Rent-a-writer to the rescue

I usually avoid clothing with messages, but my wife got me one T-shirt that I wear with pride.
It says, "Will Write For Food."

That's a pretty apt description of what I've been doing since I was 18 years old. It's not the most lucrative occupation, but it has its rewards. And it's almost always met my main criteria for a career: Indoor work, no heavy lifting.

For most of the past 23 years, I worked at newspapers, where I had business cards and fairly regular hours and a daily necktie (what a writer friend calls the "yoke of servitude"). When I met people, I had a corporate identity and they could quickly categorize me.

But in the past two years, since I turned full-time to writing fiction (and this column, which isn't exactly the same thing), I suffer the same fate as other people who work at home. People don't take me seriously because I have no corporate structure to pigeonhole me.

Now, at introductions, I mutter, "I'm a writer." But see, it doesn't stop there. People are interested in writing because they think it's something they could do if they just set their minds to it. Many people harbor a desire to write a book and share their wisdom with the rest of us knuckleheads, and they want to tell me all about it. Or, they want to tell me their life story because it would make great material for a writer, not understanding that 1) writing it up is the hard part and 2) I've got my own stories to write, thank you very much. Or, they want to tell me how much fun they had with the Christmas epistle or that hilarious letter to Cousin Ruth.

Other people want to ask a hundred questions, most of them aimed at finding out if I'm some kind of famous writer and, if so, then how come they've never heard of me?

And some people are just flat suspicious of anybody who gets to sit around in his bathrobe all day, tickling the keyboard, while they're out slaving away at a Real Job.

We could write that off to envy, but I think it's more deep-seated than that. Writers produce a transitory art, one you typically consume once. You read a book or a newspaper article and then it's tossed aside in favor of the next distraction. Why should something so fleeting be somebody's full-time job? As my friend, Canadian novelist Alison Gordon, says, authors are the only grown-ups who "get to stay home all day in their pajamas and play with their imaginary friends." People resent that.

Since I'm the one home all day, I deal with all the repairmen and handymen and delivery people who come to our house. These guys, who get to see me at home in my rumpled element, tend to snort and squint when I answer their questions about being a writer. A real man works with tools, their attitude says, not with words. A real man sure as heck doesn't do all the laundry and keep the house straightened up and tend children.

Some of them just don't get it at all. When I moved recently, one of the three-man moving crew was a recent immigrant named Carlos, who registered my occupation with a grunt and a nod. But before he left, while we were chatting about the dozens of book boxes he'd unloaded, he said, "If I need something written sometime, I'll call you." Carlos apparently thought I was running some sort of storefront operation. Rent-a-Writer.

I smile and shucks my way through these encounters because I know what they don't: Writing is a cool gig. Not only do you get to work at home, but you produce something that matters to you. It's a great feeling, knowing somebody is reading what you've written, at least until you hear what they thought of it. This is why I avoided newspaper readers in coffee shops when I was a full-time reporter. Overheard criticism is the hardest to take.

You don't have to worry about that when you're a writer, working all alone. Your imaginary friends almost never criticize.

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