Quick: What do you do?

Since the default question in North America, on meeting someone new, is: “What do you do?” I get hung up on this one fairly often. I just met a new tutoring student yesterday, who asked me what I did — besides tutoring, obviously. This is a natural enough question (and in this case was tied into my legitimacy as a prospective tutor), but I stumbled a little bit over the answer.

“I’m in transition” worked fairly well last fall and in the winter — especially when I was travelling in England, when I could explain that I was moving from an academic career to a novel-writing one. Now that I’ve fairly definitely left the academic career track behind (notwithstanding a few conferences, lectures, and possible sessional-teaching applications for next year), I should be able to say, simply, “I’m a writer.”

Notice the should in there. I find it very difficult to own this. It’s not that I think it’s untrue — it’s just that people assume I’m an aspiring writer, whereas what I am is an aspiring professional writer — a big difference. It’s the difference between the hobby and the career, the spare time activity and the focus of your life.

Now that I’ve published one short story (I’m still working through the practical details of getting my novel up), and people have actually paid good money to buy it — and not all of them are known to me, either — I’m feeling more confident in stating that I’m a writer, and that is what I do.

Of course, I’m also tutoring writing, doing some editing, and gardening, and I’m learning about how to have a small holding/market garden business while I get my writing business off the ground. In response to my student yesterday, I said, “Well, apart from tutoring I write novels and I also garden, and I used to teach at the University of King’s College” — which is all true, but a little clunky.

My sister was asked a while ago what I did, and she replied, “She’s an entrepreneur” and then burst out laughing. I suppose I am backing into being an entrepreneur — I’ve now started one official and three semi-official businesses (counting the writing as a separate endeavour from my actual publishing company; I’m not sure how one describes self-employment in the service end of things). I find it hard to call myself one. Perhaps I should say, “I’m self-employed”? Also true. Somehow it never occurs to me to say it when asked.

I think the big problem is that your social identity is tied deeply into your working life. On the East Coast your family and origin is perhaps more important — the question always being “Where are you from and who’s your father?” — but if you’re a come from away, next up is “What do you do?”

I write. I garden. I tutor. I read. I edit medieval texts and contemplate translating them. I’m the sexton for a church. (There’s another job requiring explanation — in this case I’m basically keeper of the keys and opener of doors.) My business card says: Writer, Gardener, Jobbing Humanist — the last covers everything except sexton. Not really a quick answer to the question, though. It doesn’t slot me nicely into a pigeonhole, which is usually the purpose.

I’ve spent a year trying not to define myself by my job. I’m a come-from-away (it doesn’t matter where I’m living, I’ve always come from somewhere else). I’m me. I’m an aspiring professional writer — and so far I’ve made enough money from my writing for two cups of tea from Tim Horton’s, so I’m nearly ready to claim that I’m a “newly professional” writer — that sounds good, don’t you think? Maybe by this time next year I won’t start laughing when I say it out loud.

No bets on how long it’ll take my family to stop laughing, though.

avatarAuthor Bio ~ Victoria (81 Posts)

Having spent the second half of 2013 walking across England, Victoria Goddard is setting up a few small businesses in 2014, as a writer, editor, and possibly even as a gardener come spring. She's lived in more places in Canada than most people know exist, currently in Halifax, and along with writing for Other Voices also blogs at The Rose and Phoenix Inn.

5 Responses to “Quick: What do you do?”

  1. avatar Samantha Says:
    May 29, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Where is your short story?

  2. “I’m a published author, and I professionally mentor other aspiring authors.” There. That’s what you could say.

    When I was unemployed in Vancouver and loathe to say I was looking for secretarial work…and retail workers would ask what I did for a living, I kicked it up and said, “I’m a Cartoonist.” Their response was so ego-gratifying!! But at one outlet, the fellow ended up being the owner of the business, and he bit the worm I offered and asked me to bring some stuff in for him to see. So, using my lessor quality judgement, I did. He then wanted to buy my “cartoon chickens” for $5,000 a pop, and asked if I could paint them in each of his fast food chicken outlets!!

    I bailed. I simply didn’t have the confidence or conviction to really be a big-time cartoonist.

    I’ve never actually regretted not following through…because I wouldn’t have been in integrity with the life path I knew I needed to follow.

    Odd story, eh?

  3. I now retired after 20 years of bookkeeping and preparing taxes. If anyone asked what I was doing I always mentioned my career first. I am a wife and mother. If they pushed a bit then I would mention my paid work. But first and foremost I was a mom (now retired…. they grew up and left home) and wife.
    The reaction from some people has entertained me for years. So what is your career. Tell them that. Everything else is just a job to support your career.

  4. You are not your job description. Many people work at jobs that pay the bills as they work toward their dreams.

    The most important issue is how YOU feel you are spending your time. Do you feel that what you are doing is worthwhile? Is it adding value to your life, and/or to the lives of others? This should be the only criteria. It’s not important that others validate how you spend your time.

    If someone is asking for your tutoring credentials, that’s one thing. Simply state your academic background. But as for the routine chitchat, it doesn’t really matter how people react to what you answer.

    My short answer to ‘what do you do?’ is – I’m unemployed! The long answer is more complicated, but I don’t feel the need to explain my life to everyone. People think what they want to think anyway, so I try not to worry about it.

  5. I was travelling all day today and missed the comments earlier — but good points everyone! I just find it a curious question. I don’t like thinking of myself as constrained by my job — or even my career — but sometimes I trip over myself. Bonnie, I’m impressed that you have the courage of your convictions — I’m working on it!

    Samantha, my short story “Scheherezade” is available from Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords as an ebook. I’ll have another one (“Inkebarrow”) up this weekend, and a novel coming soon in both digital and print forms. Thanks for asking! My website is victoriagoddard.ca if you’re interested, too.

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