“Are you still writing?” my brother asks each time he calls.
“Are you still seeing clients?” I’m tempted to ask in reply.
Why is it that being a writer is less of a job than being a lawyer or a school teacher or a chimney sweep?
I’d much rather be asked, “What are you working on these days?” or “What story have you got going right now?” or even “How’s the weather?”
Ask any writer. Writing is a real job. A hard job.
Yet, I do understand my family and friends’ confusion. I’m a former journalist. So, they’re used to seeing me in print or on-air on a daily basis. The idea of me not going to an office and not having a regular paying job, of me working on a book — a collection of essays seems vague to them.
But not to me.
To me, it is a very real 9-to-5 job, albeit one without paycheck, a byline, an office and, so far, at least, without the public recognition I was used to.
So, the question “Are you still writing?” hurts. It makes me feel defensive, as if the outside world views me as a middle-aged dilettante or a hobbyist or worst of all, as “retired.”
No longer a reporter, no longer chronicling other people’s stories, I now work hard each day creating my own stories, my own characters, my own timelines.
At first I feared running out of ideas. Then I worried that, free of daily deadlines and a boss, I would loiter and linger anywhere but at my desk, doing anything to avoid facing a blank computer screen and a blinking cursor. Happily, distractions and delay haven’t been problems. Most days the topics keep coming and, aside from the siren’s call from the kitchen and her never-ending supply of tempting calories, I find I can keep my increasingly ample butt parked in my chair, my brain pumping out stories, and my fingers moving across the keyboard.
Of course, some days my brain freezes and my fingers don’t move. Ideas don’t flow. Characters don’t come to life. Plot lines sag. Sometimes all I can manage is to crank out a “to do” list of household chores and print out a recipe for dinner. Those are bad days, days when self-esteem plummets, and snack trips to the refrigerator multiply. But I persevere. I have to. I am a writer.
A friend, a film documentarian of some note, said she was thinking about writing a book and asked my “secret” for sitting down and actually producing copy. She asked about my writing schedule, how I handle writer’s block, and for any writing tricks of the trade I could share. This was immensely flattering. Yet, her questions gave me pause. How was I succeeding in establishing this, my new writerly life? Finally, I told her, it came down to one simple thing–something I had acquired from my mother many years ago: Jewish guilt. When I don’t write, when I don’t produce something worthwhile or even something not-so-worthwhile, I feel guilty. I hear my deceased mother chiding me, “So, you say you’re a writer and yet, what have you done today? Nothing? You should be ashamed of yourself.” Guilt works like a charm. Faster than I can say, “Sorry, Mom,” I’m back at my desk thinking, writing and revising.
“Am you still writing?” my brother asked again the other day.
Yes, thank you. Also, breathing. Writing and breathing, the two go hand-in-hand these days. Three years into my writerly life, writing has become, like breathing, a habit, a reflex. No guilt required! Well, less guilt.