“So what’s your real job?”
Even as a full-time writer and blogger, I still get asked this question, and it irritates me every time. Often, it’s a matter of simple surprise that yes, someone can make a living as a writer. Sometimes, the source of the question is a basic curiosity about whether or not I’ll ever return to a 9-to-5 job (probably not). Rarely, it’s a thinly veiled insult about the value of this trade.
Then comes the dreaded word, the word that connotes a less-than-serious approach to one’s creativity. The word that divides the amateurs from the pros.
There are few things more frustrating than being told, whether explicitly or subtly, that the creative thing you do for money is just a “hobby.” This problem isn’t limited to writers: My artistic friends run the gamut of creativity, and even those who are full-time professional artists get asked when they’ll find a “real job.” Even though I am not a full-time performer, I’m reluctant to call it a hobby.
hob·by1 | ˈhäbē |
noun (plural hobbies)
1 an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure:
A hobby is something done for fun, to relax. An artistic pursuit that involves extensive training, practice, and financial compensation is not a hobby.
The importance of art in our society doesn’t match the rhetoric about it. It’s strange that something so widely available and readily consumed is still dismissed as something for “starving” people. Do accountants and plumbers really provide more value to society than the dancers and painters? Or are we all part of the patchwork of society’s vibrant quilt?
Becoming a Capital-W Writer
The truth is that writing was a hobby — or an academic necessity — for most of my life. While I loved writing poems and attempts at short stories, I primarily wrote school papers. When I envisioned my future as a creative professional, I imagined that I’d end up being a filmmaker or performer, not a published author. Writing always seemed like a means to an end, no matter how much I loved it.
That changed when I applied to a position at the University of Florida as a writer. Now, the word was my job title, something that many people couldn’t believe.
“So what do you do?” asked the well-dressed guy at the networking meetup.
“I’m a Writer,” I said, still marveling that I could use that word and not have to rattle off my former title, Program Development Specialist.
He chuckled. “Oh, you spend a lot of time at Starbucks on your laptop, huh?” he said.
Then the infuriating question: “What do you really do?”
Writing was what I did most of the time, although due to the small size of our office, I eventually picked up multiple marketing hats. This seemed to dilute the impact of my being a Writer. Some people insisted upon reserving that word for the aspiring authors who indeed took up too much table space at the local coffee shop. But to be a Writer is more than what you write.
It’s a way of life.
Since I was young, I’d always been into “arts and crafts” — a peculiar pairing that connotes something simpler and less professional than each of those items separately. The arts were something for the wealthy; crafts were what you bought at the fair. Together, they were something that kids and bored housewives did: scrapbooks, dollhouses, floral arrangements. Arts and crafts are regarded as frivolous (and often, female) pursuits.
Every artist or artisan who’s tried to make money from their work has encountered whining from entitled people who “don’t want to pay that much for arts and crafts!” There’s no shame in doing this as a hobby, but apparently, we’re greedy if we want to be compensated for our work.
I’ve drawn a hard line between my creative hobbies and my professional artistic pursuits. But I see the tension between these two worlds with each visit to Michaels’ or Jo-Ann, where employees are trained to ask “What are you making?” with a kind of neighborly faux-interest. They follow up with a nod and a wink, as though they imagine you’re making a pillow to fill the time.
Hobby shopping becomes a kind of impression management: We buy the supplies that we need, but at the same time, we’re shopping for a hobby that we feel matches our professional interests. It’s hard to resist the temptation to splurge on expensive oil paints that are unnecessary for my level of expertise (or lack thereof) in that art form.
I eventually founded an arts production agency through which I regularly hosted creative events for the community: painting stations, modeling clay demos, collage workshops, and so on. My goal was to get people to release their inner child and see creativity as something that everyone has. Despite my pleas for them to just pick up a pen and draw, they were nearly desperate in their counterpleas: “I’m not creative. I’m not an artist.”
Some seemed offended that I would dare suggest it.
Although this attitude was largely due to a combination of insecurity and illusion about what “being creative” meant, I do think that many people thought of “arts and crafts” as something that was beneath them. In our society, we prioritize commerce, law, finance, construction, and other “real world” skills. Sadly, many people take the phrase “professional artist” to be an oxymoron — or at very least, a euphemism for “can’t get a real job, is trying to make it big with their finger paintings.”
And that’s a shame. It’s a shame that creative people have to justify how they earn their money. It’s sad that people can make thousands of dollars per month as a blogger and still get asked when they’ll get a “real job.” It’s despicable to describe someone
I recently had a dance gig, and someone in the audience asked me if this was my hobby. I thought that was a weird thing to ask. “I’m being paid to perform tonight,” I said.
“But…c’mon,” he said, with a somewhat derisive grin. “This isn’t what you really do.”
My husband, a professional puppeteer and animator, has encountered this as well. He works a service job in addition to getting commission projects. His own coworkers describe his creative work as a “paid hobby”… even though he spends more time and energy on puppetry and animation than he does at this part-time job. Apparently, it’s not even the amount of time you put in… the artistic job will always be “not what you really do.”
Perhaps we should stop defining people by “what they do.” Aren’t we more than our profession, our hobby, or any combination thereof? Don’t we deserve respect for earning our money, no matter its source? There’s no shame in honest work, as they say. So why are artists made to feel ashamed for earning money from their work?
Maybe it’s time to stop ranking people’s professions. Let’s reclaim the word “hobby” from the people who use it to demean creative work. A hobby is something done for fun, to relax — and it’s hardly synonymous with artistic pursuits. And even if someone is not a full-time, professional artist, they deserve respect and compensation for the time, materials, and creative spirit they put forth. If it’s part of their income streams or career goals, it’s probably not a hobby.
It’s a job. Let’s leave it at that.