The holiday parties are the worst, when that question comes from strangers and the spouses of friends. "So," they ask, "what do you do?"
I can't be the only writer who dreads it, and not for the reasons some might expect.
This weekend's engagements will be particularly difficult. I've been absent for months, haven't written a word for newspapers or magazines since spring, haven't posted on this blog, or any other, since early October, and, save for an appearance at an SPJ panel on freelancing last month, I've rarely departed from my hiding places on the Westside.
For most of 2007 I've been a recluse by choice, holed up in my home office, or at the only local café kind enough not to slop a bleach-sodden mop under my table when I sit for six hours sipping the same cup of coffee, staring at a screen and repeatedly whispering something like "The night was ..."
I used to be able to attend these happy, year-end gatherings and quietly ride the good reputation of whatever publication was kind enough to take my work, but not this year. This year I've focused almost exclusively on writing, rewriting and editing the book I began more than 18 months ago. It's my second novel, soon to be followed by a third, but I can't say THAT when someone asks what I do. They expect an answer that's resulted in a paycheck. They want a few words, not a testimony. But, as I've learned in the 3+ years since I quit my day job to write fiction full-time, there's nothing simple about the book publishing industry.
Even when the most sincere people ask "what do you do?" their expectation is a reply like "accountant" or "lawyer," something solid that politely points the conversation toward other matters, like the mortgage crisis, or Paris Hilton's jail term. If the planets are in the right alignment, the answer is "firefighter" and an insider tale about the LA fires, or "concert promoter" and an offer of free tickets to Hannah Montana. But say "I write," and suddenly eyes sparkle with the great expectation that you personally have accomplished something of major importance, and this is a conversation that goes nowhere good.
When I say "I write" it leads to "what," which leads to "books," which raises eyebrows and questions like "what books" and "can I get it at Borders?" The talk doesn't turn to authors in general, but rather bears down on me like a Mack truck in the I-5 tunnel. Suddenly this polite conversation becomes a conflagration that consumes whatever ego is left. No matter how I spin it, I seem to end up cast as a slouch who pecks out drivel on a laptop. "So what do you do?" leads to the rephrasing of the question. "Wait ... so what do you do for ... like ... um ... a living?"
There is great value in defending the writer's life, but only in that the writer soon becomes an expert in the symptomatology of panic attacks. Most any writer can explain how the book publishing industry works, but halfway into the explanation I always start to wonder what I'm saying. I mean, if I really knew what I was talking about, would we be having this conversation? And then comes the feeling of weightlessness, the accelerated heartbeats ... Would someone please forward me Dr. Jennifer Melfi's phone number?
I need a new approach and the best solution I can think of is full disclosure.
When faced this weekend with "what do you do?" I will reply with four words: "I write unpublished books." No sparks, no anticipation, and certainly no excitement. It's just me, coffee breath and a keyboard with half the letters worn away. From there I'll be happy to go into more detail, but I'll hardly be offended if the conversation segues to the woes of another writer of unpublished books, maybe Lynne Spears, whose tome on parenting was delayed indefinitely following the revelation that her daughter, Britney's 16-year-old sister, was ... um ... pregnant.
I already feel better.
In the meantime, I'll continue to do what writers do. I'll write another unpublished book and, with any luck, come next December, I'll have a new reply to that same old question.