.

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  3. I get where you are coming from - in some ways, but I love my day gig. However, my writing is a separate career that's just as fulfilling but alas doesn't exactly pay the bills. If it did, I probably still couldn't do it full time but that's my make up. However, being a writer has now evolved past the concept of sitting at a desk typing. Writers are also marketeers, business owners, multi-tasked and more. So next time tell them that I'm a business owner who sells, markets and shares the writen word.

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  4. I relate to this so much, Phoebe. Especially this: "It makes me wish that, years ago, before I ever started earning income from my writing, I'd owned the work I was doing, all those hours spent with my hands on the keyboard, my butt in a chair. It was the job I worked hardest at, the one that gave me the greatest pride and the strongest sense of the difference I could make in the world."

    Thanks for this post!

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  5. Oh, so funny and so true. I still have trouble saying I'm a writer, and I have an agent and a book on submission and everything. The creative fields are a cloud nebula to most folks––far away and incomprehensible. Loved this post!

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  6. I feel like I get this a lot because I first write YA and secondly write a lot of SF/F. It's like these particular genres are "lesser" books to write. If you're writing, you should be writing like Jonathan Safran Foer or Toni Morrison or at least like Tea Obreht because "that's a little like fantasy and aren't you her age?".

    Sigh.

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  7. I can relate to this. Even though most people I know are aware I write, they always imply that I've loads of free time on my hands. I wish that were true!

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Item Reviewed: "So what do you REALLY do?": Identity and the Career Writer Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North