by Barbara Beckwith
At a recent literary event, where I milled about with writers, editors and agents, any one of whom could help advance my career, I realized, after being asked by several people “What do you write?” that I’d forgotten to prepare a “sound bite.”
The longer I write, in fact, the harder it is to answer that simple question: What do you write?
Do I answer by genre, by topic, by decade? What do I extract from the archeological site of my 30-year writing life? My most impressive publications, where my work may have appeared just once? Do I cite my most recent publication, a piece in a sports anthology that pays little and is read by few? Or do I share the piece I’m writing now, a work-in-progress, the point of which I myself am not yet clear?
“Whatever grabs me” I’ve tried responding, and then offer a topical list, like a tray of canapes from which my fellow writer can pick the tastiest to chew on: “I write on getting caught in a flash flood, doing oral history with my father, meditating through squash” — the sport, I explain, to avert a lengthy gardening conversation.
If I’ve had a drink, I proffer more provocative answers like “sexual sculpture on Romanesque churches” or “growing up white and oblivious,” − the former, I’ve found, leads to lively repartee, the latter to uneasy silence.
I could, of course, start from the beginning and risk boring us both (“Well, I used to be a high school teacher who always wrote along with my students. But then I got laid off, and started freelancing for feminist newspapers. And then I worked on two newspapers, and wrote a book, and now….”).
Among non-writers, I’m sometimes asked, “Should I know you?” and then I have to retreat with “Well, probably not. My name is Beckwith, like the elevator company.” Or “Actually, it’s my husband who published a book. I’m the writer and he’s the author. Heh, heh.
Among fellow journalists, I tend to respond to what-do-you-write by venting: “What do I do? Actually, I’m sick of writing query letters, so I’m submitting completed pieces on topics that editors don’t want, or they want my work but demand all rights, which I won’t give them. So I walk away and my articles sit in the drawer.” If my fellow writer is experienced, I get a sympathetic nod and a parallel tale; if inexperienced, a look of dismay: beginning writers need my passion, not my ambivalence.
I’ve noticed that other writers have their self-presentations down pat. One colleague’s stock answer is “I write computer manuals for money and a column for fun” and another’s one-liner is “I write whatever pays.” A mystery writer alternates between “I’m a professional liar” and “I murder people for money.”
In the end, I realize, being asked “What do you write?” is not a challenge to my identity, and may not even require an answer. It may be more of an invitation to throw the question back, upon which my fellow writer will be glad to answer at length, with no trace of existential angst.
Ed. note: Barbara is NWU-Boston co-chair. Visit her Web site to see more of her essays.