So. Are You Still An Architect?

Jeffrey Cohen

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.

9 thoughts on “So. Are You Still An Architect?

  1. Julia Buckley

    Jeff,

    The obvious answer to such a rude question is, “Why, you upstart! I’ve never been so insulted.” And then you must slap them across the face. πŸ™‚

    Julia

    Reply
  2. Mark Terry

    21 years? I’m impressed. It’s only been about a year-and-a-half fulltime freelancing for me, and I’m looking forward to the next 21 years and more.

    First, the fame and fortune part. Especially since I had 2 people say exactly that to me last week, and my response, though not quite as elegant as yours, is along the lines of “I don’t see much positive about fame,” or “I’ll settle for rich.” I prefer my privacy, am, in fact, uncomfortable with being the center of attention, which is probably why I’m a writer–I can get all sorts of accolades and praise but not actually be around when it happens. If I wanted the applause, I’d be a stage actor or musician.

    My father-in-law called earlier this week to talk to my wife, who wasn’t in, so he settled with briefly talking to me. He asked me what I had written that day. I explained that I was working on a long business report, about 250 pages or so, due on November 1st, and that I was working on the final draft of the 3rd novel in my contract, ANGELS FALLING. He said, “Isn’t hard to write those novels?”

    Huh? Compared to this black hole of a business report? That makes me, like, find facts and figures? Read company annual reports? DO MATH? Figure out what things like CAGR are, and what the difference between mean and average is? Hell no. Writing novels is a piece of cake. I just make the shit up! (Oh, excuse me, carefully craft a riveting narrative and spend hours and hours meticulously verifying every fact).

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked if I’m still writing. I have been asked (just this week), “So, how’s the writing going?” This from someone I used to work with, and there’s a very unhidden subtext that essentially says, “Because writers don’t make any money and we expected you back begging for work a month after you left.” Or maybe I’m defensive and reading too much into this. (Actually, I don’t think I am. In the last 4 weeks I’ve run into 4 or 5 people I used to work with and they all asked the same question in exactly the same way, as if they were expecting me to say it sucked, thank you very much. One asked me, “Any regrets for leaving?” An emphatic, “NO.” I might have said, “Oh, hell no,” but I’m not sure.)

    Yep. Still writing. Hope you enjoy the next 21 years or so.

    Best,Mark Terry

    Reply
  3. Elaine

    How very timely, Jeff! I ran into an old antiques dealer acquaintance at an auction a week or so ago and she asked me when I was going to stop fooling around with ‘that mystery series’ and get back to selling merch. After all, she added – it’s not like you’re a ‘real writer’ with those little paperbooks. I must confess – I almost told her I was tempted myself. Selling five figure antiques is a hell of a lot easier than selling books – but not as much fun. But I didn’t. She wouldn’t have got it anyway.

    Reply
  4. B.G. Ritts

    Speaking from the ‘outside’ world, when I see someone I haven’t seen for a while, particularly if I used to work with them, I often ask either: “Still at XYZ Corp?” or “Where is it you’re working now?” I think we’re simply inquiring about your position.

    Now the people who make like there’s something ‘wrong’ with writing…well, jealousy comes to mind.

    Reply
  5. Beatrice Brooks

    I don’t get the “So, are you still writing books?” much anymore, not since I met my Aussie/Canadian on-line, hopped a plane to Tasmania to meet him in person, co-authored a book with him, and married him.

    But when I was a waitress, my co-workers would oft greet me with, “So, are you making lots of money?” and I’d respond, “Yup, a freaking fortune. I’m just waiting tables for the fun of it.”

    Hugs,Deni

    Reply
  6. Merrill

    So, ARE you still writing?I hope so, because after reading your comments, I going to look for your books.Thus re-affirming that blogs are useful, after all.

    Merrill-not a writer, but doesn’t have a REAL job, either

    Reply

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