At the weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman whom I had met before, years ago, but whose path hadn’t crossed with mine since. She, her husband and their lovely son were attending an event along with my husband and me, and it was great to see her again.
Eventually, however, the question I (nonsensically) dread came up in conversation.
So. What do you do for a living?
My husband, of course, was able to describe himself, and his role in life, very capably and with great passion and expertise; I was sort of hoping the questioner’s interest in him and his job would take over the discussion and allow me to dodge the bullet. But it was not to be.
When the spotlight turned in my direction, I was like a comedian with a broken funny bone. In my head, I saw myself dropping the mic and fleeing off into the wings, but in real life I had to stutter out an answer, so I said – truthfully – that I was a proofreader and copy-editor.
‘And?’ said my husband, gently. ‘What else?’
‘Um,’ I muttered. ‘And a writer.’
Of course, this caused great interest, mainly because the lady’s husband began to describe how his cousin is one of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers. Not to be outdone, the lady herself told me she went to school with another of Ireland’s best-selling women’s fiction writers (in Ireland, writers are as common as mushrooms), and so I began to relax a bit. When I told them I wrote children’s books, they waxed lyrical about the picture books their son had loved as a younger child – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo, all the classics – and then we graduated to discussing David Walliams’ oeuvre, including my (and the young man’s) personal favourite, Gangsta Granny.
They didn’t ask if I’d had any books published or whether I was ‘doing well’; they didn’t ask whether they could pick my work up at their local bookshop. They didn’t turn up their noses when I explained that I hadn’t been published yet, besides a few short stories, but that I was working on it, and they looked suitably impressed when I told them I had an agent.
And that was that.
The conversation moved on to e-books and internet retailing (I soapboxed a bit, unfortunately), and working, and commutes, and schools, and marriage, and families, and all the other wonderful things people discuss when they’re in good company and the chat is flowing. We had a thoroughly enjoyable day.
But when we got home my husband asked me: ‘Why didn’t you tell those people you were a writer, straight up?’ I squirmed a bit as I thought about how to answer him.
I hated to admit it, but I think the reason was because I was embarrassed.
I have the impression that, to most people, telling them you’re an unpublished writer is a bit like saying ‘I’m a layabout who lolls about in the garden all day long, laughing at the sky,’ or ‘I’m a daytime TV addict, but shh it’s all good because it’s research, yeah?’ Of course, most people don’t actually think this (or, at the very least, they’ll be good enough not to say, or even give the vaguest hint, of it), and they’re usually quite impressed, or at least interested. So, I’m not quite sure where this sense of uncomfortable awkwardness comes from, deep in the heart of me. Is it because I haven’t been successful yet (in a worldly sense)? Is it because people can’t yet walk into their local bookshop and pick up my work?
I think it’s because I’m afraid of being judged, or being considered lazy, or not a ‘proper’ member of society – which is weird.
I firmly believe art and literature are just as important to the proper running of civilisation as science and industry, and that you can’t have technological strides forward without a hand-in-hand development in the arts; having one without the other makes for a dangerously lopsided people. In general terms, I would defend art and literature to the last breath. It’s only when it comes to me, in personal terms, as I try to make my own tiny contribution to the bigger picture, that I begin to feel strange. I have a dread of being judged as a person who does not add anything to the whole, and in some deep core of myself I wonder whether I am a person with anything to offer, an ‘artist’ or just someone who is pretending to be one. The voice in my head going ‘who do you think you are?’ hasn’t quietened yet; perhaps it never will.
My husband told me that I should be proud to tell people what I do, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that I am a writer – and he’s right. I am a complicated little maelstrom of self-doubt, guilt, work ethic and anxiety; it’s amazing I manage to get so much as a sentence on a page, but somehow I get through it, and I keep going. My heart is made of words. Having said that, of course, not everything I’m going to write is going to be good, and most of what’s good may never see the light of day, and even though I’ve made great strides towards achieving my goals I may yet never be published – but I am still a writer.
And if you write – even if it’s only a sentence a week – then you are, too, and I hope you’re able to proclaim it with a great big smile upon your face.
Welcome to a new week, fellow writers!