A couple of weeks ago, I passed my 21st anniversary as a freelance writer, or as I like to think of it, I began my 22nd year of unemployment. It’s a strange life we freelancers lead, as we’re not quite self-employed (many companies must hire us for us to make a living), we’re not quite employed in the traditional sense (we don’t list an employer on our tax records, and we don’t report to an office every day) and then again, we are still working. Whenever possible.
The anniversary made me think about the writer’s life, which is a curious one. We do something that isn’t really like anything else: it’s not the kind of art that people can see, really. Oh, they read the words on the page, but if we’re doing our job right, they seem to be natural and inevitable, which means they don’t draw attention to the person putting them there. Freelance reporters are even more anonymous: nobody reads the byline; they just assume our work is generated by some monolithic entity. “Did you see what the Gazette said today?”
Writers would be missed if we all vanished, but then, so would dog groomers, since it would be a truly bizarre occurance if an entire class of people vanished based solely on profession. But I digress.
Writers, particularly those who traffic in fiction, have a remarkably strange place in society. Those who connect with the largest numbers of people are well-known, extremely well-compensated, and their names (if not their faces) are recognized the word over. Stephen King has practically become a genre. John Grisham is a brand name. J.K. Rowling actually owns Venezuela.
The rest of us are more anonymous, and that’s fine. When someone asks me if I want my novels to make me rich and famous, I usually remark that “famous” is entirely optional. I have no desire to be a household name, although my name is so common it appears in more households than I care to think about. I’m perfectly happy if people buy my books, read them and enjoy them, and remember my name only well enough to buy the next book when it comes out. That’s plenty for me; I don’t need the best table at Wolfgang Puck’s latest restaurant. Although the occasional free dessert would not be refused.
What constantly strikes me, though, is that people I know, people I’ve met (and I’m talking almost exclusively about people outside the publishing and mystery worlds), when confronted with the fact that I make my living rearranging words, seem to find this astonishing, as if I invented freelancing–and writing, for that matter–all by myself.
It happens in social situations, when friends and acquaintances gather at someone’s home or a restaurant and chat. I arrive, disguised as a normal person, doing my best to maintain the illusion that there’s nothing especially noteworthy about me. I have myself convinced, anyway, but there’s obviously something wrong with my disguise, because someone invariably sees through it and approaches. Quite often–more often than I care to think about, frankly–I am asked a question for which I have never been able to devise an adequate answer. You’d think that after countless repetitions I’d have come up with a stock line that would defuse the question, or put it to rest, but there’s something about it that really puzzles me. It startles me every time I hear it:
“So. You still writing?”
Is there any other profession on this earth that elicits that question? Are bank tellers constantly having to reassure casual acquaintances that they haven’t decided, against all odds, to become skydiving instructors? Is there an unreported rash of freelance writers suddenly giving up the ink-stained life to go into upholstery? Or is this a subtle dig at me in particular, perhaps? A way that the questioner is asking whether I’ve finally come to my senses and decided to get a real job?
I’ve been married for 19 years to an attorney who works for the state of New Jersey. I’ve seen her in any number of different social situations, ranging from small dinner parties to enormous gatherings of people in both professional and personal contexts. I have never, not once, heard anyone ask my wife if she’s still a lawyer. They don’t assume that just because they haven’t seen her in six months or so they need to check if she’s decided: “you know, the heck with the education, the law degree, the bar exam and the decades of experience. I’m going to clown college.”
So, why me?
I think it’s because people think writing is a hobby. They think it’s something one does to kill some time after coming home from work, to unwind. It’s a cute little avocation, not something intended to create income. It’s certainly not an identity, like being a college professor, an accountant or a steampipe fitter. It’s something done in those magical “extra” hours that I’ve never been able to identify. It’s something one does to boost one’s ego (hah!), to dispense with the odd creative impulse that might have otherwise interrupted a perfectly good day of work.
Defensive? Moi? Well, maybe. My father owned and operated a store that sold paint and wallpaper for 40 years. Well, to be totally accurate, my father was the one who sold the paint and wallpaper. The store did remarkably little beyond housing the paint and wallpaper. I’ll have to ask my mother, but I’m reasonably sure nobody every walked up to him at a bar mitzvah and asked him, “so, you still selling paint? Didn’t decide to become an airline pilot in the past week, did you?”
Anyone who reads this blog or dozens other, who follows publishing (and mystery publishing in particular) knows that this is no business for wimps. It’s not for people who are going to change their minds and go into some other line of work when the first hint of adversity shows itself. And it’s certainly not something one does on a whim.
So when someone asks me if I’m still a writer, I’ve had a number of canned responses I’ve tried. I used to say, “that’s what I do,” but that seemed a little bland. I toyed with, “no, haven’t you heard? I’m prime minister of Lichstenstein now!” But that just got me odd looks, and I get enough of those already. These days, I’m going with “yes I am. Would you like to buy one of my books?”
What the hell. A sale’s a sale.