When I received my book contract for The Dante Club and decided to write full-time, I struggled with one question more than others. “And what do you do?”
Usually you'd get the question from the passenger next to you on the airplane. Or maybe at some kind of cocktail reception, which I don't much like attending to begin with.
Here's the problem. The word “writer.” It doesn't satisfy anyone. “I'm a writer” is followed by a dozen questions. Even if you try to really hammer the point home with, “I'm a writer!” No way out of it.
“Oh, what do you write?”
“Books, like novels, or what?”
“Novels, like nonfiction?”
“Have you published anything?”
And it's always coming next:
“Have I read anything you've written?”
I'm sorry. I just met you. How do I know?
At the risk of sounding misanthropic, I should qualify all of this by saying naturally I'm pretty shy, though I usually can hide it, and, my subspecies of shyness, I have anxieties about talking about myself.
“What is your schedule like on a typical day?”
is a very common and perfectly innocuous question. I'm happy to answer it. But its prevalance does suggest the expectation of the answer being “I write from 1 until 4 in the morning” or “I write under my bed while wearing a hippo costume.” My schedule is pretty much the same as everyone else's I know, except maybe a lot more procrastinating.
Part of what is strange about saying you're a writer is that everyone is a writer. Writing is part of what almost everybody does, professionally and personally. It's sort of like saying “I'm a walker” or “I'm a sleeper.” And, of course, even a writer by profession can be anything from a catalog copy writer to a journalist to a poet. “Novelist” is more specific, but it's also, I don't know, obnoxious. Though not as bad as “author.” Hi, I'm an author!
“I wrote and directed a hit play, so I'm not sweating it either”-- Max Fisher, Rushmore
Or as Barton Fink, in one of my favorite scenes of any movie, screams to a naval officer while pointing to his head,
“I am a creator! This is my uniform!”
And, another point, being a writer happens behind closed doors and when you're alone. That might explain why it's hard to keep one's writer aura on-key everywhere else.
By now I've published a third novel, The Last Dickens, and I feel more comfortable in my outward identity as a writer. Some of my friends wanted to be writers from the time they were very young, but for me my transition was much later. That might be part of why I've written on subjects like Charles Dickens and, in my second novel, Edgar Allan Poe, because I'm exploring how some of the writers I grew up came to terms with their professional identities at a time when it was far braver and even more foolish than it is now to presume to become a writer.
A writer is often seen as an alien species.
I don't know if I had ever met a writer for most of my life. So we might imagine certain things about writers, how one should look or sound. I'm often told I look too young, at least to write the types of books I write (which, so far, have been set in the 19th century). Another byproduct to the writer-as-alien are some odder questions that might follow the ones above.
“You make a living from that?” Or, more bluntly, as one gentleman asked in San Francisco at one of my first readings,
“How much money did you get paid for this book?”
Strangely, it wasn't hostile, but at the same time would you ask that of someone you just met who was a doctor, lawyer or banker?
There's also a variation of the first question, which is “What do you do?” or "What do you do?" Meaning, what do you do with your time all day as a writer? Now that's a question I ask myself on some days.
What do they call the people who design the rides at Disney World? Imagineers? I sort of like that title.
“I'm an imagineer, what about you?”
But Disney probably trademarked it.