“What do you do?”

I’m on a plane heading home from my first-ever writer’s retreat, and seated next to me is an older man who wants to chat while the plane is boarding.  After the usual pleasantries about the weather and our respective travels, he asks, “So, what do you do?”

I open my mouth to say, I’m a writer.

But I hesitate.

The first time I self-identified was at a get-together hosted by a colleague of my husband.  I’d had a few essays published and I was shopping a novel.  I felt like a writer.  I worked hard at it every day.  But as soon as I said as much, I was peppered with questions that made me squirm and stammer.

“Oh, what have you written?”  “So, when’s your next book coming out?”  “Have I heard of you?”

Blushing furiously, I tried to spin “a few essays,” “I don’t know” and “probably not” in some positive way while a polite, uncomfortable silence withered each iteration of this conversation in the space of a breath.  By the end of the night, I was mumbling something about being a grad student and steering the conversation to the weather.

My seatmate on the airplane is looking at me over his glasses, a friendly, grandfatherly salesman who’s put away his iPhone to hear what I have to say.

I’m a writer.

Even now, with a contract under my belt and the first half of my advance bulking up my savings account, even now with a book that sold in ten days, even now with an agent and an editor in my corner – even now I hesitate.

Part of me still feels like a poser, saying these words.  (Maybe it doesn’t count yet.  Maybe selling one book is a fluke.)  There’s a set of meanings people attach to the idea of “writer” that we have to respond to.  It’s hard to self-identify if you can’t fulfill the image or answer the questions “properly.”

Heck, I still can’t answer the questions properly.  “A YA historical novel called Without the Walls”, “spring 2012” and “I doubt it” is probably not the response my seatmate expects of someone who calls herself a writer.

The salesman is waiting, head cocked, smiling.

It would be easier to wuss out and talk about my day job, the unglamorous data work that currently keeps the lights on at Chez J.

Not today, though.  Today I’m claiming it.

There will always be a reason not to.  I haven’t sold anything.  I’ve only sold one thing.  I don’t have an agent.  My book is out on submission.  I’ve only sold one book.  I don’t make a living writing.  I’ve never been on the best-seller list.

I clear my throat.  I smile at the salesman and tell him, calm and confident, “I’m a writer.”

One day, I will not hesitate.



Filed under Writing and Life

41 responses to ““What do you do?”

  1. Cynthia Levinson

    Jillian, “one day” is today! Not only CAN you call yourself “a writer,” for the sake of your readers, you must. Otherwise, what are they reading? (I admit, though, that I find it a little easier to say, “I write for kids” than to say “I’m a writer.”) Go for it. You can do it.


  2. Mike Jung

    Kudos J., I really get this – EVERY ONE of those reasons (and more) goes running through my head when I’m asked what I do. It’s a killer. And yet, you’re totally right – there’s actually every reason in the world why we should claim our identities as writers, starting with the one Cynthia mentioned. This is a profoundly meaningful thing we do, and it’s only right that we should acknowledge and honor its place in our lives.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      It’s weird. This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and now that it’s sitting there in front of me, still. I. Hesitate.

      But every time I say it, it’ll get easier. So I’m’a say it a lot.


  3. J.! I heard you read your work at the retreat. Believe me, dear. You’re a writer.



  4. I got into a huge debate with someone once about whether an unpublished writer could call herself a writer. I came down firmly on the side of “YES.” I think writer is a state-of-mind. I think writer is an obsession. I think claiming the title is half the battle.

    Thanks for the great post! Amber


  5. What Lynda said–you bet you’re a writer! Good for you for claiming it–that is a huge and important step.

    Cheering you on from San Francisco,


    • J. Anderson Coats

      It is. And it’s harder than I thought it would be. I figured there’d be a time when it would just feel natural to say “I’m a writer.” Maybe I have to create that feeling on my own. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing the world hands you.


  6. For me, “I’m a writer” came easily. It was “I’m an author” that was harder. My questions back then: Do I wait to say it til the first contract is signed? Til the first check comes in? Til the first ARC is issued? Til the laydown date?
    You’re a writer. And an author. I’m an author (I decided to go with the date the contract was signed. That’s the date when a respected publishing house thought enough of my writing to offer serious money for it).
    This life is tough enough. Why do we throw *more* obstacles in our own paths? Only creative people debate the semantics of words yet are too humble or intimidated to use the words’ full power to describe themselves. (Artists have the same hangups as writers, by the way; I’ve been a professional illustrator since age 18 but was squeamish at first about calling myself an artist)
    Is it because of the perception that any hobbyist can write? That one doesn’t need a degree certificate? If so, that shouldn’t apply to you — you have a literary agent and you’ve sold a book; you’ve paid your dues to become a professional writer.
    The IRS says you’re a professional if you got paid for it. Maybe work on that, next: Not just, “I’m a writer”, but, “I’m a professional writer.”


  7. I don’t know that I have anything to add beyond the wise, warm things already said by many others above. But I want to hear THE REST OF THE STORY!!!

    So you got your nerve up, you said the magic words! Bravo! How did it go from there with the man on the plane. Was it a fruitful conversation? Did you get the usual questions, and did you keep your chin up all the same? I hope so. I hoped you gained a fan right there, who will be buying your book the moment it comes out!


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Heh. The reason I didn’t tell the rest is that there was really nothing to tell. The guy smiled, said, “That must be interesting” and went on to talk about the time he met Stephen King and how his sister’s genius kids were translating Harry Potter into Greek.

      Not the most epic ending. But enough to get me thinking.


  8. What a great post, Jillian! I’m so familiar with this feeling. I hate the “Have you written anything I would know?” question. But thanks for sharing this universal response.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I don’t mind “What do you write about?” That’s pretty safe. Not a conversation-killer like “Have you written something I’d know?”


  9. I hear you. I struggle with this one all the time.

    “What do you do?” gets answered with a series of hyphenates, slashes, and parentheticals – Designer/Writer/Illustrator/Fighter-Magic User/Apologist

    But I’ve noticed that the more I say “writer” (and say it with confidence) the more writerly opportunities come my way. And the more willing I am to put the writing first in a day filled with distractions and pressing requirements.

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. You drive where you look.


  10. How many professional writers can answer “Have I heard of you?” in the affirmative? Way less than one percent. It’s a mean question, though I don’t believe it’s intended in a mean-spirited way. I think it just falls in the vast category of MOST PEOPLE HAVE NO IDEA.

    I’m glad you said it, because you are a writer. But like Jeannie, I’m waiting for the rest of the story.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      The further along in the debut process I get, the more I realize that people really don’t have any idea. It’s not their fault – they just don’t know. Sometimes people say things like “Have I heard of you?” in a playful way without really understanding how it sounds on the receiving end.

      The rest of the story is unglamorous, but it’s included above for posterity in response to Jeannie’s post.


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  12. Gwendolyn McIntyre

    The first time someone on an airplane asked me “What do you do,” I pronounced proudly that I was a physician.

    “Oh?” The woman paused as if trying to remember something, then looked up at me, a confused look on her face. “Is that like a doctor?”

    Needless to say, after the first few times of being asked to provide free diagnosis and/or treatment, I quickly began looking for something else to say.

    Tamora Pierce created one of my all-time favourite characters in her Kingdom of Tortall series; a knight by the name of Lord Raoul of Goldenlake. This ‘quote’ stuck in my head and has steadfastly refused to leave ever since.

    “When people say a knight’s job is all glory, I laugh and laugh and laugh.  Often, I can stop laughing before they edge away and start talking about soothing drinks.”


  13. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    I have the same hesitation, J. When people ask what I do, I almost always talk about my day job–teaching. The fact that I’m a writer comes *much* later in the conversation, if at all.

    Okay, let’s make a pact–if you say it, I’ll say it. Next time someone asks, you must say that you’re a writer (no hesitating!). I’ll do the same. If we survive, we’ll swap tales. Deal? 😛


  14. Upon further reflection, NOT saying you’re a writer has advantages. If you don’t say it, then the other person won’t tell you about the brilliant 20,000-word picture book their son has written and that they’d really like your opinion on. 🙂


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Hmm, good point. Or being asked to share your editor’s home phone number because the person has the next Harry Potter half-written by hand on onionskin paper.


  15. Great post! I hesitate. Unless I use my instincts, and feel a person out that way, I won’t tell them. A few months back though, something happened. A new HR person started at work… and I instantly felt this Zen calmness wash over me when I was first talking to her, and I just blurted it out like a fumbling idiot. Turned out that she was a writer too, of memoirs – not fiction, but she confessed that she was a tortured soul.
    Why on earth I felt comfortable telling her that I was a writer, straight off the bat, is beyond me…
    But, like you, I don’t tell people about my writing life until I have absolute trust in them.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Isn’t it great to have someone else to talk to who can relate to this feeling?

      And I agree with you – there’s something to be said for sounding a person out. We writers tend to congregate. Probably because we understand one another.


  16. marissaburt

    It took me awhile to feel comfy saying it, too. Somehow it’s easier for me – when I’m telling people about what I do – to say “And I write.” I kind of tuck it in there at the end and disguise the nervous blush as I sneak out the words – haha! We’ll get there.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      We will! My goal is to be fluent and confident with this phrase by the end of the year. Just in time for spring 2012!


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  18. If you just told him you wrote these amazing posts on Emu’s Debuts, he’d know you were a writer. Beautiful, J.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I should have had him call up the site on his iPhone – that would have probably produced questions I could have answered.


  19. Great post!

    I’ve really struggled with the “what do you do?” question, especially since I became a stay-at-home-mom. Even when you’re a student, you’ve got an answer that sounds like you’re on your way to something. But when you pursue publication, there’s the uncertainty over whether you’ll ever get there.

    For a long time, I didn’t mention it. However, that felt false. I mean, here I was spending every bit of free time I could wrangle on this one big goal. To not mention my dream at all seemed to dishonor it. My compromise was to say, “I write.” Only now am I finally shifting that answer to, “I’m a writer.” It still feels weird to say, or even write. But I’ll get there. I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Before I signed or sold, it was hard enough to answer the question. I thought that once I’d cleared those hurdles, “I’m a writer” would roll off my tongue gracefully.

      Not so much.

      I’m in your camp, repeating faithfully, “I’m a writer I’m a writer I’m a writer” like this will make it so. Not graceful, but insistent.


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