09 May 2012

"so, what do you do?": on being a writer (and why i try to hide it)

Sometimes admitting that I'm a poet takes some work!
One of the questions during the most recent My Name Is Not Bob  Twitter Chat asked who knows we're writers, if anyone. Despite the number--the astonishing number, sometimes--of people who know I consider myself a poet and writer ... it still surprises me how infrequently I’ll bring it up.

“So, what do you do?”

There is something about this question that just … gets me. More and more frequently these days, when I’m out and about, or networking with folks, I find myself faced with this question. And whether you know it or not, there are different ways of asking it … and different things it means when it’s asked a certain way.

“So, what do you  do?”

Just the other day I was talking with a musician about his music, and as we were getting deeper into conversation he asked, “So what do you do?” And you know what? I actually hesitated before I answered.

You know what else? “I’m a poet” was not my initially answer. In fact, I don't think it came up at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed to be a poet. But sometimes it just strikes me as “not the right answer” material when someone asks that question. I have so many other identifiers under my belt—I’m an educator, I’m a freelance writer, I tutor, I’m soon-to-be-in-between-jobs—and the “I’m a poet” identifier is so much easier to let slide. 

A while ago I wrote a list of promises poets shouldn't make, and part of the rationale behind it was that poets too often seem worried about what other people will think. But part of it is also the fact that too often poets seem uncomfortable in being who and what they are .

“So … what do you do ?”

I think part of the reason I let the title of poet, or writer, remain tucked beneath my tongue is that as soon as you tell people you’re a poet, people want to know what that means. There’s that dreaded, “So you’re a poet? So what do you do ?” question that inevitably arises. It’s as though, among all other professions, being a poet just doesn’t cut it. And part of what keeps me from just throwing out that I’m a poet as easily as I throw out that I’m a lover of baked mac and cheese (and I throw that out there a lot ) is that I’m actually expected to answer that question.

I’ve written about this before. I mean, think about it. How many people go around asking doctors, “So you’re a doctor? So, what does that mean?” I’m a doctor; I heal people. I’m a lawyer; I defend people in court. I’m a poet … I write poems.

But what does that mean ?

I think about this constantly. I even wrote a blog post jokingly listing reasons someone shouldn't be a poet, just to engage the process I've gone through in "allowing" myself to say "I am a poet." I think probably the major thing that keeps me from shouting “I’m a poet” every time someone wants to know what I do or who I am is dreading the “need” to explain myself. But I think the major thing that will allow me to start shouting “I’m a poet” more often—and maybe the thing that will help you, too—is realizing that I don’t have to. I'm a poet whether or not anyone else says I am. I am whether or not I ever actually become the next Poet Laureate. I’m a poet the same way Michelangelo was an artist: it’s not something you explain and dissect—it’s in the blood. It’s a compulsion. It’s what keeps you from falling over because there’s nowhere else for you to go.

“So … what do  you do?”

This is not a question I’ve been asked … it’s the question I’m asking. What do you do when everyone wants to know what it is you do? The answer for me now is quite simple: I tell them.

I do what I do. I am what I am. I write. I am a writer. I poem. I am a poet.

A few years ago at a family gathering in New Jersey, one of my older cousins was walking through. He’s a man of few words, so to mess with him and get him talking, another cousin asked, “Hey, man, what are you up to?” My cousin, without stopping or looking at any of us who sat there in eager anticipation of the words he’d be forced to speak, kept walking but threw back in an easy drawl: “I know what I know, and I do what I do.” After the moment of silent shock at his words, we all burst into laughter like there was no tomorrow … but he was right. There was poetry in those words. I know what I know. I do what I do. I am what I am.

And what I am is a poet.

Who are you?

Your Turn: This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. Who are you? What do you do? What do you say when people want to know “what it is you do”?


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Check out these previous Personal Update Wednesday posts from Our Lost Jungle:


  1. Very few people actually know that I write, even fewer know I write poems. I've noticed that unless you are published, no one really cares. I've stopped telling people what I do because of this reason. My family and good friends know and to me, that's what matters.

  2. The question I get asked is: "What do you do, NOW?" The 'NOW' is because I'm retired. To most of the questioners I'll say, I write fiction." And like Dana up there says, "no one really cares," unless you're book is in the bookstore.
    This leads to variants of "What else," so I throw in the two committees I'm on, my kids, care of my mom.
    When I don't like the tone in a questioners voice I'll say, "I don't do a heck of a lot NOW but I do whatever I feel like doing, everyday."

  3. I struggle with this question as well. If I say I'm a writer, people say "how nice" (meaning - you're full of it), or "what have you published" (meaning - if you're not making a living, it's not a job).

  4. I don't like this question. As if being mom to five, no matter that most are grown, as if being wife to a self-employed man who runs a business from our home, is not enough. I have to BE someone, I have to FIT into a label. "I am a writer" seems trite and a like a copout to people. I only admit "I am a writer" to those I think won't roll their eyes or ask the tired question: "Yeah, but are you published?"

  5. Thank you all for your responses! This is a difficult topic, for sure. I've been fortunate to have people be very encouraging of my "writing career," even when they think it means something it doesn't (i.e. waiting for those major publication moments that haven't come yet). But in that luck has also been the luck to know people who understand that being a writer means more than being famous and constant publications.


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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