A few years ago on my journey to become an author I decided to boldly claim the dream. In those casual conversations we all have, at a party in the neighborhood, in a grocery store line, in a barber chair with a guy wielding sharp scissors standing over me, as my dog does 360’s around me with a neighbor’s dog on the sidewalk — yeah, those conversations. Sooner or later The Big Question comes up — “So, what do you do? ” The question isn’t meant to be a spear, or in the spirit of the Olympics, a javelin hurled in my direction, but instead is asked probably part out of curiosity, part self-interest (the networking gods must be fed) and part searching for something to fill the conversation. “So, what do you do?”
In my professional life as a leadership and management development consultant, I had a clear answer. In fact, those five words implied an invitation for a little sales pitch and a shared understanding that I would return the favor by asking the same question of my conversation partner. Who knows? I’m a consultant and you might be the CEO of an international conglomerate looking for someone to coach your execs. It could happen. Although usually either nothing happened or one of us knew a friend who had a colleague who knew a buddy who had a client who needed some help developing managers. I can’t say this was my favorite conversation. No one would accuse me of being much of a salesperson. But asking and answering The Big Question was part of the job.
One day I decided I’d answer the question differently. I’d tell people not simply what I did, but instead, what I did that I loved — writing.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh.” (pause to take in the meaning while searching for a reasonable follow-up question) “What do you write?”
At this point in my shifting strategy around The Big Question I would tell people I wrote “some fiction” which seemed to confirm my claim of writing, but without sufficient commitment for the other person to want to explore in more detail.
Time passed and I upped my game
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, what do you write?”
“Novels.” (Okay, I’ll admit I was hoping to impress a bit with that one, but then the follow-up slammed into me.)
“Have I read any of your books?”
I want to say, “Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get published these days? And are you implying if you haven’t read my book then maybe I’m a poser?” (Yeah, I know. I sound a little defensive. But if you write thousands upon thousands of words and query over and over again in writing and in person, well, it takes a toll. Neurosis sets in, whether you like it or not. I wish I could remember who said this, I think it was Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog) giving a key note address. He commented that every writer’s secret fear is that they’re not good enough. And especially as you’re trying to get your foot in the door the fear creeps up on you. Yes, yes, rejection doesn’t mean I’m not good enough, only the agent doesn’t need that story, the market’s not ready, etc. However, in my gut, I work to keep the fear from overtaking the dream. So what do I say to “Have I read your books?” I admittedly stubbled many times before I got to a place of peace within myself about the answer…
“Not yet, but working on it. Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. In my heart I know I have to create the work, irregardless of the business. But hopefully one day, you will get to read my work.”
Yes, I’ve actually said things along those lines. What I like about the response is that I own my writing, my art. Business has its own agenda which I can’t control. I can control the space I give myself to be creative and to work on my craft.
Now I’m published. Amazing. And The Big Question has once again morphed, but this time in many directions.
“Who’s your publisher?” “What’s your novel about?” “What’s the first line?” “Can I buy it?”
I’m finding people in general have a deep curiosity about the work and life of an artist. I know I do. I could spend all day talking to a glass blower or a performance artist or a musician about their work. The Big Question, at first a challenge and at times annoying, has shifted into an invitation to explore what I love to do — write.
Richard’s novel (glad you asked) Toxic Relationship is available now from Champagne Books and your favorite online bookstore. Follow Richard on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/RWHacker and Twitter at @Richard_Hacker