Questions I Don't Like Answering #5
What do you do? A writer? No, what do you really do?”
By J. S. Watts
Most writers will tell you there are questions they don’t enjoy answering. Ironically (or perhaps not) they are often the questions we are most frequently asked.
I’m writing an occasional series of lighthearted blog posts looking at some of my personal “oh no, not again!” questions and exploring why I don’t relish having to respond to them (though I recognise other writers may invariably feel differently).
The previous question in this series was, “When did you start writing?” In some ways, in terms of its multiple permutations, it foreshadows the fifth question in the series: “What do you do? A writer? No, what do you really do?”
At one level “What do you do?” is an innocuous question. When someone I don’t know asks me that I am happy and proud to reply, “I’m a writer.” The difficulties and accompanying angst come into play when the question takes its compound form. Let’s run the conversation again.
“What do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “No, what do you really do?”
Assuming the questioner is unknown to me, I am faced with the implication that they think:
1. I can’t be a writer because they’ve never heard of me and if they haven’t heard of me I can’t exist (or, as a minimum, I certainly can’t be any good);
2. No one in their right mind would be a writer;
3. I don’t have it in me to be a writer (albeit they don’t know me, so how dare they judge!).
All three scenarios are awkward ones to deal with and invariably result in me listing my six published books, the new novel due out this summer and possibly a large chunk of my short story, book review and individual poem publishing credits, which is solid self-promotion, but kind of boring and makes me sound a little bit up myself. So far, so bad.
The situation is far worse, though, when the questioner is someone I know a little and yet the question still takes the compound form. I mean, they know me well enough to know I’ve had work published, including at least a couple of books. So when they say, “No, what do you really do?” I’m left thinking that they must think:
1. I’ve been lying all this time;
2. What I’ve published is so god-damn awful I can’t really be spending most of my time writing and I really can’t be making any money from it, at all, ever;
3. No one in their right mind would be a writer (see also 1 above);
4. I don’t have it in me to be a real writer;
5. What I claim to do isn’t a serious profession;
6. Any combination of all of the above.
In any event, it’s not good for the ego or the infinitely fragile writer’s confidence, let me tell you.
Writer friends have tactfully, and sometimes not so tactfully, suggested that I shouldn’t be so sensitive, that the compound variation of the question comes from the recognition that very, very few writers earn enough to live on from their writing alone and so have to take on additional paid work. Fair enough, I guess. It’s true that since I went freelance in 2008 I have developed what may be termed a portfolio career: consultant, freelance editor, committee clerk, writing tutor and writer. I do multiple things, however, only to support my writing. First and foremost I consider myself a writer. By saying, “No, what do you really do?” the questioner is, intentionally or otherwise, challenging the way I and many other writers self-identify and, let me tell you this, it hurts.
So, dear reader, when you next ask someone the question, “What do you do?” and they answer, “I’m a writer,” please, please, PLEASE do not deny or discredit what they have just told you. If you are interested, just say so and ask them what they have written. Most writers will be more than happy to tell you, possibly at greater length than you were expecting. Moreover, if they were lying, or at least exaggerating, it’s likely to become apparent at this stage. If you are, however, of the opinion that no one in their right mind would be a professional writer (and you may be correct in your judgement) just sidle softly away. Don’t try to undermine their integrity or tender confidence before you do so. Accept their response gratefully and move on. If you’ve read any of my previous posts on questions I don’t like answering, you’ll realise you’ve been very lucky to receive a simple, straightforward answer in the first place.
The next in the series of Questions I Don’t Like Answering will be the humdinger, “What do you think of my writing?”