I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that the range of reactions I get when I tell people that I’m a writer is wider than what most people experience. Tell someone that you’re a lawyer or teacher or financial planner—something practical, as most people would have it—and the response, based on what I have observed, is quiet respect, sometimes even gratitude, but nothing rapturous. Tell him or her that you write novels and short stories, however, and you get everything from open-mouthed awe to barely concealed disgust. Some folks are fascinated by the glamour (if only they knew) and compliment you on your bravery, whereas others criticize you for not doing something more useful. Whenever I suggest to the latter that a good novelist is more useful than a bad doctor, they usually change the subject.
Some naysayers are pretty tart when they learn of my profession. When, in answer to his question, I told a physician at a cocktail party that I was a writer, he gave me a blank look and said, “Is there any money in that these days?” I gave him my stock answer—not as much as I’d like, but it’s what I want to do—and he shrugged as if to say, “It’s your 401(k), not mine.”
The most vivid expression of disapproval came from a woman of wealth that my wife and I met at a dinner party several years ago. This woman worked for a cultural organization and was sitting at our table. Halfway through the meal, she turned to us and asked us what we did. My wife answered first—she works in fundraising—and then I told the woman that I worked from home and wrote fiction and the occasional article. She winced as if I had told her that I club baby seals. “If you’re just sitting around the house all day,” she said, “then you do all the cooking, right?” I smiled, put an arm around my wife’s shoulders, and told the woman that cooking was one of my wife’s favorite hobbies and that she insisted on preparing the majority of our meals. I saw no reason to tell her that I did the laundry and mowed the lawn and take out the garbage. (I also care for our son and write when he’s in school or napping.) The woman turned away from us, started a conversation with the diners on the other side of her, and didn’t say another word to my wife and me for the rest of the evening.
Fortunately, for every naysayer I meet, I meet at least as many people who are supportive of my work. A woman who used to serve on the board of my wife’s organization has engaged me in many conversations over the years about my writing. She wants to know every detail, from when I work each day and for how long (three to four hours a day, six days a week) to the number of drafts I write before a piece is finished (as many as it takes). Every time she sees my wife at an event, her first questions are about my writing. Three of my wife’s current board members always ask her how my writing is coming along, and not just to be nice—they usually bring up the topic and, according to my wife, seem genuinely to want to know. And when I first told my college roommate that I was pursuing a writing career, he said, “I’m so glad you’re doing this.” Whenever we talk, he asks me how the work is going, although not until after we have spent an hour talking about baseball.
I’m devoting this rainy Saturday morning to updating my blog while my wife and son are at a play date. I won’t be performing major surgery, and I won’t be defending someone wrongly accused or conducting stem-cell research in a basement laboratory, although thank goodness someone will be. I’ll be in my small, comfortable office overlooking the woods in our back yard, my laptop on my lap, and I’ll peck away at my novel in the hope that it will eventually get published and that someone, somewhere will pick it up or download it and find in it something to enjoy. That, to people I’ll probably never meet, my work will one day make a difference in their lives.