Writers have a unique problem when it comes to our occupation. Here's the scenario: You're at a cocktail party, church picnic, bris or any other place where strangers start talking to each other. The break-the-ice question is typically: "So, what do you do?"
You innocently answer "I am a writer," unintentionally opening up the door for all kinds of cringe-worthy responses. Here, I will present the top three that make the tiny little cynic in my brain experience searing gastric pain:
1. "Oh, me too! I wrote a poem once when I was depressed about my ... [pick one: dead cat, dead grandmother, dead Kurt Cobain, ex-spouse running away with any of the previous prior to their death]. Here. I have it in my [purse/pocket]. You should read it. Tell me what you really think [interpret as 'Tell me what you think I really want you to, or I will never speak to you again/will burst into tears/will stalk you']." Inevitably they will pull out a crumpled sheet of paper and insist that you read it right this very moment. The poem will be written in iambic pentameter. The poem will include rhymes such as "die" matched with "cry" and "poet" coupled with "know it." If you are lucky, they will also have won a prestigious award from a poetry contest they found in the back of Parade Magazine and want to bring you home to make you read the entire tome they, as the winner, only had to pay $59.95 to acquire. This does not happen to other artists. No one pulls an oil painting or sonata out of their pocket and demand that you say something nice about it. Right here. Now. In the middle of the buffet.
2. "That's nice. Are you hoping to get published someday?" Well, for starters, you now know they have never read any of your books and that no one actually reads the bylines on magazine articles. While this jab smarts, it also shows a somewhat quaint naïveté the public seems to have about authors. "Real" authors have chauffeurs, paparazzi and fans fawning on them everywhere they go, don't they? As one author said, "Getting a hit book published is a lot like the calm before the calm." No one recognizes you on the street. Would most people be able to pick the author of their favorite book, poem or articles out of a crowd of, say, two people? Probably not. We have to beg to give out our autograph, sitting at little tables in bookstores while people pass by, pretending we are invisible the same way they avoid people who beg for spare change. When was the last time you saw an author grace the cover of People, Entertainment Weekly or, heck, The National Enquirer? Where is the Eudora Welty Celebrity Diet or Tanning Tips from Bret Easton Ellis? If the Weekly World News would take me, I'd be willing to pose with an alien or the world's fattest dog. Seriously. Just be sure to mention my books in the caption.
3. "And what's your real job?" Funny. I don't think a plumber or real estate agent has ever been asked this question.
So, maybe I'm not a Rockefeller. And maybe I'll have to be dead before anyone ever recognizes me in a photo. But writing is a real vocation, a real calling, and above all a tireless master to each of us silly, clunky draft horses. And despite the endless punishment for doing so, when they ask I still will always answer "I am a writer."