Stop asking me what I do all day.
I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals. My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice. When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”
1996 was a long time ago. It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives. But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain. In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever. My youngest son started full-day school last month. From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet. When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.
Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.
But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.
These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks. Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real. And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers. Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.
“Working? But you already wrote your book, didn’t you? What’s left to do? What do you actually do all day?”
As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky. I get that. There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit. And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower. Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days. But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do. We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.
For new writers, publicity is vital to success. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy. In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs. Sure, some people do this stuff for fun. I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun. But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.
In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap. It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs. People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers. So let’s stop it.
If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility. We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day. I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it. But it doesn’t work. Stop it. Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead. That’s what writers do all day.