I dread being asked the deceptively simple yet maddeningly subversive question, “So, what do you do?” It’s an inevitable hurdle that usually appears early on in conversations with the newly met. Though the inquiry is innocent, it never fails to trigger the turmoil and doubt I feel about my identity as a writer.
The trouble is that when people ask that question, they usually expect to hear about what you do for a living. They are asking about your Job. Though I am just as guilty as the next person of posing this query, I’ve always thought it was a rather roundabout way to get to know someone. After all, many of us have jobs that have nothing to do with who we are as people. Though knowing what someone does to keep a roof over his head may provide clues to who he is, there are certainly more direct questions we could ask. “What excites you?” would be a good start, or conversely, “What makes you really mad?” Even just asking, “What do you do when you’re not making a living?” would undoubtedly reveal a more accurate picture of a person’s true nature.
Though I am, happily, at a point in my life where I can – technically – say, “I’m a writer,” it’s a statement that requires a lot of explanation. Most people hear writer and assume you are a novelist or maybe a journalist. In my particular case, I make my living as a business writer – crafting brand messages, website copy, ebooks, whitepapers, and so forth. It’s not glamourous, but it pays the bills.
In my heart, however, I am a creative writer. I am a storyteller and a someday novelist. I am a lover of language and folklore and narrative. I am a disciple of the well-crafted sentence and the enviable turn of phrase. I am an artist.
For me (and for most writers I know), writing is not a profession or a hobby, it is a way of life. It is not something you fit into your schedule. It is not something that comes from hanging out in cafes or buying cool notebooks. (Those are just perks.) Being a writer is a way of being in the world.
I am a writer in the same way that I am a mother. Though my daughter will grow up and move away to live her own life, I will always be a mother. I will always see the world through a mother’s eyes.
Being a writer is about so much more than putting words down. That is only the end result – the product, so to speak. The real work of writing goes on behind-the-scenes before one word is ever committed to page or screen. Anyone can write. Anyone can string words together to form sentences and string those sentences together to form paragraphs. They might even be good sentences and admirable paragraphs. That isn’t the point.
A writer is a person who looks at the world through a lens of curiosity, empathy, and a desire to connect with other human beings. Writers have an innate talent for observation, interpretation, and translation. They cannot turn these talents off. No matter where they are or what they are doing, they are constantly taking things in, processing, comparing, deciphering.
A writer is a person who takes a small piece of existence in her hands and turns it over and over until she suddenly sees something that helps her gain a new understanding of how things work in life, the universe, and everything. And a writer is someone who needs to share these discoveries with the world – someone who is compelled to capture and convey what she’s experienced in case it might help someone else understand.
Writers question everything. We never stop asking, “What if?” and “Why?” Like small children, we have an insatiable desire for knowledge. And we are never dismayed when one question leads to dozens of others.
Writer is, in fact, too small a term to truly encompass the reality of writing as a way of life. Like any artist – dancer, painter, filmmaker – what we do – our creative work – is the physical manifestation of who we are. The two are inextricably connected. And even if we are not actively practicing our craft or earning our living by it, we are still writers.
The actress who makes a living as a waitress is still an actress.
The photographer who makes a living driving a taxi is still a photographer.
The filmmaker who makes a living shooting big brand ads is still a filmmaker.
The musician who makes a living painting houses is still a musician.
Each of these artists experiences the world through the lens of his or her art. The power in being a writer (or any other type of creative person) is as much in the capacity to see the world differently as it is in the technical craft that’s used to capture those views and put them in a form that others can experience.
It would be more accurate, when someone asks me what I do, if I said that I am an explorer and a student of life, a witness, and a storyteller. But since that would probably only elicit confused stares and awkward pauses in the conversation, I guess I’ll just tell them, “I’m a writer.”
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.