I get it on the golf course every time I'm paired with a stranger. There's a wait on the fourth tee, and the guy says, "So what do you do for a living?"
(I generally want to avoid this conversation because I like to keep golf separate from life, the reason I play in the first place. Similarly, I don't take my business cards to bed with me in case I meet a potentially useful new contact in my dreams.)
"I'm a writer," I say, never able to hide the pride. It's cool to be a writer. It's old. It's elemental. It's a little like announcing you're a fisherman, or a hunter (or a clown or a prostitute). "Am a writer," my novelist mother once wrote. "Get to call myself that because I write."
But then there is dread. Dread because the response is so perfectly predictable.
"Oh, wow!" Pause, two seconds. "What sort of writing do you do?"
That last question means, "How on earth do you make a living? Or is your wife an investment banker and you're actually a bum and that's why you're on the golf course in the middle of the week?"
My pride forces me to convince the fellow that I do make a living, by hook and by crook, an exercise I resent. Once I've achieved this, his next line, if it's not the worst-case, "I've got a story you should write!"—it's something to the effect of how interesting my work must be.
Which I take as a confession about how boring his life must be.
My old man, an advertising writer, used to see everyone else's job as a nightmare of tedium. Even a doctor, he said. "Can you imagine, day after day, hour after hour, patient after patient, describing the same symptoms over and over as if they were just the most important thing in the world? And you having to listen gravely, even though in most cases you know from the moment they walk into the office that you're going to prescribe amoxicillan."
Glad Dad wasn't a doctor? Me too. But maybe he was onto something. Maybe a writer does have a kind of blue sky that others don't. But the writer also has a blank page to contend with. (A bus driver once told me he pitied writers when he opened up the newspaper and tried to imagine some poor wretch having to write all those words!) A writer's work isn't done for him in the form of a full waiting room. A writer's work, however familiar the subject has become, must be done from scratch.
“People would say I must have had such a great life doing this, people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever,” said radio comedy writer Tom Koch, who died last week, “But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”
And maybe that's the best thing about it.