How Do You Answer the Question, “What Do You Do?”
I am very uncomfortable calling myself a writer—here are some reasons why.
Posted Dec 20, 2015
“So, what do you do?”
Not being a very social person, I’m not often in a position to have to answer that question—except from people I work with who wonder what I do all day—but that also means I haven’t had a chance to develop a good answer! But I find it’s an interesting question to ask yourself from time to time—and if you’re like me, any day that ends in a “y” is a good day for self-questioning, especially when the question deals with issues of purpose, meaning, and identity, all of which are wrapped up in career and “what we do.”
The easiest thing for me to answer would be college professor, but to me that’s my job, not what I do. (Plus, it leads to more questions about what I teach, which is complicated, and then more questions about that, and before you know it I’m talking about myself which is my least favorite subject.) Ideally I’d like to say writer, but that doesn’t seem right either—declaring myself a writer seems boastful because being a writer seems aspirational to me, despite having written quite a bit. It’s as if you had to win an Olympic medal before you could call yourself a runner.*
More generally, this question relates to the concept of career, which I’ve never thought much about until lately (despite being in a position that many people would regard as a career). Similar to being asked “what do you do?”, if I were forced to declare “my career,” I would much rather say writer than academic. I’ve never felt like an academic, but do I really feel like a writer either? That still doesn’t seem right to me. Do I think of writing as a career? More fundamentally, do I identify as a writer? As they say, a writer writes, and I do write, but I’m still not comfortable calling myself a writer.
But why? The answer that most immediately springs to mind is that I don’t rely on it for income. But it can’t be as simple as that: many people whom I regard as “real” writers have other jobs (or working partners) that support their literary pursuits. My job as a professor allows me the luxury of writing what and when I want to. This may sound wonderful—and certainly it is, considered more objectively—but the downside is that I don’t take writing as seriously as I might if I had to make a living from it. In that sense, I feel like a bit of a dilettante, playing around with writing without having to make the commitment necessary to call it a career or to call myself a writer. So writing feels more to me like a hobby than a career.
In case you can’t tell, I don’t really have a career strategy. My decisions are entirely based on, “Well, I’m around, and this is something that the 15-year-old me would be excited to do.”
I’m much the same way with respect to my writing. I write about what interests me at the time, some of it contributing to a larger overall project (although often not deliberately), some of it not; some of it academic, some of it not. I’m in the very fortunate position of not having to write anything I don’t want to write, leaving me free to write what I feel like writing at any given time (until I sign a contract, that is!), whether or not that is strategically optimal to further some idea of a career path.
But there are signs that writing is a career to me, whether or not I think about it explicitly in those terms. Once, I started to write a very personal blog post about careerism and failure in academia and publishing, and a friend cautioned me against posting it in case someone I worked with (or wanted to work with) would see it and hold it against me. I admit that I had similar reservations, but they weren’t about anyone in academia—instead, they were about prospective editors and publishers. The fact that those were the people I was concerned about protecting my relationships with reveals something about where my true aspirations lie.
Even though I’m still uneasy about calling myself a writer, regarding it as something that I still haven’t “earned,” my concerns about which professional relationships I cultivate and protect—namely, those with editors and publishers—suggest that I do regard writing to be a career in the sense that it matters to me. I have many things I’d like to write, for both academic and popular audiences, and I’m grateful for the positive relationships I have with many editors that may allow me to pursue them.
To my ears, the concept of “career” implies something separate from or above what any particular career path encompasses—putting the cart before the horse, as it were.** That kind of thinking becomes problematic when people start to think in terms of furthering their career rather than doing—and enjoying—what became their career in the first place, and when success in a career ends up meaning more to you than enjoying what you’re doing within it (not to mention treating other people well while doing it). At the worst, one’s “career goal” becomes reducible to the career itself rather than what the career was originally intended to lead to (such as comfort, happiness, or fame).
I don’t enjoy a lot of things, but there are times I truly enjoy writing, and I’m not eager to give that up for any idea of a “career,” especially if that means writing something I don’t want to or engaging in activities I find unnecessary to my writing (or to my obligations to my students, fellow faculty members, and college). Again, I am very fortunate to have a job that allows me the freedom to write what I want, whether or not any aspect of it represents a “career” to me. So, for the time being, I will continue to do just that, stop worrying about whether I’m a “real” writer, and the next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll tell them what they’re already thinking: runway model.
* I also endured many years of being shamed about being both a professor and a writer, which may explain some of my own issues but isn’t relevant to my more general point here.
** I recently received some advice for furthering my “career” as an academic that seriously made me question my future as one, until I realized I don’t need to be an academic the way they want me to be. Who defines what an academic is, anyway? A question for another day.