Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'So What Do You Do?'

I dread when people ask me what I do for a living. It's everyone's favourite cocktail party question, enabling the 'asker' to correctly place the 'askee' into the pigeon-hole of choice.

I used to answer with no problem. 'I'm a teacher,' I'd say, kicking off a whole debate about the dangers of teaching in UK secondary schools. It was a guaranteed conversation-starter. Now, though, it's a different scenario.

'I'm a writer,' I mumble, always feeling fraudulent. Hey, I've written three novels, I say to myself to prop up my self-esteem. But the next question always brings me back to reality.

'Oh!' The 'asker' perks up, looking at me with renewed interest. 'What have you published? Anything I might have read?'

'Nope and I've been rejected by about twenty agents and counting.' I always give it to them in one go, then take a sip of the (alcoholic) drink in my hand to allow them time to formulate their response.

It can go either one of two ways:

1. The sympathic/ patronising response. 'Oh, don't worry, it'll happen. Just keep trying. It's so great you're going for your dream!' All of this will be accompanied by a pitying look in the eye that reads: Poor, naive dreamer. You'll be sitting on your arse in ten years time still slogging away.

Maybe I will. But at least I'll be enjoying it!

2. The 'I write, too!' response. I never realised so many people want to write a novel of their own. It's like confessing my own writing ambitions has opened the floodgates. It's nice to hear that my postman wants to write a book. But I have to admit, I cringe at being put into the 'general public' basket of writers. Is that wrong? After all, I'm not published either. But I am serious about my writing, unlike those who consider composing a text message taxing but still want to write a book.

I don't know how long it will take before I can proudly say 'I'm a writer.' Hopefully sooner rather than later. Until then, I'll continue to dread the deadly 'What do you do?' question.


Anonymous said...

- But I have to admit, I cringe at being put into the 'general public' basket of writers. Is that wrong?

So you have the option 1) response to their option 2)? Interesting...

DonaldS said...

Why *do* people ask that "What do you do" question? Who cares what I do? What about "what are you into"? What *interests* you? Who are you? That sort of stuff. It's irritating, I agree.

Abigail Rieley said...

I totally sympathise! Over the years I've been an unpublished writer, an unemployed actor and a between jobs journalist. Even now I've had a book published I still feel a bit of a fraud. When I tell people I'm a writer they look at me pityingly half the time and say "don't you mean a journalist?" by which they mean hack. If I mention the fact that I'm working on my first novel I'm back to square one so I don't usually. Mind you once you sign up with a publishers the second response gets another scary dimension. I now have people wanting me to read their manuscripts and you can guarantee that the ones who want ME to read their manuscripts (rather than someone sensible) are not the sanest of the bunch.
I know exactly what you mean about being lumped in with the rest of the slush food but then as you say yourself, there's only one way out of that and you seem to be going the right way!

Heather said...

I hear the 'what do you do' question more in North America than in Europe. Having lived in both New York and London, it was almost never asked in London but almost always in NY. I'm back in my native Canada now and it's cropping up again...

Like you, I've jumped corporate ship to start my own wine and food business. I'm finding people are more interested in what I'm doing now than they were in my software engineer career at the BBC! And in many ways I like answering the question more now than I did before.

Good for you for following your dreams, best of luck with your writing!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

If you've written and finished and submitted more than one book, you're so far ahead of the wannabes it's not even funny.

I'm writing book FOUR. I've got hundreds of rejections on novels and stories. Book three has has a few rejections but I've also got fulls and partials in with agents. I've sold a couple of short pieces to midline markets.

I'm still a nobody, but I've never met a "writer" at a cocktail party who could beat that.

Sarah said...

Hey, I'm a writer and I break a sweat texting. Stupid little buttons.

My husband gave me a good piece of advice for this question: 'Try not to look at the floor.' And John Irving says that the measure of a person is his ability to complete one thing and move on to another, so I'd say you're in pretty good shape!

Just wait for the people whose reaction is to give you their idea and tell you to write it. I can't count the number of pub nights I've had ruined by conversations about 'profit-splitting'.

acpaul said...

I am not defined by what I do for a living. Nor are you, if you have any life/personality at all.

But all too often, people think that we are defined by that.

Your choices: 1. Refuse to answer. 2. Redirect the conversation back to the asker, ie, "Oh, that's not important. What do you do for a living?" 3. Lie. 4. Tell the truth.

Marsha said...

I love the comments! Thank you. It is SO nice to know that others suffer at this question along with me. It is annoying that people define us by what we do. And yes, I think it's asked more North America than England, where people can go on about the war in Iraq or wherever for hours without asking anything about you!

ACPaul, you are so right that we are not defined by what we do. It has taken (and still is taking) me awhile to have that sink in. I love Sarah's husband's advice not to look at the floor.

Thanks everyone for the reminder that we should be proud of ourselves, no matter what we choose to do.

Elle said...

I know this question well! :0) But, I'm one of those people who only becomes more determined to succeed with something (in this case, getting published) if people doubt me.

Thankfully, my friends/family are all supportive (the people that matter). As for the views of strangers, if they are lacking within themselves to have to judge people on "profession", then they are not worth the bother!

aprilx said...

Pick a current best seller and tell them you ghost wrote it to get people off your back.

I don't like telling people I write precisely because I feel like it puts me "into the general public basket of writers," as you put it. Most writers suck. And are poor (not successful). So, I get you.