When I held my first jobs, I was always excited to reply with my newly acquired title. “I’m an editorial assistant,” I said, straight out of college. “I teach writing,” I said, in graduate school. “I’m a research assistant,” I proclaimed, when I landed that job.
But when I chose to forgo a non-academic path in order to write, I also took some jobs that had nothing to do with writing and everything to do with supporting my family, like managing a medical practice.
During those years, when someone asked, “What do you do?” I still said, “I’m a writer.”
“Oh, really? What do you write?”
“Grocery lists,” I wanted to say, because, in truth, I wasn’t earning money from my pen and I still hadn’t published a novel. But I was writing editorial columns, so I’d talk about my published credentials, saying nothing about the half-dozen short stories and notes for novels I produced in secret silence on my own time.
That’s when I realized that when someone asks, “What do you do?” they usually want to know the boring details about how you earn money. For a while, I answered, “I manage a medical practice.” On less charitable days, I’d come right out with, “What do you really want to know, what I do or how do I earn money?”
This snappy riposte would only afford me momentary pleasure, because it then forced me to acknowledge that I wasn’t making any money doing the one thing that was most important to me – sometimes even more important than my family. Shocking, but true.
At about this point in life, I decided to try earning money by writing – and I did. I especially liked the assignments I found translating medical texts into language an ordinary person could understand; these jobs were both interesting and lucrative. But being a pen-for-hire was no different from office management in that it still ate up the limited time that I had while the kids were in school, leaving me gasping for time to write fiction.
At some point, I wizened up or gained courage or both, and when someone asked me, “What do you do?” I replied, “I’m a writer.”
“Really? What do you write?”
By then, I’d drafted two novels. “I’m a novelist,” I said, daring anyone to contradict my accomplishment.
“Not published.” I replied, with a fair measure of defiance.
From there, it would be a toss-up which way the conversation would continue, from, “I’ve got a book I’d like to write,” to “I know someone who got a six-figure advance.” This is when I’d resist the urge to kick this person in the shins by walking away, steam visibly escaping from my ears.
But with practice and patience, I’m learning that money is not the only way to measure the value of what I do. After all, tax credits for dependent children aside, I’ve never been paid to raise children either, yet I have no trouble understanding that parenting is a valuable, even patriotic, job.
Money is only one measure of value, albeit one our culture is obsessed with. Not me. I’m obsessed with language and stories, so I’m starting to measure my success as a writer in number of words written and published rather than dollars earned with my pen.
Sure, in an ideal world I’d be able to earn a living as an essayist and novelist. Hopefully, someday I will. And why not? Every year, I write more, publish more, earn more. If I keep at it, I have a chance of achieving this goal; if I give up, I don’t.
So, I’m going to continue writing essays and novels; it’s work that I value, even if that value isn’t in dollars and cents. And since I spend my days writing, I’ve decided from now on to answer that question, “What do you do,” honestly. I’m going to tell anyone who asks what I actually do for the better part of each day. From now on, when someone asks me, “What do you do?” I’ll tell them the truth.
“I write,” I’ll say.
It’s what I do every day.
So, what do you do?
Deborah Lee Luskin is an award-winning novelist who writes in and about Vermont.