“What do YOU do for a living?”: A Writer Responds

It is inevitable. Whenever we meet new folks, the question comes up: “So, Eric, what do YOU do for a living?”

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, which for me, boils down to: “Not much of anything.”

Over the last two years, we’ve structured our life to allow us to get by on my wife’s salary. A few, occasional odd jobs on my side of the ledger don’t do much to supplement that income, but a few hundred dollars here and there comes in handy when the car breaks down or the clothes dryer stops spinning and starts beeping at me like an angry bird.

My usual answer is this: “I’m a writer, and sometimes I sub and tutor, and occasionally I do freelance work. I’m finishing my Master’s degree.”

Brows furrow. “A writer. Like, novels and things?”

Yes. But, of course, then the question is, “What have you written?” which really means, “What have you published?” and in these early stages of my writing life, I don’t have much to fall back on.

I’m closing in on forty, the time in life when folks expect you to have an answer to the “What do you do for a living?” question that doesn’t involve hours and hours of work that do not (or, to be an optimist, do not YET) result in a big paycheck hitting the bank account on a regular basis.

If people wanted a long answer–the kind that requires a fine meal and several bottles of beverages passed around the table–I could explain my thinking, explain our commitment to “doing whatever it takes” to have a chance to write and a chance to, one day, publish. I can explain how we’ve accepted a smaller hunk of the “American dream” in order to pursue an artistic vision. Cami can chime in with her favorite line about how many writers aren’t appreciated until after they are dead or how I may have to write for decades before being good enough to enjoy publishing success, and even if that’s the case she thinks I should write…

In most places, conversation moves on. I get some odd looks. I get follow-up questions in the following weeks like, “Have you found a more steady job yet?” (To which I reply, “I’m not exactly looking for one…”)

I’m thinking about coming up with a slightly ludicrous, yet accurate job description that I can use in these situations. Anyone have some ideas? Or, even better, how do YOU answer the question?

7 thoughts on ““What do YOU do for a living?”: A Writer Responds

  1. I like to say I’m in education. Which is true, I work the frontlines at a community college, but is also true as a poet.

    I’m applying to programs that will start next fall just as I turn 55. When I tell people this they either laugh out loud, tell me I’ll never get a teaching job, or just look at me like I’m crazy. My BA is in English & Creative Writing and I was 29 when I got that! Just a late bloomer I guess!

    I was set to enter a masters’ program more suited to my field, education, but finally asked myself “if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?”. First thing that popped into my mind was “write poetry”…not a great income source. But a source of great passion, satisfaction and joy…how could I not take this path! Lynn

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  5. Well, you could do what I do. Say you both decided it was best if you took the early retirement option, and now you’ve finally got time to work on the writing you wished you’d had time for when you were young .

    I’ve come to realize this question is more an avenue for people to start conversation. It can be tough for those of us who are non-traditional because it starts a conversation we probably aren’t comfortable with. It’s just that the weather got too cliche. So, the best avenue is usually to quickly “return to earth” and inquire sincerely about the other person.

    Or maybe I’ve been reading too much Miss Manners.

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