It’s something that happens every day, every hour, across the country many times over. It’s done so casually that some people respond without a second thought, and then reciprocate with half-hearted interest. It happens at birthday parties, happy hour, luncheons, business meetings, the grocery store, the gym and even while lying on the table of a chatty masseuse.
Five words and a question mark that either incite fear or excitement (after all, our favorite subject is ourselves). Some people answer humbly (“I help people” says the life-saving ER doctor). Some over-inflate their importance (“I lead research to find the cure for cancer” says the guy who washes petri dishes). And, some stutter because their answer would be schizophrenic (“By day, I’m a mild-mannered reporter, but in the evenings I’m a superhero” squeaks the mousy guy in the thick glasses).
Secret superheroes aren’t the only ones whose windpipes close up at that question. Writers fall into that category as well.
The writing world is full of people who practice their craft outside of the hours of 9 to 5. Many of us slave away at day jobs – some fulfilling others simply filling the bank account – and those that aren’t in the office spend their hours looking after their children, only able to sneak in a few writing sessions during nap time. If you were to ask this secret society of writers what they do, 99.9 percent would answer with what they do during the 40-hour workweek (except the moms, that job is more than full-time and should be honored as so).
Why is it that we have a hard time identifying ourselves with something we love? For me, the answer lies in the follow up questions:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Ooh, cool, what do you write?”
“Awesome, where can I buy your books.”
Picking off non-existent lint, “Uh, well, my first novel isn’t out yet.”
“When is it coming out?”
Clearing throat, “Well, you see, the publishing industry is really interesting and complex, so I’m not really sure.”
“But it is coming out, right?”
Gulp. Sweat breaks out on forehead. Heart races. Stomach churns. “Excuse me, I have to pee.”
Leaves party to down a dozen Krispy Kremes, vowing to never write again.
If we are outside of the realm of the Stephen Kings, Ray Bradburys, or Sandra Browns, does that mean we have less validity to identify ourselves as writers? When does that defining moment happen? At the very first word? When you finish a manuscript? Or, when you receive your first contract or advance? Or, do you finally get to call yourself a writer when your name stares out at you from a bookshelf?
Does it matter if we’re a best-seller or a novice novelist? If you get paid for your work, does that mean you’re more of a writer than someone who writes for those close to them? Does a literary genius have any more right to call himself a writer than someone who struggles but has her whole heart in her story?
At what point in your life do you quickly answer, “I’m a writer” with a strong, clear, confident voice?