Quick: What do you do?
Posted by Victoria | Filed under Victoria
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.