“Frank, this is Elena. Elena, this is my friend Frank. We used to work together. He’s retired now and spends his days playing golf. I can’t imagine anything worse!” Cath scans the room, and disappears as quickly as she arrived, no doubt to foist another two people standing around alone onto each other.
“Hi,” says Frank, clearly less than enthusiastic about meeting me.
I look at Frank and smile. “Hi Frank. Nice to meet you.” It really isn’t. I’m not one for meeting people at the best of times, and wonder for the twentieth time why I’ve come to this party.
I look around for Cath, but she’s nowhere to be seen, and there’s no one else I know nearby. There seems no way of escaping.
“So,” Frank and I begin in unison. I hesitate. He plows on, “What do you do for a crust?”
The question that sunk a thousand conversations. I hate answering it. I once read that a better question goes along the lines of “what’s keeping you busy, (or what’s exciting you, or something similar) these days?” It gives the person a chance to talk about something other than their day job. I’ve tried using it when I meet people and it makes for much more interesting conversations when the person wants to share.
At least “What do you do for a crust” is better than “Do you have kids?”
We won’t start on how irritating I find the term “for a crust”
I look at Frank again. He doesn’t give a shit about my job. Most likely he doesn’t care about anything I say; he’s just being polite because Cath introduced us.
“I write,” I say. “I mean, I’m a writer.”
“Oh,” he says. “What do you write? Would I have read any of your work?”
“Perhaps,” I reply. I think about how to express what I want to say so that I’m not defining myself by my job. It’s something I don’t want to be talking about in my free time. “In the work I do for my employer, I write stuff about current issues in the industries that I’m a subject matter expert in. So if you’re familiar with any of the work we do in that area, you might have seen some of the papers I’ve written.”
“What area is that?” he asks
I tell him.
“The only experience I have of that is as a customer,” he says. “But I tell you what! They really need a shake up!”
He launches into a list of complaints about the industry, all of which are common, most of which he’s based on one experience several years ago, and none of which I am in a position to do anything about.
I listen to his outburst as sympathetically as I can. When he’s finished I suggest that in future if he has a complaint about a specific incident, there are things he might do to try and sort it out. I mention that one of the documents I’ve written is a guide to the industry from a customer perspective, which includes what people can do if they have a complaint.
He looks less than impressed. I get the impression he’s the type of person who complains a lot, but never does anything to make things better for himself.
“I really enjoy writing stuff like that,” I continue. “You know, documents that explain people’s legal obligations and responsibilities in langauge that’s easy to understand.”
He perks up at this. “Oh, are you a lawyer then?” Obviously that would improve my standing with him.
“No, not a lawyer, but there’s times I think I’d like to study law. I work with legislation all the time and I find it really interesting.”
“So where do you work, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I sigh inwardly. It’s going to come down to this isn’t it. I’m never going to escape being defined by my role.
I tell him.
“You’re one of those lazy public servants in your ivory tower,” he scoffs. “Waste of space, all of them! Never done a day’s work in their lives.”
Again, nothing I’ve never heard before. There’s a national pastime called “public servant bashing”, in which members of the public, usually with no thought to the wide range of jobs covered by the public service, think that it’s oh so clever to make comments on how little work public servants do based on old-fashioned stereotypes of lazy office-bound staff having no work to do, turning up to accumulate flex time and drink tea. The lazy paper-pushers, the faceless ones who, because the community doesn’t directly see the outcomes of their work, therefore, do no work at all.
Every year when we get an extra day’s holiday at Easter, the same joke that no one will notice we aren’t at work gets a run in the paper. Demolishing a government office block? Leave the public servants in there and see how no one would notice they’d gone. Ha ha ha.
Resisting the urge to remind him that public servants include the teachers who educate his kids, the police officers that keep us safe, the nurses that care for us in hospital and that yes, most of these people do occasionally put in a couple of hours work here and there, I say, “Yeah. That’s one of my roles.”
That’s all it is, I keep reminding myself. It’s one of many roles I have. It doesn’t define me.
“But really I’m a writer,” I say. “I write in a professional capacity for work, I write a personal blog, I write a journal to keep my family’s memories and, until recently, I wrote to tell the stories of people who presented shows on a community radio station.”
“Sure, but that’s all stuff on the side isn’t it,” Frank persists. “I mean you don’t make any money out of it do you? Have you ever had anything published?”
“Well of course. I publish blog posts every week. And I have a lot of my work on my organisation’s website. So yes, I have been published and I do make money from writing.”
“But that’s not the same as your own work being published.”
He wants to be able to walk into Dymocks and see a book with my name on the front cover before he’ll concede that I’m a writer.
“I had a short story published in my high school yearbook,” I reply. “And in high school I did work experience with a local newspaper, and had several pieces published there.”
I wonder how long he’s going to push this for. I don’t need to defend my work, nor do I need to prove to this naysayer that I’m a writer.
I write every day. That makes me a writer.
“Well that’s nice,” says Frank. If he could have reached over and patted me on the head, I think he would have.
“It was a great experience,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything. Clearly 14-year-old me’s achievements carry exactly zero weight with him.
Do I care?
I do not.
I write every day. I am a writer.
“Well Frank it was nice meeting you but I really need to go say hi to a couple of people before I go home.”
“Sure,” says Frank, with one of those condescending smiles that indicates he knows better than anyone else. “I’ll be looking out for your first book in the bookshop.” He laughs, with that “as if that’s ever going to happen” look on his face.
I nod vaguely. “Seeya,” I say. I want to have the final word, but I can’t think of what it should be. I know that I’m right, and I refuse to let my self image be diminished by a man who doesn’t know me and who I will most likely never see again.
“I don’t give a shit what you think,” I say to myself. It’s probably something I’ll need to say to myself every day when I put my work out there in the world. “I’m not writing for you; I’m writing for me, and what you think about me and my work is none of my business. Knock yourself out You’re not going to stop me writing.”
I write every day.
I’m a writer.