What do you do? Once a new acquaintance learns your name, this is usually the next question on their lips. What we do to earn money is shorthand for who we are, and it is a quick way to pigeon-hole someone with the least effort. If a writer does this it’s called creating cardboard characters.
I once led holiday adventure tours and I observed this group dynamic constantly. It didn’t matter what country people came from, everyone did it. And the answer to this question subtly dictated the terms of engagement and what people decided to think about each other, without a lot of immediate evidence. Once, well into a trip, we were all sunning ourselves on the deck of our gulet and I must have said something that triggered some brain explosions, as one of my group propped himself up on his elbow and gave me a look of consternation.
‘So hang on. What do you really do?’
I grimaced. As the tour leader I generally escaped this question, as it was ‘self-evident’ what I did. But here it was, that dreaded party-pooper question raising its head again.
‘I’m an accountant.’
Everyone rolled over on their towels. ‘No waaay?’
Talk about razing their built-up impressions to rubble. Up till then they’d thought I was fun and interesting, although probably a zero on the status/income earning front. Now they were frantically recalibrating their computations as to my intelligence, potential earning capacity and social status, no doubt adding two and two together and getting five, whereas before they had added two and two and got three.
So how does this apply to people deciding they want to change occupations or identities and give writing a real go? You have to identify as a writer to really put yourself in that space and believe in yourself, right? None of this shame-facedness. If you don’t believe it, no one else will either. The trick is, most of us can’t afford to give up our day job. So when does a person feel proud or able to say, ‘Well, actually, I’m a writer.’
How do we aspire to call ourselves a writer, when our ‘real’ job is where the respect or social status lies? Did Wallace Stevens say he was ‘in insurance’ or Tom Elliot, ‘in banking’ rather than admit to being poets? Surely William Carlos Williams identified himself as a doctor rather than as a poet when out and about? Well maybe not. Once you are published, you have perhaps even more status. But in those early struggling days TS Eliot’s Bloomsbury friends were so concerned that his job was sucking him dry that they took up a subscription to enable him to give up his job. Such friends to have!
But my point is, these artists would have reached a point where they finally decided what it was they ‘really did’, and what they really did was make art from words. Their passion was what they ‘did’. It sparked them up, it inspired them, and kept them alive.
The day I finally had the nerve to say to people, ‘I’m writing a novel’, ‘I’m trying to get my novel published’ and even more courageously, ‘I write’ or ‘I’m a writer’, was the day I started to hear a voice inside my head say ‘Hey? Maybe I could be?’ And the more I said it, the more I felt empowered to be this new identity and to succeed.
The real success, however, comes when people start to reflect your vision back at you, holding you to account for what you say about yourself.
So ask yourself that question, ‘What is that I really do?’