Sailing away on a schooner in Key West
So what do you do?
It’s the inevitable question that comes within the first 15 minutes of most conversations at parties, on first dates, or otherwise awkward social affairs. What do you do? Answer with a glib or evasive response – I love, I laugh, I live my life – and risk sounding smug – and like you’re unemployed. People will always persist: No, really, what do you do? Where do you work? How do you pay the bills? But the truth is complicated, especially for us writers.
That’s why the buzz surrounding Robert Fay’s piece in Full Stop on writers and their jobs comes as no surprise. I take pause when people ask me what I do. I’ve held full time paying positions as a high school teacher, a journalist and at a financial services firm, but first and foremost I consider myself a writer. Yet I often don’t identify myself as such because I fear doing so would sound pretentious, as if I sit with my herbal tea in a bucolic setting and the koans of wisdom just pour out of me. (Okay, I am drinking herbal tea as I write this). But I also hesitate to call myself a writer because, though I make my living stringing together words in various syntactical and stylistic forms, it’s not quite that simple. I feel like a fraud, because to me “making a living” means having disposable income and putting money into savings. I have to hustle to pay the bills, and if I were to stop writing, nobody would be asking me to continue. A writer writer seems like someone the world can’t live without.
When it comes to the writing life, it’s a trade off. When I went to an office everyday, I had more money but less time to write. Now that I’ve made finishing my novel my priority, I have more time to write but less money. But because the balance between my job and my work keeps shifting, it’s hard to know how to define myself. As a journalist, novelist, or merely a content creator? By where I punch the clock or what is an authentic expression of myself? This is Brooklyn, after all. People understand that jobs aren’t necessarily your career.
But as Fay points it, there is still a stigma about writers and their jobs. That’s why I thought I’d come clean about all the things I do to make money. Yes, I write for well-respected places you’ve probably heard of, but I also write for corporate custom publications about everything from spas to cocktails. At my previous position, I wrote emails for other people that had to go through extensive edits, and various words weren’t allowed for legal reasons. I do a lot of corporate, formulaic writing that gives me very little creative satisfaction, but it pays nearly double that of what the more “prestigious” publications I write for do (and certainly more than fiction). And when it comes to a story I really care about, like this piece on the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military,
I’ll write it for free – after I can’t place it anywhere. I also do social media for a publishing company, occasionally tutor, and when things get really tight, sell some of my beloved books on Amazon.
I’ve even considered getting a job at Trader Joe’s or as a waitress, simply because I’d like to have stable income and don’t think it’s healthy to live in front of the computer, as I do. Even though I feel that I never stop working, there’s a part of me that feels less “legitimate” because I’m not on staff anywhere, and I don’t get a salary, vacation days or benefits. Because our culture often defines people by what they do, if you don’t have a title bestowed by a superior, it’s easy to feel…boundriless. Like you lack a sense of self. You don’t have a clear label by which the world can categorize you. (See that 30 Rock episode in which Liz Lemon is on probation for sexual harassment and goes so nuts she almost joins a fight club. Yes, it’s as hysterical as it sounds.)