Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?” Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.” Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.
Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story. But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing. Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children. Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.
Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party. The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files. My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list. If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have. If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.) Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark. Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.
I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself. When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world. I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer. “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.
But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer. I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.
Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing. But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills. If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion. And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”