Navel-gazing and turkey. Except turkeys don’t have navels.

At a mock-Thanksgiving dinner a couple of weeks ago, someone brought up how people in the city where he’d recently moved tend to introduce themselves based on their creative work, instead of their day jobs, as opposed to the other way around here in greater Boston.  I don’t know how much of this was just his impression or if it actually is widespread,  but it did get me thinking about how we construct identity.  It took me a very long time to be able to introduce myself first as a writer, even though I’ve thought of myself that way for years.

But with family, it’s different.  And with Thanksgiving coming up, it’s on my mind again.

For one thing, you’re not introducing yourself in most family situations; maybe Uncle Edith doesn’t really remember what it is you do for a living these days, but what you did at the reunion in ’94 has cemented your identity in his mind as “the one with the macaroni.”  And it’s really hard sometimes to ask the same people who saw you throw a tantrum over Lego bricks to take you seriously as a creative artist.

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I get this weird defensiveness about my writing in family situations that is completely out of proportion to everything else.  It’s as if I feel I have to justify my work by bringing up the practicalities, the business side of things, rather than the more fun parts of it.  Even though I’m very lucky in that my family enthusiastically supports what I do, there’s still part of me that expects to be asked “so how is your real work?”  Call it my own insecurities poking through.

In the past few years I think I’ve mellowed a bit on this point, or at least have stopped automatically defending my work.  Some of it is probably because of the books, but I think more has to do with me accepting that yes, this is my real work.

I’ll be spending this Thanksgiving with my in-laws, which means I’ll probably miss the story about the gnomes (or whatever strangeness comes out of this year’s dinner).  But for all other writers and musicians and poets dreading family dinners, here’s to you and your real work.  Enjoy the turkey, even if the ham’s a little dry, and remember that no amount of questions over dinner can make your work more or less real.


(Also, best thing about Thanksgiving?  Pie for breakfast on Friday.)

10 Responses to “Navel-gazing and turkey. Except turkeys don’t have navels.”

  1. 1 geekgirl99
    November 25, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Hear, hear. I have this problem more with strangers than family (possibly b/c my family is so tiny) but when I say, “I’m a professional musician,” I am always waiting for someone to act skeptical. Hasn’t happened yet, but I still wait for it!

  2. 2 rachel aaron
    November 25, 2009 at 10:08 am

    See, my extended family is the exact opposite. They either see my book deal as a winning lotto ticket or they just don’t get what’s so exciting. Sometimes I think they think publishers sit in New York on their nests of money and invitations to Oprah just waiting to shower their gifts on the lucky writer.

  3. 3 Shira
    November 25, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I’ve been hosting an orphan’s Thanksgiving for 14 years, so fortunately I never have those questions! Most of the people at my Thanksgiving are writers, musicians, artists, et cetera.

  4. 4 nojojojo
    November 25, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Yeah, I have the same feeling, combined with Rachel’s need to explain to my relatives that no, I’m not rich now, quite the opposite actually, and no, I won’t be going on Oprah anytime soon. But once I get that through to them, I find myself pointing out just how much work it takes to produce a novel, and the penalties if I don’t do it, and so on. I’m worried they’ll think I’ve got a cushy job, plain and simple. It’s a *dream* job, I won’t lie… but it’s not easy, and I really want them to understand that. Some of that is insecurity, but some of it’s also a kind of pride, because I’m working my ass off and it’s paying off.

  5. 5 Terri-Lynne
    November 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    There is only one thing that get more of those, “So what’s your REAL job” questions than being an artist of some kind, and that’s being a stay-at-home mom.

    Double whammy for me. Yay!

  6. 6 rachel aaron
    November 26, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Terri-Lynne, I’m right there with you!!! I feel the need to defend myself all the time since I stay at home AND write (and worse yet, my kid isn’t even out yet). Even though I work every day on my book and do all the house work, I feel like I have to make excuses when I tell people this! It’s probably why I emphasize the freelance programming I do so much, even though it’s the smallest percent of my income. At least people understand it as work, as opposed to writing, which is a “hobby.”

  7. 7 Terri-Lynne
    November 26, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Rachel, sing it, sistah! It drives me insane. I stayed at home and raised four amazing kids, kept a home (a task MUCH harder than anyone appreciates), and made sure my family was home and together for dinner every night. I was a girl scout leader for 12 years–same girls. I volunteered in all my kids’ classrooms and every school library they attended until high school. While holding THAT full-time job (and I mean FULL time) I taught myself everything I know about writing by way of penning 24 pretty awful novels. I’ve been writing daily from around 9:30-2:30 Monday through Friday since 1996. After 2:30 is when I did all my house/kid stuff and usually didn’t finish until around 11 when I went to bed. And STILL people asked me, “What do you DO with all your time when the kids are in school?” Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

  8. 8 mlronald
    November 27, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Geekgirl99, my husband’s a musician, and it’s been interesting watching him take on that name for himself too. (Also interesting is the slow realization of how much of a lifestyle it is — going from gig to gig to gig, no less work than my day job but decentralized.)

    Rachel, I think my rants on the subject have helped discourage that. It helps that my father’s a journalist, so he knows publishing from that angle. Although there’s often gentle teasing along the lines of “so, when’s the movie deal?”

    Shira, hurray for orphans’ Thanksgivings! I’ve greatly enjoyed the ones where I’ve been a stray taken in. (And the mock Thanksgiving from earlier in the month has some elements of that, so it’s a wonderful experience.)

    Nojojojo, I have to constantly remind myself that this is my dream job; I’m doing what I always wanted…and it’s a lot of work. Which is great, but remembering one while I’m in the midst of the other mindset is often a little difficult. But yeah, there’s a kind of pride in knowing that not only are you doing what you love, you’re working hard at it and doing it well.

    Terri-Lynne (and Rachel again), yowch! How do you keep from stabbing people when they ask you that? (I wonder, could this tie into Shira’s mompunk movement?)

  9. 9 Terri-Lynne
    November 27, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Sometimes, it was really hard not to go apeshit on people; then I remember that I have been lucky enough to have the best job in the world (being a stay-at-home-mother) AND spend +/- five hours a day writing. 🙂

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