What I Do

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August 26, 2010 by Sarah D.

I was recently listening to the radio during my short commute to campus, when I heard the radio personality give some advice to those people who are currently unemployed.  He explained that when someone asks you what you do for a living, don’t tell them that you’re out of work.  Instead, tell them that you’re a (fill in the blank with job title) looking for new opportunities.  Telling people you are unemployed gives a bad impression, said the man on the radio.  So instead of saying, “I got laid off from my job as a postal carrier,” you’d say, “I’m a postal carrier exploring my career options.”  Ah, the power of rhetoric.

While this advice initially seemed innocuous, I began thinking about it as I walked to my office, ready to start another day of teaching.  When people ask me that age-old cocktail-party question, “So what do you do?” I’m thrown into a tizzy.  My writerly instincts kick into overdrive, and I want to analyze the meaning of every word.  Do?  What you mean by do?  Do they mean, who am I?  Do they mean my day job defines who I am?  Do you mean I can only do one thing?  After all, they didn’t ask what kinds of things I do.

Writing a novel with a day job can be difficult, to say the least.  And not simply because it’s hard to find the time and energy to write after a day of work.  Instead, it’s difficult—at least for me—to find that balance between multiple identities.  Once I’m in writing mode, every thought of mine feels more, well, a bit more literary.  I think about the story arc of a move, the ethos of Pat Sajak, the meta-narrative in a show like How I Met Your Mother.  This is not to mention the obsession with my own novelistic world.  Mid-class when we’re discussing the strategies an author uses to make appeals to a reader’s emotion, I want to stop to ask my class, my own “captive” audience: “Do you think it’s more believable if my character runs away or is kicked out of school?”

Of course, being a writer and teaching writing are two related enterprises, which can itself be tricky.  When a student comes to my office hours asking if I’ll read her work, I want to say, “Sure!  Will you read mine?”  But she doesn’t see me as a writer—not yet, anyway.  I’m her teacher.  That’s what I do.

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