It happens at weddings and cocktail parties. With a new hairdresser, on a plane. It happens all the time. Somebody—with genuine interest or a well-feigned approximation—asks, “So, what do you do?”
At which point I break into a cold sweat and mumble something about being a freelancer, which is about as descriptive as saying “I have an office job,” or “I perform tasks and am subsequently paid for said performance.”
The truth is, I’m shy to tell people I’m a writer. It feels like something that should be uttered (uttered, not said) by someone spinning richly-toned monologues on public radio. Someone holding court in the shadowy corners of a glamorously dirty boozecan, or a dirtily glamorous rooftop party. Someone older and cooler, who isn’t afraid of crowds, with better clothes, more gravitas and an ability to speak without ever saying “Um” or “Y’know” or “Sometimes I watch Storage Wars in my pyjamas.” Basically, not me. I worry people will be disappointed if I’m the only writer they ever meet. They think Writer and picture Martin Amis or J.M. Coetzee or maybe Dorothy Parker as portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh. And then they meet me, a girl who has been known to put ice cubes in white wine.
Last summer, before my first novel came out, I was at an elegant wedding shower in Montreal. The women around me were doctors and lawyers. One of them was finishing a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins. When the conversation came around to me, I threw back the rest of my mimosa and declared my answer to the usual question: “I. Am. A. Writer.”
Even though the book wasn’t yet published, it was true. My days were filled with back and forth emails to my editor, plus research and re-writes. My freelance work involved writing jacket copy, interviews and study guides. No doubt about it, I spent my time writing and I got paid for it (modestly, but paid all the same).
But somehow it felt like I’d confessed a secret predilection, a deeply guarded ambition, a skeleton in the family closet. I straightened up from the unconscious wincing slouch I’d found myself in and realized that people were nodding and smiling, asking interested questions. The hostess did not leap up and scream, “A writer? You? With that hair? Who do you think you’re kidding?”
It might have been the first time I admitted to it in a group of strangers. And nothing bad happened. No one questioned me, any more than I got into the doctors’ faces and demanded they produce a legitimate board certification.
My partner, also a writer, has a very demanding day job as a book publicist. When he is asked about what he does, he always explains his publicity job. Though he’s been nominated for awards and received across-the-board positive reviews, I’ve never heard him introduce himself as a writer, or even mention his writing unless someone thinks to ask out of the blue, “You didn’t by any chance happen to write and publish a book recently, did you?”
Usually I’m the one that tells people he writes. And he does the same for me. This is an excellent workaround for the shy writer. When my partner’s not around, often an enthusiastic friend will fill in, adding to my mumbled reply about my job situation that, “Hey, she also wrote a book!” And then I get to confirm this information, looking pleasantly surprised, as if the five years of blood, sweat and tears had simply slipped my mind.
My question is: does it ever get easier? I’m new to all this, with just one book under my literary belt (aside: what would a literary belt look like? And would I feel more writerly if I actually had one?). And will I always get a secret little thrill when I do work up the courage to confess that I am, in fact, a writer?
I spent so long not talking about writing that even a passing mention feels like I’m throwing myself a parade, when I haven’t proven myself yet. There’s a condescending angel on my shoulder, cocking an eyebrow and asking, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Before Magnified World was published, I tried to avoid talking about writing unless I was discussing a particular piece I’d published somewhere. I wanted to avoid the questions—well-meant, but uncomfortable questions. “How’s the book going?” “Is it going to be published?” “Are you going to quit your day job?” (Ha!)
I’ve loved writing and books my whole life. It may be the only uncomplicated thing I’ve known—I’ve never wanted to do anything else. So maybe the shyness is just a reflection of how long and how intensely I’ve dreamed about being able to speak those words without flinching and wondering if this is all real. I should ask some other writers whether they have the same anxiety. Now if I could just find some people willing to cop to that label when I asked them what they do…