From Alizah Salario, on how to answer that dreaded question when you’re just working a day job to pay the bills:
I take pause when people ask me what I do. I’ve held full time paying positions as a high school teacher, a journalist and at a financial services firm, but first and foremost I consider myself a writer. Yet I often don’t identify myself as such because I fear doing so would sound pretentious, as if I sit with my herbal tea in a bucolic setting and the koans of wisdom just pour out of me. (Okay, I am drinking herbal tea as I write this). But I also hesitate to call myself a writer because, though I make my living stringing together words in various syntactical and stylistic forms, it’s not quite that simple. I feel like a fraud, because to me “making a living” means having disposable income and putting money into savings. I have to hustle to pay the bills, and if I were to stop writing, nobody would be asking me to continue. A writer writer seems like someone the world can’t live without.
I had the hardest time with this question when I was a stay-at-home dad, even though it was a voluntary decision. I hesitated to answer, or mumbled something about helping out with my wife’s business, instead of just owning my life choices. Of course I wanted to say I was going to grad school and working on becoming a writer, but that seemed pretentious too. After I had to go back to my old IT job it was even worse, because I felt like I’d failed after putting so much time and energy into writing.
After a few months of being back at work, I went to a reading where I was talking to a friend of a friend. I told him about how I used to stay at home, then the whole sob story about going back to work when the economy crashed, etc, etc. A few minutes later his girlfriend walked up; she hadn’t heard the first part of the story, and asked me what I did for a living. When I finished explaining, the guy said I visibly slumped and sighed before I answered. It’s like I was embarrassed to admit I had a responsible (if boring) job. I couldn’t see it for the practical decision it was.
Writing has this weird, unpleasant tendency to make those of us drawn to it feel guilty if we don’t do it (or at least think about it) 24/7. Couple that with the American tendency to let our jobs define us, and that’s a lot of emotional baggage to carry around. The funny thing is that once I finally accepted my fate as someone who worked in IT to pay the bills and liked to write on the side, I ended up getting the job I have now, where I can legitimately call myself a “writer.” Maybe it’s fate; it was probably just persistence and dumb luck. But even now that I genuinely like what I do for a living, I still have trouble with that question. I’ve switched jobs and careers enough times now to know this one won’t be my last. It just happens to be what I do to pay the bills, for now.