Years ago my dentist found out I wrote. He said “God, I used to be really good at that. I could write answers on these insurance forms and stuff – nobody could make head or tails of it.” Writing as obfuscation. I had implements in my mouth so fortunately was not required to respond.
If you’re a writer, either you admit to it in social settings or you don’t. Cop to it, and the range of responses is discouragingly slim.
I asked a few writer friends about this. “When I say I’m a writer,” one told me, “people assume I have a book out with my name on it, and I’m possibly a famous person they’ve never heard of.” The next moments don’t go very well if that isn’t the case – if for example you’ve published something (or dozens of somethings) without spies or raised gold lettering.
“Even a lot of my old friends seem to be shaky on what I do,” another one said. “I’ve had people say ‘Oh you write for the paper?’ when I’ve been reviewing there for the past six years. And even when I explain, the bemused look stays in their eyes. The whole livelihood is fuzzy.”
I don’t often tell people I’m a writer, partly because I’m never quite sure I am. It’s not usually part of my job description, but that’s not the real reason I hesitate. Mostly it’s to avoid what follows. The polite cocktail party response – although to be perfectly accurate I’ve never attended a cocktail party – is “Oh how interesting, what have you written?” If the answer isn’t a novel, things can get hazy fast. When people learned I was a college teacher I used to get plenty of “Must be great to work three hours a day and have summers off.” But writing is, if anything, even less understood.
I think I’ll start answering “What do you do?” with just “I write” – and the inevitable follow-up with “Whatever seems true to me and might be interesting to someone else.” This will engender a few good talks with fellow sufferers and many premature trips to the bar for refills. But I’ve come to think of it as what I do, and also to feel less apologetic than I used to.
I’ve had a little luck publishing my pieces, but that’s not what has changed. (No one wants to hear your list of rejections and acceptances anyway.) I think it’s just that I’ve finally spent enough hours, weeks, years with my butt in a chair trying to get words to come. You pick the time and place, smells, drinks, noise level, favorite pen, whatever works, and you do it. Do it long enough, even (especially) when you don’t want to, and you’re a writer.
For me it’s legal pads and no capital letters (this fools my brain that things are already flowing, there’s no forbidding “Once Upon a Time” gate to open), plus a little background noise and some coffee. It isn’t so much superstition as training. You’re saying to your body “This is what happens now.”
So tell your friend/lover/barista/dentist you’re writing a novel or poem – or don’t. Say you’re a writer or else let it be your secret power, whatever makes it real. Just sit down somewhere, or stand on a ladder, and make words. They stand a good chance of begetting other words. Some you make better, some you throw out. That’s what we do.
David Raney is a writer and editor living in Atlanta with a great wife, two great kids and an enormous dog. In a previous life all that was true but he was a better writer living in, let’s say, Paris. His writing has shown up in about thirty places including Flash, Compose, Gravel, Referential, Texas Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and the Hollins Critic.