In April 2016 I quit a great job to go self employed, and free up more time for my writing. The hardest thing with this transition has been trying to explain what I do in social situations. Let’s face it “what do you do?”, or variations thereof, is one of the first questions you’re asked when you meet new people.
I no longer have the lovely “this is what I do” shortcuts of a job-title, an employer, and a fixed list of clients I work on. To be honest, when I did have these, and people from outside the advertising bubble would ask me what I do, I doubt my answers enlightened them. What does “I’m a strategy director in a big media agency working on clients that include a big supermarket and a major charity” actually tell someone who moments before had never even heard of a media agency?
The reality is, once the necessary title sharing and name dropping had been done, the question was considered answered. People didn’t really care, they didn’t want to know what I did on a day-to-day basis, they just wanted a shortcut to work out my professional status. Words like advertising, strategy, director, plus some advertisers they’d actually heard of reassured people that I had a real job, even if the nature of that job might remain a mystery. If pushed to explain further I’d often quip that my job was to “manipulate great masses of people*”. Which is as close to the truth as flippant quips get.
But what about now? Now my identity as an adult professional Londoner has become much more fluid. I’ve found I’ve become pedantic in my responses dependent on how they phrase the question. A simple “what do you do?” will normally get the answer “I’m a writer.” Why? Because that is what I spend the lion’s share of my time actually doing. That was the whole point of my risky life change.
However, if they ask me “what do you do for a living” that gets a totally different response. No-one actually pays me to write words, not yet anyway. I don’t even have an agent, which is inevitable given I haven’t reached out to any yet, nor do I plan to until my novel is in good enough shape (writers, the advice I’ve been given is to wait until you’ve got a draft you’re proud of before you start sending first chapters to agents, sweat the hell out of that first impression, even if the patience required makes you itch). So “for a living” I’m a freelancer, a strategic gun-for-hire who works with clients and agencies on their advertising campaigns, among other things.
This is normally when I start caveating like a crazed person. I might mention the writing, I might not. I’d often apologetically point out that I’m new to the whole thing, still trying to find my feet, share that I offer a whole portfolio of services(planning, pitch work, research, workshop designing & running etc..), that my new work identity is a work in progress, blah, blah, blah. I hate that question. Because “a living” implies being self-sufficient, which I am, but it’s not a very secure self-sufficiency. I’ve had projects postponed (bloody Brexit), while others have come out of the blue. Mine is not a stable existence. I can’t tell you with any certainty what I’ll be doing next week, let alone next month. So what do I do for a living?
Do these strangers/possible friends-to-be care? By the time I’ve stopped explaining my life choices to both myself and them, they’re normally staring at a smudge on the wall behind me with glazed eyes. My status is undefined, I don’t fit in either the professional power-player box or the independent creative spirit box. I spend more time in an average week working on something that has currently earned me £0, than I do on paying projects. I’ve designed my life to allow me to do that, although the exact details of the design are blurry even to me.
It is at this point that I move the conversation on to them (or back to them if that’s where we started). Sometimes I even use the dreaded words “so what do you do?” if I’m feeling wrong-footed. That needs to stop. Next time I’m speaking to someone new I’ll ask them what they’re passionate about, what feeds their souls, not how they pay their bills. Financial security does not equal a fulfilled life. Some of the most passionate, creative and engaging people I’ve met live financially precarious lives. I need to shift my own perception of “making a living” from the financial to the existential. If I do that, I realise I’m really rocking at life right now, so much so that I could never squeeze what I do onto something as small as a business card.
*Sadly no-one I ‘ve ever used this on ever spotted that it’s a quote from the fabulous musical Urinetown.