Last year, I wrote a column for this magazine about the question I dread being asked: “What do you do?” It’s an innocuous question that requires me to frame a rewarding, complicated job so that I’m viewed as a contributing member of society and not a lump with an eccentric hobby. Inherent in my answer is a fear that I didn’t explain. It lurks as soon the word “writer” leaves my lips. If I’m unlucky, someone in the listening party nods solemnly, straightens up, and announces with brio a phrase that makes me want to dive behind the host’s couch.
“You know what you should do…”
Do masons get told to build fireplaces because the housing market is a sure thing? (“You know, all those HGTV shows have beautiful fireplaces. You could do that!”) Do nurses get chided for choosing to work in hospice care? (“But babies are so adorable! Don’t you want to be part of a miracle every day?”) I’ve gotten variations on this counsel far too often for my liking. The most memorable encounter was 10 years ago, when my freelancing career was wobbling toward legitimacy. The suburban New Jersey Borders bookstore where I worked full time was closing. A customer, a woman I had never seen before, asked a colleague and me about our futures. I recall my coworker saying he was working at FedEx while studying to be a CPA. This answer was satisfactory to her.
Mine – freelance writing – was not. “You know what you should do?” she said, as if she was about to utter the secret of life. “Go to these publications’ offices and ask to see the editor!”
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I don’t remember what I said. Probably something along the lines of “this advice will fuel my rocket ship to fame and fortune. Up, up, and away!” (And then I began scream-singing “We Are the Champions” toward the exit while telling the shift manager to send my last paycheck to my new address on Easy Street.)
But here’s what I should have said:
“Thank you, stranger who feels confident enough to offer me career advice based on a 30-second answer and on the assumption that because I wear a name tag, I’m a bottomless idiot. Tomorrow morning, I will take the train to Esquire’s offices, demand to see editor-in-chief David Granger, and hope that the burly security guard sees my unquenchable passion before hurling me onto the sidewalk. After I pick the gravel out of my hair, I’ll march into Sports Illustrated, give my packet to a glassy-eyed receptionist who will place it to the side. And there it will stay, buried by mail and a half-eaten garden salad before it meets the recycling bin two days later. This pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps advice is sure relevant in an age of anti-stalking laws and HR protocol! Can you see if my handshake is firm? How are my gumption levels?”
All the advice comes from a good place, making it hard to unleash the sarcastic indignation when a family member suggests I should hawk my services on Fiverr or that I tell an editor that if she doesn’t accept my pitch, I’ll take it elsewhere, like I’m the protagonist in a nerdier remake of “I Will Survive.” People, especially friends and family, want to help. It’s understandable, but these benefactors don’t share our occupation. To them, freelance writing resembles my mom’s view of New York City: a pre-apocalyptic landscape ripe with threats lurking on every corner. Or worse, that we’re spending our days in opulent seclusion, too spoiled to face the traffic jams and conference room blather of the everyday for fear that we’ll ruffle our comfiest sweats and miss Ellen. They figure that, coming from the world of federal holidays and patent leather shoes, they can provide structure in whatever world they think we inhabit. They overlook that writers are entrepreneurs who pay taxes and adjust to technology like everyone else. Work is work is work.
Nor do I need recommendations for an alternate career. I’ve been told I should teach. (No.) A couple of people said I’d be a natural fit in sales. (Hell no.) This advice always troubled me, because it’s basically a nice way of saying “just give up.” Yet I always left these interactions feeling buoyant. The reason is simple: Writing isn’t so much about talent but being convinced that any other occupation – no matter how high the salary or sweet the perks – would be a stupendous, even tragic, waste of time. It’s knowing something better is on the other side of that rejection and plowing forward until you seize that triumph. You move on to move ahead. No other mindset will do.
In the end, I listen politely and change the subject to something more pleasant, like the unseasonably cold weather or the anticipated freshness of the birthday cake.
Awkward grasps at familiarity cut across occupations. My wife, Laura, is a classically trained pianist and a college professor who is consistently asked by strangers about Billy Joel and Elton John. That is like asking a plumber to discuss the merits of Luigi and Mario. Here is where writers must hone their empathy. Thrusting your worldview upon another person makes for boring writing and stultifying conversation. The next time someone offers advice on your writing career, shift it back to your conversation partner: Ask questions that provide your new acquaintance a chance to open up beyond their occupation or role at the party, even with something as simple as, “What is that like?” You might learn something and form a deeper connection, which will only improve your writing because you’re interacting with the world beyond the predictable how-do-you-do? two-step.
As a writer, you know what you should do? Whatever got you to the point where you can enjoy work on your own terms while paying your bills.
And don’t go on Fiverr. You’re better than that.
Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.