I’ve been thinking a lot lately about labels and identity. The consensus on the internet seems to be that if you write, you are entitled to call yourself a writer. (Calling yourself an “author” is another matter). I agree wholeheartedly: I write, therefore I am a writer.
Out in the real world, however, this doesn’t seem to hold true. People have expectations. Anywhere except maybe at a convention, if I introduce myself as a writer, people will think that means I make money at it. If they follow up and discover that I’m unpublished, they’ll assume by “writer,” I really mean “unemployed.”
A couple months ago, I ended up sitting on an airplane beside one of my teachers from high school. One of my English teachers, to be precise. And yet, when she asked me, “So what do you do?”, I still told her I was an engineer. Not a word about writing. It didn’t even cross my mind that the question could have meant, “What do you most enjoy doing?”
Now, to be fair, I don’t remember doing so much as a page of creative writing in her class (5 paragraph essays, anyone?), but I don’t think that’s it. And it’s not that I don’t like telling people about it. Heck, that trip I spent the whole weekend telling obscure relatives and friends-of-my-parents about how I’m working on my third novel. But all of them already knew that I was a writer.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just a privileged upper-middle-class white America thing, but people are awfully obsessed with money, especially for a society that thinks it’s impolite as a topic of conversation. Is there any other reason to identify ourselves by our jobs, than to provide others with an estimate of our income, intelligence, and skill level? It certainly isn’t the best indicator of who we are or what we enjoy; otherwise, why would anyone retire?
I was listening to the audiobook of The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and I was struck by how simply the main character, Imp, put it:
“I think of myself as a painter, because painting is what I love to do, what I’m passionate about. So, I’m a painter.”
I love that. I wish more people thought that way.
I don’t have much opportunity these days to meet people who aren’t connected with work, where “ground support design engineer” really is my only appropriate identity, but I hope that next time I run into, say, an old English teacher, I’ll remember to tell them “I’m a writer.” In the meantime, it’s nice to have this little corner of the web where I can define myself as I choose, by what I love and what I’m passionate about.