The company dinner. You put on some nice party clothes and head off for an evening of small talk, catered food, and obligatory I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do-with-myself-so-I’ll-have-another drinks.
As the spouse, I’m often the recipient of small smiles and quick topic changes after the “what do you do?” question. “Freelancer writer and editor” seems to be a conversation stifler. People like known categories and familiar parameters; it’s easy to chat school with a teacher, building with an architect, plants with the gardner. Even technology jobs with no actual understood or tactile product provide some common ground (latest games, gadgets, bugs, hackers, big companies).
And let’s face it–these days, “the media” has been consistently and enthusiastically vilified, and that doesn’t help conversation much, either.
Whether freelancer, writer, or editor causes the gears to grind, I can practically watch some people’s minds work as they shift through possible repartee. The most common: “What do you write about?” (That editing thing is a total no go; whatever it is people imagine an editor doing seems to be about as interesting cocktail discussion as sitting in Saturday morning detention hall.)
I give folks total points for any attempt at follow-up with my declaration of profession. They’ve just demonstrated willingness to engage, plus recognition that freelance writing is, actually, doing something. Having previously experienced the conversation killer that “stay-at-home mother” can be, I know that this type of positive response is indeed a gift, so I’m happy to play along.
Oh, I will definitely talk about my work!
The true answer is that I write about just about anything. I would say that the seal-the-deal on any topic is the particular desire to have ME write, but that sounds desperate and needy. (Though “you are the first person I thought of to do this piece” totally sucks me in.)
“Leah, I don’t think anybody else could bring what you do to this whole ‘human waste as future of ecology’ article”=oh, snap; of course I’m going to do a solid job for you!
Topics become even more irresistible when someone wants to pay what my work is worth. You know, with money. That, too, is a gift I treasure; these days, people prefer not to hand over dough to a writer. Communications skills (that’s the whole deal–writing appropriate material, editing existing work, crafting social media content) really lends itself to a trade. Personally, I’d be fine in a world without money; I love a good barter and, in theory, the gig economy is set up for all kinds of wonderful deals. I imagine my writing in exchange for jewelry, music lessons, vacations, fancy dinners out, concert tickets, website work…ah, no–not happening. (Except the last one; I’ve worked a sweet deal there).
The worth commonly assigned to writing is “exposure.” Sigh. Imagine that doctor working solely for the chance to expose you to his talents so that you tell someone else about the practice. I wish my landscaper worked just so people could walk by my yard and see its beauty, because Lord knows I talk him up enough.
Most people do not do a very good job of providing exposure (some actually do such a horrible job that their help is worse than none at all; think the social media equivalent of “plumber’s crack’ for that guy toiling away to fix your broken pipe).
So usually, there I stand, absently clutching my cocktail, schmoozing up someone who makes more money than a whole gaggle of freelance writers and editors, struggling mightily to retain whatever conversational interest I’ve thus generated.
The last time I had the “what do you do?” conversation, I got blindsided. By, of all things, a compliment.
The cool company parties are held in January, after the holiday frenzy has finished. Four of us stood in the foyer, dressed in our Austin cocktail casual attire, chatting it up. When the two company folk–business acquaintances–started in on a conversation revolving around office renovations, I laughingly asked the other spouse–a tall man who looked like he’d been a stand-out athlete back in the day– if he had an office to remodel, too. We launched into the cross-chat thing to discover some mutual interests (Austin stomping grounds, local running groups, even a mutual friend) before he asked, “So what do you do?”
Seeing as he was a sporty kind of guy, my second tier response was that I often wrote about health and wellness. And that’s when he came in for the kill. He paused, looked directly at me with an intent expression and said,
“You should be really proud of what you do.”
Uh, what? All three of us gave him our full attention. Dazed and–honestly–speechless, my mind churned: Where was he going with this?
“Writing is really hard work. It takes a lot of skill.”
This gentleman talked for several minutes (a veritable lifetime in casual chatter) about the education and practice involved in becoming a writer and–yes, he went there–editor. He told a story about setting up his website, how daunted he was by all the blank space that needed text. How terrible a job he’d done until, finally, a friend said, “Dude, you should hire someone to write that.” So he did. “She was great,” he marveled. “She spent about an hour and a half asking me questions about my business and what I wanted people to know, and then put together all this great stuff. It was amazing; she made it look effortless.”
“People,” he said, “don’t value what you do enough.”
He said all of this without any background in my field or special knowledge of the craft. That uninterrupted monologue was absolutely the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me about what I do. I’ve been carrying it within me like a treasure ever since.